Is There Such A Thing As Sustainable Gift Giving?

The holidays are finally here. Turkey leftovers, the smell of pine and baked apple pie, families snuggling up in warm winter homes. And who can forget that important part of the holidays – the sacred ritual of gift giving. Or more specifically, our annual obligation to support the myth that possessing more material items will make you more complete. Americans of all religions and ethnicities participate in this love affair with consumerism as a patriotic rite of passage. Who wants to be the Scrooge who ruins Christmas with talk of toxic imported toys and overflowing landfills? And who wants to ignore how important this holiday season is to the countless retailers and businesses who count on our shopping fervor to boost their sales into the next calendar year?

Now don’t get me wrong – I love gifts just as much as the next person. But I can’t help but feel this sneaking suspicion that there must be a better way to show our love of family, friends and country. Now that I am becoming involved in the “Design” community through MBA Design Strategy, I begin to question my blind allegiance to this consumer driven pseudo-religious ritual of department store sale celebration and credit card ringing. I can only imagine the massive volume of discarded “gifts” that end up in a landfill year after year. Americans throw away a shocking amount of waste a day – over 4.6 lbs of a day – the majority of which cannot be recycled.

I, like many urbanites, live in a crowded area of the city where every square foot of my apartment comes at a premium. I am driven to move as many things out of my apartment as I get when moving into it or risk the sad fate of someone on the TV show “Hoarders”. After the holidays, the last thing I need is another unwanted item taking up precious storage space in my cramped closet.

So how do we give sustainable gifts? We could approach this one of two ways: give a gift made from sustainable practices by an environmentally conscious company OR give a service or intangible item rather than a product. I like the idea of adopting the “non-gift” giving practice instead of a physical object because it shows not only thoughtfulness but can support local or charitable businesses. Services don’t need to be thrown away or come in wasteful packaging. Services give an experience that will stay with the gift recipient a lot longer than an object ever could. It is also a sneaky way to direct those who might not be inclined to your way of thinking to become a patron of an innovative business or positively experience an activity that supports the community or sustainability.

Give your aunt and uncle a free night out at a local restaurant that supports sustainable farming and food practices. Give your sister dancing classes or two tickets to see a local theatre show. Give your neighbor two tickets to the local movie theater so she can finally see that movie everyone’s been talking about. Or give your special someone a day at the spa for an hour long massage – who doesn’t want that? You might have a cousin that doesn’t particularly care for organic or recycled products – why not get him those martial arts classes he’s been pining after. The possibilities are endless and better yet – show you’ve put some genuine thought into your holiday gift giving.

Giving the gift of services lets all of us get more involved in our local economy which can lead to a compounding economic effect. In these times, we are all thinking of how we can live more responsibly while keeping our spending in check. This holiday season, we could all think of what our spending says about us and how we can support the type of business practices we believe in. Nothing speaks more loudly than the power we have as responsible consumers – why not let our gift giving reflect the same? I know there are a lot of us who would much rather have carbon offsets bought in our name than another terrible holiday sweater to add to the collection (probably made in a sweatshop from synthetic materials). And for those that want the “green” gifts – there are hundreds of organizations that allow for gift receivers to reap the benefits of feeling good and guilt free over the holidays. Donations to charitable organizations like Heifer International or the World Wildlife Fund can give someone a sense of satisfaction that goes beyond the traditional material means. Donate to NPR or a local homeless shelter or the National Breast Cancer Foundation – which ever would mean the most to the gift recipient. Everyone appreciates the gift they can actually use and will save them money. The best part is that you – the gift giver – can now be empowered to direct your loved ones to businesses that embrace this movement. They can support it and enjoy it without ever being the wiser.

Happy Holidays!

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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