Sunday Special: Give a Little

It’s about that time to start wondering about the holidays- at the very least, to wonder about how to unplug those ridiculous store speakers blasting holiday music. But that’s a start, and while you’re plotting vengeance on jingle bells and window displays, save some brain space for considering how to make your holidays happier and more sustainable. No, seriously- sustainability may be the last thing on your mind in the rush of parties, last minute gifts, travel, cooking, decorating, family, and whatever else one lists in lists of potential holiday hassles, but it’ll save you money and stress.

So, Brilliant Holiday Advice (BHA) part 1: The Gift Guide.

First Rule: Before you buy someone something, figure out if they’ll actually use it. If it’s a purely decorative thing (say a bauble or perhaps a knickknack), is it “their style”? If you have no idea, don’t waste money (see gift ideas below).

Second Rule: Shopping involves ethical decisions, and those decisions don’t go away just because there’s a lot of stuff to buy. Buying fair-trade and responsible items or organic foods or sweatshop-free or recyclable and recycled things matters, and especially now, there are a lot more opportunities to shop ethically this year with a little research (good thing you’re starting early!).

Third Rule: People appreciate the thought most. If they don’t, kick them. Instead of mailing random stuff to people to indicate that you remember them, send them a handwritten note- they care more about hearing from you than odd boxes. If you have skills, make something for them. Give a huge favor- Grandmas love lawn care.

Fourth Rule: If you’re close to the giftee, talk to them about what they want: a surprise, a new microwave, jewelry, slippers, nothing. This works best with close friends and family and will save you the worry of meeting expectations, self-doubt, second guessing, and set appropriate gift levels.

And now, good gift ideas. These aren’t the only good ones by far, so if you think of more, let me know (I have a list to make…)

1. Gift Cards: Impersonal? Only if you do it wrong. Indicative of a lack of caring or thought? Not at all! Sometimes the most loving impulse is acknowledging that you have no idea, based on long distances or generational divides, what people need or want for Christmas/Eid/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus (are there Diwali gifts?). Keep in touch better next year, but don’t saddle them with random things they don’t want or already have so you feel more connected and personal. Gift cards to stores you think they will like, or to places you know they do like, with a long, personal handwritten card- everybody appreciates that. Plus, they’re small enough to mail in a regular envelope: smaller shipping cost, both in fuel and money.

2. Take a stroll through local Goodwill, Salvation Army, and thrift stores. These places sell lots of random things and their selection changes all the time. On a good day, you will find glassware, jewelry, pottery, records, books- anything, really- just right for that blank spot on the list, maybe with a little cleaning up first. Bonus small price tag, and instant thoughtful gift!

3. Reusable grocery bags: Try this on someone who’s more likely to actually want to use them- hard to make it a loving gift when you have to explain what they are and give a lecture on the ecological reasons for using them. Any bags will do, but preferably they’ll be at least as large as the plastic grocery bags, not too large to carry when loaded, strong enough for a gallon of milk, and contain separate sections for breakable items like eggs. Personalize old tote bags you have lying around. Crochet your collected grocery bags into a few new ones. Sew some bags for them on your own. Find interesting bags around: everybody sells bags. Local libraries, restaurants, operas- get bags from places they like.

4. Planet Earth series: If you think nature documentaries are lame, admit new evidence. The Planet Earth series has astounding footage of the earth earthing and animals doing animally things they’ve never been seen doing before, thanks to new camera technology and infinite patience. It’s least expensive at Amazon and Costco, and perfect for families, people who like the outdoors, people who hate the outdoors (bring it inside for them!), and, you know, everybody. Not exactly a sustainable tip, but it is awesome, and it involves the promise of technology and respecting the earth because it is pretty and can also eat you, so.

5. Jewelry: Fair Trade or responsibly made, for sure. greenKarat makes jewelry from recycled gold and gems, or find vintage items at thrift stores or consignment shops. Somehow, recycled and lab-grown diamonds say “I love you” much better than the ones currently financing wars and causing ecological and human damage- different post, though. Fair trade jewelry may also be made from recycled items, and Ten Thousand Villages carries a really interesting selection of it- styles range from modern to exciting. Some of their stores are in Old Town Alexandria, Richmond, Baltimore, Bethesda, and Rockville, though there are more in the area. Their wares are all fairly traded, and they also carry lots of other likely gift items and decorations.

6. Solar chargers: For the gadget types, I mentioned a few solar powered chargers for phones and music players in my post on the Solar Decathalon. They’re useful, sustainable, and something nobody else has yet! Perfect gadget for anyone who sees sunlight ever.

4 Responses to “Sunday Special: Give a Little”

  1. 1 Marianne November 12, 2007 at 1:29 am

    Random gift idea in the jewelry vein: The store where I work sells Zulugrass necklaces and bracelets (more info: Not only are the materials environmentally sustainable, the project also provides much-needed economic opportunity for the Maasai women of Kenya, in a non-exploitative manner. In other words, double the socially-conscious bang for your buck. Granted, not as creative as jewelry made from bottle caps, but probably requires less explanation. According to the above website, there are several stores in the greater-Washington D.C. area that sell it, including one in Tyson’s corner, so it should be fairly easy to track down.

  2. 2 virescent November 12, 2007 at 11:10 am

    Thanks for pointing it out- looks like VA/DC/MD are absolutely sodden with places that carry that jewelry, and it’s pretty. You hit a good point- fair trade isn’t just for specialty stores now. Macy’s sells a line of fairly traded baskets from Rwanda, if baskets are your thing. They’re sourced from sustainably grown grasses, and the NYT ran an article on the women who make the baskets with some indication of how they get paid for them, and how much better the fair trade work is than other work available in Rwanda.
    Some Fair Trade groups don’t just pay better, they also invest in schools and health care and sanitation projects in the areas where their workers live. But again, another post.

  3. 3 Helen Tarver November 13, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Great post, I wrote on a similar subject very recently, that ethical giving is better than wasteful giving, and giving without thought is wasteful. If everyone took 5 minutes out to make better choices this year, then there would be happier faces on Christmas Day, and for the rest of the world year round!

  1. 1 Update: Tree at Last « Virescent Trackback on December 18, 2007 at 12:26 am

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