Better Gifts for a Smaller Footprint

This post is reprinted from the Facing Climate Change blog.


The holidays present a whole different set of circumstances compared to daily life, so they also come with a whole different set of sustainability challenges. Top among these after  travel and food (see my previous post) is gift-giving. Recycled wrapping paper or reusable gift bags are great, but be sure the gift in that wrapping takes sustainability into account too.

Here are some tips for carbon-smart gifting:

Start early!
Early planning alone can save both carbon and money. By giving ourselves time to work out good options in advanc, we can avoid unwanted or wasteful gifts as well as rush shipping and other flailing around. In this instance (and many others, as it turns out), organizing and planning make for more affordable, more sustainable presents.

Make sure your gift will be used
In measuring the emissions of a gift in proportion to how much happiness it brings, the biggest loser is a gift that isn’t used at all. We’ve all gotten (and given) them: whether a seemingly genius idea that didn’t pan out or a gift bought at the last minute in desparation, a present that isn’t used damages the climate without helping anyone. Even a returnable present often feels bad to the recipient while creating more travel and/or shipping, which has its own footprint.

Some ways to ensure a gift isn’t a duplicate or a misfire include discussing it with someone else close to the recipient, erring on the side of conservative gift-choosing (for instance, with gift certificates), or even involving the recipient in the gift choice. I know it’s traditional (and fun) for gifts to be surprises, but both as a gift giver and a gift getter, personally I’d be much happier about a gift that’s a hit but not a surprise than a gift that’s unexpected but a flop.

The driving gotcha
Think twice about gifts that involve much driving, whether it’s you getting the gift or the recipient using it. On top of the gift itself, the extra driving creates a bigger negative impact on carbon footprint that’s easy to miss or discount. Since travel is the number one source of emissions for individuals and households, it’s entirely possible to give a gift that has a much bigger impact in terms of driving than is embodied in the gift itself.

Of course, not all driving raises a gift’s impact. For example, if you pick up a gift while driving but are combining that errand with others, the extra driving attributable to that particular gift is lessened or eliminated. Similarly, if the gift-getter is already going to do the driving your gift would entail (for instance, you buy a ski pass for someone you know already plans to go skiing), driving again stops being an issue.

Types of presents
Some categories of gifts, such as electronics, tend to have a much worse impact than others. Even some seemingly-harmless gifts, like clothing and shoes, can come with a heavy climate toll. Here are some ways to approach more sustainable gift choices:

  • Favor gifts that will be used more. An item that is seldom used, even if it’s enjoyed when it is used, is contributing much less for its cost in carbon than something that’s used regularly.
  • Favor gifts of necessities over luxuries. A gift that solves a problem is not only welcome, but also does a much better job of justifying its climate impact.
  • Steer clear of upgraded replacements. For instance, a slightly newer, slightly better smart phone as a gift wastes much of the carbon cost of manufacturing the phone that’s already in use.
  • Prize quality. With so many things so easily replaceable these days, we tend to think of quality as an indulgence. In fact, a durable, high-quality item will often pay for itself much better over time than a cheap item that will wear out and need to be replaced.

Used = more delight for the recipient, less trouble for the climate
My son is interested in animation, and for his recent birthday we bought him a high-quality graphics tablet, the kind of device animators connect to computers and draw on to create their art. There’s no way we could have afforded it if we’d tried to get him a brand-new one, and the climate impact of electronic devices in general is often terrible. Buy buying him a used unit from a reputable seller, we not only got him a much bigger gift than we otherwise could have–one he’ll have a real use for–but we also avoided buying something that had to be manufactured just for him.

Buying used goods doesn’t usually make for a zero carbon footprint, even if we disregard shipping. It’s always possible that if we hadn’t bought that graphics tablet, someone else would have who instead decided to buy a brand-new one. At the same time, it’s also possible that by buying that graphics tablet, we contributed enough to the demand for used items like that that somebody somewhere took one out of the closet and dusted it off for resale rather than letting it sit unused. On average, the impact of buying a used item will be significantly less than that of buying a new item, just not zero.

