One Small Step: 50 ideas for more sustainable gifts

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For challenge 5 in One Small Step, I’m turning our focus toward how (and what) we give.

Because for many of us, December is gift-giving season.

Gifts for children and parents, friends and teachers, neighbors and loved ones. But what do we give them, to express our love or connection, that is in alignment with our sustainability goals?

We dug into consumerism and purchasing habits here last month, but I thought a focus specific to gifts would be helpful for many.

Because buying less is one thing, but what about during a season when we feel inspired, compelled, or obligated to buy?

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I’m here for you.

The list below includes 50 stuff-free, sustainable, or consumable gift ideas for everyone on your list. Creative, useful, and thoughtful gifts that your friends and loved ones are sure to appreciate, and that won’t throw the planet under the proverbial bus.

Most of the items below are plastic-free, many are packaging-free, some are stuff-free (gifts of experiences). Many are zero-waste and most are tried-and-true gifts that my own family has loved.

Read though the list, get inspired, and share it with those you care about. I hope you find something for everyone on your holiday list this season!

Before we cut to the list, however I wanted to share one more thought on sustainability: where you acquire your gifts matters as much as what you choose.

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Before you shop

The suggestions below can help you choose more sustainable options before you even select your first gift. Because where you buy and who you purchase from matters nearly as much as what you choose to give.

Shop small, shop local

Locally owned, independent stores are the lifeblood of any community. Before you get online or buy from a big box store, explore the nearest downtown or corner shop to see what is available. Sure, you might find something cheaper elsewhere, but supporting your neighbors goes a long way toward building a more sustainable, stable future for your hometown community.

Choose handmade

Go out of your way to purchase locally made or domestically handmade gifts. It’s a more sustainable, feel-good option than buying mass-produced or imported products. You will certainly pay more for a handmade pair of mittens than a pair from an oversees factory, but I think it’s worth it to give less if we give better.

Avoid joke gifts

I know. I’m such a scrooge. But joke gifts are often given for the moment of unwrapping only, at a huge environmental cost. If you’re driven to give a joke gift or white elephant, pick it up at the thrift store, won’t you? If the item you are contemplating isn’t worth the mining, extraction, pollution, and human cost that it took to make it, don’t support its existence through your purchase.

Shop ethically made + fair trade

If you are shopping for imported goods, choose those with a fair trade certification. Using chocolate as an example, mainstream, conventional chocolate is often made with child labor, while fair trade-certified brands ensure ethical work conditions and fair pay. We vote for the world that we want with every purchase, and I’m sure none of us think exploitation of children and other vulnerable populations is acceptable. So don’t support it when you shop.

Don’t buy just to buy

And finally, let’s all quit with the obligatory gifts. A thoughtful, heartfelt card or donation in someone’s name will go a long way in paving a new path toward better giving. Very few of us are wanting for more things. So let’s be the change we’re desperate for in the world.

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Sustainable Holiday Gift Ideas

Let’s get on with the list! Below are 50 ideas for a wide range of zero-waste, sustainable, or otherwise ethical gifts. Many are for giving to your favorite kids, but other are suitable for coworkers, teachers, parents, friends, and neighbors.

A quick note before we embark: I’ve included some links below. Some are to small shops, others are big box afflinks below that I really hope you don’t take me up on. Click through to see what I’m talking about, jot down some notes, then set out locally to see what you can pick up from local shops in your own neighborhood. 

