Sustainable Holidays

by Katy on November 23, 2009 · 15 comments

I spoke over the weekend at the Vancouver, Washington library on the subject of “Reduce, Reuse, Rejoice: Sustainable Holidays,” which was a lot of fun.

Despite there being dozens upon dozens of chairs lined up for my hordes of adoring fans, only seven people came to hear my pearls of wisdom, (two of whom were library employees.) The low turnout was actually just fine, as this allowed for a more personalized discussion of the issues of sustainability during the holiday season.

The following is a slightly fleshed out version of my outline, which I followed quite closely.

Holidays present unique challenges because we are focusing our energy on gift giving and entertaining. The choices we make to live sustainably often go out the window when the stress of the holidays press down upon us. This doesn’t have to be.

Gift Giving

There are many ways to make sure that your holiday gift giving is within your goals of sustainable holidays:

  • Give second hand gifts (Can afford to give better quality.)
  • Give fewer gifts.
  • Give no gifts — Winnow down who you exchange gifts with.
  • Give experiential gifts – Doesn’t have to be pricey. Can be something as simple as a night of babysitting or teaching a skill to a friend.
  • Consumable Gifts – Can be as elaborate as dessert or dinner of the month; or as simple as a bottle of wine or a tin of cookies.
  • Handmade gift certificates –   Just must make sure to follow through.
  • Handmade gifts.
  • Gifts to charity in a person’s name.
  • Establish a system where everyone in the family is assigned a particular person to buy for. Just make sure to set a reasonable price limit.

If you are wanting to make changes with how your family exchanges gifts, the time to talk about it is now. Make sure to be clear and explain the reasoning behind the change and offer to replace what may have been events for gift exchanges with non-gift centric get togethers. Don’t simply present it as, “I don’t want to buy you a present anymore.”

Remember though, that many people are already in the full swing of holiday shopping, and it may be too late for any significant changes for the current year.

It is important to keep in mind that gift giving is a loving act, even if you are receiving items that are not to your liking. Be gracious.

Gift Wrapping

There’s nothing more depressing in my book than the massive mess of wrapping paper and ribbons that litter the floor on Christmas morning. Sure, some of it is reusable and recyclable, but it’s still a colossal waste.

Some alternatives to wrapping paper are:

  • Reusable gift bags.
  • Wrap your gifts in the Sunday comics.
  • Use a solid color pillow case for larger gifts, and tie with a pretty fabric ribbon.
  • Wrap gifts in decorated craft paper, (ahem . . .  inside out grocery bags.)
  • Use your kid’s artwork to wrap a gift.
  • Sew your own gift bags. I am not a crafty type, but even I can sew a straight seam.
  • Reuse last year’s wrapping paper.


Even if you’re not the type to throw huge holiday shin-digs, chances are you’re involved at some level with entertaining. This can be in the home or even an office party.

Here are a few tips to not let that holiday get together automatically fill your garbage can to the gills:

  • Use non-disposable dishes and silverware. This may cost more initially, but it’s worth it. Area thrift shops bulge with extra dishes, and you can even borrow, freecycle, or craigslist. Ask around and put the word out.
  • Make ice instead of buying it. Just start making ice for your party a few days early and you can eliminate the errand of buying ice in a big ol’ plastic bag.
  • Use cloth napkins and tablecloths. Not only is this the more sustainable choice, but it’s also so much of a festive look. Cloth napkins and tablecloths cost a pittance in thrift shops.
  • Using a free online service such as e-vite for the invitations rather than snail mail.
  • Give thought to your food waste. Try to make sure unused food is refrigerated in a timely manner and freeze what you can’t eat in the next few days or send home with guests. You can even let guests know to bring empty leftover containers.
  • Use holiday parties as an opportunity to help out those in need. This can be as simple as making your party into a canned food drive. This is an easy thing to do and people are usually happy to find opportunities to be generous. This is an especially good idea for work parties.
  • Make sure to clearly label your garbage, recycling and compost. (I’m sure we’ve all experienced helpful guests who throw everything into the regular garbage.)

Thank you very much to the Fort Vancouver library system for inviting me to come and speak. I had a great time!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”



{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda November 23, 2009 at 6:02 am

Great ideas! If I lived in your area, I would have attended the talk. I am on the east coast and very far from you.

I asked my daughters this year if they minded if I bought items from thrift or consignment stores. Both said they were fine with it. From experience, they know that the money goes much further when buying used.

This weekend, I went away with my friends to Maine. They were shopping in the regular stores. I went to the thrift stores and found some great items for a fraction of the price of new. My friends don’t understand my frugal ways and my desire to reuse. That’s ok…we had a great weekend!