It’s true that some people may be put off by getting or giving used gifts. We certainly tend to prize the new and shiny in our culture. However, I think we can consider this more reason to give used gifts, not less. If we want to reduce waste and therefore climate change damage in our culture, we need to get used to fixing things, reusing things, and sharing things rather than insisting that everything we have be the latest, private to us, and previously untouched by human hands. Buying used has its limitations, but by encouraging reuse, we help to change both our own and the gift recipient’s ways of approaching consumer goods … for the better.

Photo by Liz Brooks

Remaking Holidays for Sustainability: Ways to Improve Any Holiday

Reposted from


Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, the Fourth of July, and other holidays all have a few things in common: they tend to involve travel and special meals or feasts. For many extended families, like mine, these kinds of occasions are the only times during the year we all have a chance to see each other, yet travel and food are two of the four biggest ways individuals and households contribute to global warming*. So our choices are to give up on sustainability over the holidays, to give up on the holidays, or to find ways to the holidays more sustainable, starting now. These posts are focused on that last option.

The way I propose we look at cutting any emissions is “biggest impacts first.” We often look for the easiest, most obvious ways to act more sustainably, but the truth is that there are so many low-impact things we can do, we can easily spend all our time on those and never get to the good stuff, the major savings. That’s where the Big Four offer a starting point. With those in mind, here are some tips for the making the largest possible savings in emissions at the holidays.

Rethink air travel: Flying around the country and even the rest of the plant has become relatively inexpensive and easy, but unfortunately it’s one of the worst offenders in terms of emissions. Not only do planes burn a lot of fossil fuels, they push out their exhaust at altitudes where their bad effects are at least doubled compared to what they would be on the ground. It’s not up to me to tell you or your family members not to fly, but there are ways to fly less, for instance driving together in an efficient car, taking a bus or plane or boat, or making one longer visit instead of two shorter ones. For more information on flying, see “You Want Me to Stop Doing What?”

If the trip is very important to you and you can’t find any way to make it other than air travel, you can consider making a donation to offset the climate impact. For example, Cool Earth is a non-profit organization that does excellent work preserving forests, which is one of the best possible ways to help slow climate change (even better than planting new trees). Donations to organizations that make a smaller or less direct impact would have to be proportionately larger.

The cost of offsetting a flight depends very much on how long the flight is. For a transatlantic round trip, an offset donation to an organization like Cool Earth would be only $20.90. A short round trip, for instance between Niagara Falls and New York City, would be only about $2.50. (Source: How Bad Are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee)

Not making the trip in the first place is certainly the ideal way to go, but offsetting is a decent alternative if you are having trouble finding away around flying.

Use food well: According to, between 25% and 40% of all food produced in the U.S. will never be eaten. Take a moment to reflect on that with me: At least a quarter of all our food, and possibly closer to half, goes completely to waste! Meanwhile, much of this food is produced with energy-intensive methods that burn many tons of fossil fuels; methane from ruminant livestock (cows, sheep, and goats) that is more than 20 times as potent in damaging the climate than carbon dioxide; and chemical fertilizers that release Nitrous Oxide (NO2), a greenhouse gas more than 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Careful attention to what and how much food we buy and how we serve and store it can cut our personal food waste to far below the usual amount.

Time permitting, I’ll be posting further ways to transform the holidays over the coming weeks. A happy and sustainable holiday season to all!

Photo courtesy of Emily Barney

* The other two are heat/hot water and electricity.

Waste Not, Wassail More: Green Holiday Ideas

Members and friends of Williston Green Initiatives contributed these ideas for making the holidays more sustainable.

First, some great ideas for sustainable wrapping. The carbon footprint of the presents themselves is still the main show, but you can reduce carbon footprint and waste while putting environmental consciousness at the fore in a positive way with these creative ways to wrap.