  1. Gift certificates for experiences, or favorite locally owned shops (think restaurants, independent book stores, movie theaters, your local yarn shop, the skating rink, indie coffee shops, or performing arts centers)
  2. Membership (museums, maker spaces, or their favorite gym)
  3. Handmade coupons for special experience to share (ideal for family members or close friends)
  4. Zero-waste, plastic-free lip balms
  5. Zero-waste, luxury, organic bar soaps
  6. Natural perfume
  7. Music or dance lessons
  8. Tickets to a play, music or dance venue, concert, or ballet
  9. Donation to a charitable organization that your friend or loved one would value (a few of our favorite are here, here, and here.)
  10. Sparkle Stories subscription for kids
  11. Gift certificate for summer camp or a high ropes course experience
  12. Cozy, real wool outerwear (hats, mittens, scarves)
  13. Wool socks (we adore Sockwell and Darn Tough brands)
  14. Media-time tokens (if children receive limited screen time in your home)
  15. Homemade pizza party coupon
  16. Breakfast in bed gift certificate for a loved one
  17. Sustainable travel lunch kit (a zippered pouch containing a set of silverware, reusable straw, and a cloth napkin)
  18. Homemade holiday ornaments, crafted by you
  19. “Coupon” for an night at a hotel and dinner on the town, for you and your child or partner
  20. Recipe and ingredients for a special dessert
  21. Fair trade chocolate
  22. Mason jar of homemade hot cocoa mix
  23. Beeswax candles
  24. Herbal tea blends
  25. Travel cup or drinking mason jar (my DIY drinking jar tutorial is here, or I have an already made version available here with your choice of closure.)
  26. Homemade, custom spice blends
  27. Nuts in the shell and a nut cracker (we adore this version!)
  28. Cloth napkin set, homemade or purchased
  29. A homemade or purchased apron
  30. Recipe box filled with favorite family recipes and blank recipe cards
  31. Gifts of homemade food and treats, such as candied nuts, homemade jerky, cookies, bread, or other nibbles
  32. Our DIY organic Lip Balm kit (so fun, and very nearly plastic-free!)
  33. Homemade herbal balms, syrups, or other formulas
  34. Coupon for an adventure day together (exploring a city, skiing, hiking, etc.)
  35. Herbal Adventures, my herb book for families and other beginners
  36. Children’s pocket knife (we love this knife with it’s built-in fire starter, but this one is nice as well and has a blunted tip for younger kids)
  37. S’more ingredients and a winter campfire coupon
  38. Homemade bitters, shrubs, or other natural drink mix-ins
  39. Headlamp (We love this model. Unlike other brands, they last for years!)
  40. Fort-making supplies for kids
  41. Handmade wooden spoons (purchased locally or your own creation!)
  42. A tinkering kit for children–hammer, nails, screwdriver, screws, and wood
  43. Play dough ingredients, mason jars, and recipe
  44. Mending kit including this book, needles, and thread
  45. Homemade fire starters
  46. Yarn (bonus points for buying at your local yarn shop!) and knitting needles
  47. Embroidery book, needles, hoop, and thread
  48. “Spa night at home” coupon for a child or your partner, with supplies for pampering (quality/nontoxic/synthetic fragrance- and preservative-free soapsugar scrubmoisturizer, etc.)
  49. Photo album from a favorite adventure with a loved one, or a homemade book of your child’s growing up
  50. Coupon for a summer camping trip with your child, friend, or loved one

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What’s your favorite tip for sustainable, mindful gift-giving? Add your ideas in the comments below! 

You can find the entire One Small Step series here, or click through below for individual posts:

One Small Step: a year of small actions with huge impact

Swap Plastic Bottles of Soap for Bars (plus a DIY liquid recipe)

Buy Less Stuff

Switch to Loose Leaf Tea

DIY All Purpose Citrus Cleaner

onesmallstep

 

7 thoughts on “One Small Step: 50 ideas for more sustainable gifts

  1. Em says:

    We love to give glass jars of soup ingredients to our kids’ teachers. The best gift I could ever give them would be more time with their loved ones; I hope that by giving them an easy meal, they’ll get more time. Reused/reusable jars, bulk lentils, split peas, herbs and spices, and lots of love.

  2. Leslie says:

    To take your mason jar concept one step further I knit mason jar cozies for gifts. It uses up all my scraps after finishing knitting projects. I also knit dishcloths for gifts – practical, but you can make them pretty so they feel more like a “gift.” Also:cookies 🙂

    • Rachel Wolf says:

      Yes, yes! A couple of these may already in my gift stash this season. (Shhh!) Regarding the cozies, do you have a pattern you could recommend? I’m always unsure of how many stitches to cast on (say, worsted wt.) to get the right amount of felting.

      • Leslie says:

        The one I’m working on now is Malabrigo, size 6 needles and I cast on 40 stitches. I do a bit of ribbing, switch to stockinette (I use magic loop) and finish it like a hat (K8 K2tog around, 1 row plain, K7 K2tog, etc). If I were doing sock yarn I might do 50 stitches on a size 2 or 3 needle. I don’t felt them (although the Malabrigo will end up felting itself after enough jars of hot tea) but I’m sure you could and then just dry them stretched over the jar.

  3. elizabeth says:

    I have to confess… I always gift books. Both second hand and new. I don’t shop the new books local, because in my experience, the books that I want to gift aren’t available in the local bookshops and they have to order them from afar anyway.
    The second hand books are another story, that’s just any lovely title I stumble upon in my local thrift store.

    I am not sure how sustainable it is to gift new books? It’s just that I feel strongly people need to read good books and I have and instinctive aversion to e-readers.

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