The Cost of Giving: The Environmental Impact of Christmas Gifts


Christmas. It’s the special time of year we spend with our loved ones, a time for celebrating and relaxing, and of course gift giving. But this isn’t all there is to Christmas. It’s also a period of massive spending, packed shopping malls, and a whole lot of waste. There’s a reason it’s called the silly season.

Each year as Christmas time descends, people across the world spend hundreds of billions of dollars on gifts for family and friends. Each adult spends an average $475 on presents, and about half of these gifts are unwanted. According to the Oporto group, a technology company with a focus on retail and reverse logistics, people return over $70 billion dollars’ worth of gifts after the holiday season each year. A 2015 survey in Australia showed that 78.5% of people receive a gift they don’t want over the holiday season, and 13.7% of these people will throw away these unwanted gifts, rather than returning them to the store. These returned gifts have a much bigger environmental impact than most of us realize. Many of our unwanted items don’t end back up on the shelves or in store inventory to be bought again. Instead they enter a cycle of shipping, reselling and middlemen, racking up a sizeable carbon footprint along the way. At any point in this process, if it’s more cost-effective to throw the item out, they end up in landfill. Oporto estimates that each year the USA generates about four billion pounds in landfill through the returns process.

For some people, giving up on giving at Christmas time is the only sensible choice they can make if they don’t want to be swept up by the fever of holiday consumerism and the excess waste it brings. But for others, the act of giving a gift is a special and intimate opportunity to show others you care and appreciate them. So, how do we juggle our desire to give with our desire to impact our environment less?

One way is to ensure our purchases are giving back to the community in some way. Oxfam Unwrapped and Good Gifts are two examples of initiatives run by charities to encourage people to give more sustainable and ethical gifts at Christmas. Some of the popular and imaginative best sellers in the past include purchasing a goat which is given to farmers in Africa, or a Kalashnikov rifle bought on the open market in Sierra Leone and then melted down and turned into a hoe to help till farmlands.

For those who aren’t keen on the idea of giving someone a gift they’ll never be able to see themselves, then homemade gifts are also another sustainable way to give at Christmas. With so many cheap and easy DIY options and tutorials online, it isn’t difficult to find a hand-crafted guest for every person on the list.

Recycled and upcycled gifts have started to become popular over the last few years, and we’ve seen more and more innovative companies springing up on the scene finding creative ways to turn trash into treasure. Like Osom Brand, who use waste from the textile industry to create beautiful, comfortable socks that no one will mind as a stocking stuffer.

A communal gift that family and friends can share together on the day in another way to give sustainably. There are brick and mortar retailers as well as online stores that specialise in gift basket supplies. Fill up an old bowl, hamper or picnic basket with nibbles and drinks for everyone, and then spend some time sharing and enjoying each other’s company.

For decades now, research has proven that experiences are preferable to material gifts. Purchases like concerts, movie tickets or holidays tend to give people the opportunity to create more memories and more enjoyment than material goods.

Of course, it isn’t just the gifts themselves contributing to the mountain of waste we make each Christmas. All those beautifully wrapped presents are quickly shredded, resulting in mounds of unwanted paper, bound for the trash. One way to cut down on wrapping waste is to use things like old scarves, fabric off-cuts, or cute tea-towels. Cards can also be reusable. Chopping up last-years cards and turning them into smaller gift cards, or removing the picture sides and using them as a Christmas themed postcard. If you’re a bit of a traditionalist, cards made from recycled paper, or those that support a charity can provide a more environmentally friendly option.

Christmas gifts are the most expensive part of Christmas, this holiday season, let’s give to people and the planet. By being mindful about the gifts we give, and how we give them we can enjoy the festive season without leaving behind a carbon footprint the size of the north pole.

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