Wrapping with old maps

Also, there are ideas there that are much cooler than normal wrapping paper. Do I wish I had saved my old maps now? Oh indeed I do! Though we found our own solution to the problem (reclaimed rolls of paper and ink stamps).

Second, here are some waste reduction tips from Chittenden Solid Waste District:

LED lights

photo by Richard Masoner

Third, many thanks to Clare Innes, again at the Chittenden Solid Waste District for allowing us to post this information from their monthly email news flash:

Seven ways to keep your holiday spirit out of the landfill

1. Say NO! to artificial Christmas trees. Here’s why:
— The average artificial tree lasts 6 to 9 years but will remain in a landfill for centuries.
— Think a real tree poses a greater fire hazard? Think again. Artificial trees are made with polyvinyl chloride, which often uses lead as a stabilizer, making it toxic to inhale if there is a fire.
— Every acre of Christmas trees produces enough daily oxygen for 18 people. There are about 500,000 acres of Christmas trees growing in the U.S.
— Because of their hardiness, trees are usually planted where few other plants can grow, increasing soil stability and providing a refuge for wildlife.
— North American Christmas tree farms employ more than 100,000 local people; 80% of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China.
— Make a day of it and go to a local tree farm where you can cut your own, or purchase a potted tree and plant it in your yard after the holidays. You’ll also take home some sweet memories.

2. Declare your tree a tinsel-free zone — and just say NO to spray-on snow!
Tinsel and spray-on snow are big no-nos when it comes time to say goodbye to your tree. It’s nearly impossible to get it all off, and we can accept natural trees for free recycling only if they are completely free of anything Mother Nature herself didn’t install! Otherwise, those nasty additives make that tree fit only for the landfill, at a fee of $1 per foot in height at CSWD Drop-Off Centers.

3. Use recyclable or reusable wrapping paper.
In Chittenden County, wrapping paper is recyclable UNLESS it is printed with metallic inks or made of foil or plastic. The best material to use for wrap is something your recipient can reuse, such as a bandanna, a tea towel, a reusable cloth gift or shopping bag … the possibilities are endless.

If you still want to use wrapping paper, complete the recycling loop by purchasing wrap made with recycled paper. Let your favorite retailer know you’re looking for it and they’ll know that there’s a demand for it.

Recycling tip: Speedy recycling starts on your living-room floor on the Big Day: Sort recyclable paper into your recycling bin (NOT in a plastic bag). Put trash — ribbons, plastic and metallic paper and wrappings — in a trash bag, and you’ll get ‘er done as you go!

4. Use recyclable, reusable, or biodegradable gift decorations.
Ribbons and bows are big no-nos. Most are made of plastic and cannot be recycled. A better option would be to tie on an ornament that can be used on your tree, a knick-knack that will be enjoyed for years, or pinecones that can be composted or returned to the forest after use.

5. Regift!
Save gifts that aren’t quite what you need for someone who will appreciate them. If you can’t think of anyone you can pass it on to, bring it to a local charity or resale store, or a ReUse Zone at a CSWD Drop-Off Center and someone else will be glad to make use of it.

6. Don’t scrap your food scraps.
After your big meal, keep your plate scrapings and prep scraps out of the trash and stash them instead in a FREE food scrap bucket available at all CSWD Drop-Off Centers and Green Mountain Compost. When the bucket is full, bring it back in and we’ll use your scraps to make compost. We accept all types of food scraps: meat and bones, veggies, dairy products, egg and seafood shells — anything edible. And it’s FREE! Toss in greasy take-out pizza boxes as well. Stop on by any Drop-Off Center or Green Mountain Compost and we’ll give you a kitchen counter-top pail to peel your carrots into, and a 4-gallon bucket for bringing it to a Drop-Off Center or Green Mountain Compost — all for free!

7. Remember: “The best things in life aren’t things.”
Instead of giving an object, give an experience, such as a horseback-riding jaunt, skateboard lessons, movie tickets, or a promise to spend time together doing something you know your recipient loves to do. An online tool called offers fun ways to make gifts more personal and timeless.