Sunday, December 05, 2010

Buying green for the holidays? Is it possible?

Trying to be mindful of sustainability while buying gifts is tedious, if not downright impossible. Have a look at buying locally versus having gifts shipped, as well as five ways to stay eco-conscious this holiday season.                       

Gift-giving. It's that season again. People are out running around trying to find gifts for their family and friends, and trying to score the best deals on all kinds of products. And lately I've been seeing a lot of marketing hype about so-called "ecogifts" which are supposed to be the best thing you can do for the planet. Are they really?

There are a couple of points of contention. First of all, is the product in question made in a sustainable way? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it's a cutting board made out of sustainably harvested bamboo. Or perhaps it's a blanket made out of organic cotton. But just being made in a sustainable way does not a sustainable item make. Where an item is made is just as big of a concern. Is a product really sustainable if it's being shipped halfway across the world? The short answer is no. The fuel used to transport it clearly outweighs whatever laudable techniques were used in its manufacture.

But, like most things, this is complicated.

Do you drive to the store to buy gifts? Do your neighbors, friends, and family all drive to the store to buy gifts? Just think about how many cars this adds to the road. Think about it in terms of numbers. If 500 people in your town or city drive to the store to buy one gift each, a lot of you are probably going to end up driving a a bunch of the same stretches of road. If you load the same 500 gifts onto a truck and have one person deliver them, you might get some overlap, but not nearly so much. In this case, having something shipped is the preferable option. If you have to drive in order to get something, having it delivered is often the better choice. It's like a carpool for your products.

That's the balancing act we have to play.

Chances are you weren't going to go to Vietnam to buy that bamboo cutting board. You probably weren't even going to go as far as the next state. But even if you were just buying it from a local store, chances are it was manufactured, at least in part, on the other side of the world. This can make truly buying local a tricky affair.

Are these ecogifts better than their less sustainably manufactured brethren, all other things equal? Certainly. Just don't buy into the hype that buying these products is somehow going to magically save the world. They are an improvement over they alternative, but they are still products, and they still have an environmental cost.

If you are buying gifts this holiday season, keep these general rules in mind:

1. Buy locally

Things that are made and sold locally by local artisans and craftsmen don't travel and distance and burn quite the amount of fuel as something shipped from far away. These products should be made from local and sustainable materials to boot. And you'll have peace of mind knowing that you're supporting the local economy.

2. Buy services

Eschew products altogether and buy something intangible. A massage or a day at a museum might be just what your loved one needs. If you want to buy a gift that keeps giving to the planet, you could even enroll them in a permaculture class.

3. Make something

If you put some time and energy into a project, your loved ones will appreciate it more than anything that could ever be bought. My fellow blogger over at Get Rich Slowly has a great list of 34 homemade gift ideas.

4. Opt out

As I've grown older and my family has spread out and grown apart, the holidays aren't quite the gatherings they once were. The winter time is filled with holidays and festivals because it's cold, dark, and gloomy. They're an excuse to enjoy each other's company.So do it. Plan your day around activities you can share together other than gift-giving.

5. Community service

Lots of people make the holidays about other people, outside of their immediate families. They donate time or clothing to the homeless, or volunteer in a local animal shelter. This is a great way to give without having a guilty conscience afterward. Have your family volunteer with you and you can still share the holidays with each other.

Do you have any other tips for staying green this holiday season? Any ideas for activities a family could partake in lieu of gift-giving? Share 'em in the comments.

Photo by mmlolek

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