Melissa November 23, 2009 at 10:35 am

I would have come if I could have. I’m sure it was very informative. One year, my mom and sister and I only got gifts for each other from antique stores. Still second hand, but sounded a bit nicer than thrift store. And the gifts were great!


Lisa November 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Thanks for the overview of your talk. I’m sure all your readers would have attended in mass if it were possible. I’m glad you mentioned freezing ice cubes ahead of time. I began this yesterday. (Normally we freeze water in a used ice cream bucket, tap the sides with a hammer, then chip smaller bits with an icepick. But that’s too much hassle when company is here.) This year I’m keeping my menu simple and hitting the high spots on the house cleaning. Easy does it!


WilliamB November 23, 2009 at 12:48 pm

If you have the space, hit the used stores, sites and freecycle in January. That’s when people tend to get rid of the (generally new, generally unused) gifts they don’t like.

Similarly, now is the time to sell gift-quality stuff you don’t want. Especially if you have the box or information about the artisan or the paperwork.


Nancy November 23, 2009 at 6:37 pm

Beau and I were there in spirit taking up the 8th and 9th seat. Thanks for the summary and more great ideas.

Instead, our bodies were thoroughtly enjoying the warmth and comfort of a Cape Lookout Deluxe cabin with a direct view of the wild Oregon surf – for a $45.00 winter rate.

We’ll try for next time 🙂


Tara Morrison November 23, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Great gift ideas and a heads up about ice. I don’t know if this ia available everywhere but we live on the coast in the South where there is a lot of fishing and there are these cool ice machines where no bag is required you and pay just a buck and a half for 25# of ice straight into you own ice chest. I love this for parties because I don’t have freezer space to store as much as I need.


Klara Le Vine November 23, 2009 at 11:06 pm

I had been worm sitting my friend’s wormbox and when I returned it to her I wanted it “gift wrapped.” I looked all over my home for some old material and came across an old sweatshirt of my kids that I’d loved – had great picture of boat on the front. I slipped the sweatshirt over the box and added a tiny ribbon and an old belt to make it fancier. She loved it!!!!


Kim Sanchez November 24, 2009 at 9:31 am

I would have been there to hear you speak. Thank you for all the great work you do. You make folks think how they can change their every day lives.
I’ve often gotten the ‘stink-eye’ after the Christmas
frenzy of presents is fininshed, by sorting through
the mess and saving the re-usable items, bags, bows etc. For the most part, if I must wrap with
paper, I do not use ribbon or bows, it all goes into
the landfill. Besides, it’s easier to stack packages
for travel or under the tree if you do not have to worry about crushing a fancy bow on top.


Eleni Papaptestas Rodgers November 26, 2009 at 1:18 am

I would have come if I was in the area. Great post. I would like to add one more idea to the Gift Giving section. How about hosting a “white elephant gift exchange” or a toy swap? We are hosting a toy swap for my son’s 2nd birthday. Check it out here:
By the way, I love your tagline “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”


suburbanlife November 26, 2009 at 12:30 pm

This is going to be my second Christmas season for giving gifts from second hand, thrift and junk stores. The only proviso is that items obtained from such sources suit the recipient and do not look shop-worn – no snags, chips, nicks or scratches. As well, this will be my second season of wrapping gifts in furoshiki, out of second-hand silk, wool and polyester scarves. Last year, at Christmas I had no wrap to gabage and gift recipients asked if the furoshiki was part of the gift. If they liked the pattern, they kept the scarves; if not, they asked to look at my stash of second-hand scarves to choose one which they liked more. I hoped to set a small example, and indicate I would like future gifts to be presented to me in less wasteful presentation. If friends and family thought me eccentric, they mostly kept that to themselves and made pleasant noises about the presentation of their gift.
As to food and drink, I keep it simple, frugal and inventive, using seasonal foodstuffs prepared with care and love. Also we give food to local food-banks which go beyond the canned beans and boxed mac and cheese – condiments such as pickles, olives, olive oil and vinegars in small bottles. G


Tracy November 28, 2009 at 7:11 am

THAT’s a great idea!!!


Kris-ND November 30, 2009 at 9:13 am

I know this is a bit off topic, but I just want to encourage everyone who struggles with wanting to buy more and newer things for their families to put it all in perspective.

My son rolled his truck Saturday night. He tried to avoid a deer on a country gravel road. The road is very rough from the weather, , and he ended up rolling his truck, as the edge of the road has a drop-off into a ditch.

He and his friend climbed out of this absolutely totaled Ford F-150 pick-up with a sum total of 5 injuries. My son had 5 nicks on his arm from crawling out of his shattered window. His friend didn’t have a scratch , just some stiffness from having to drop out of the seat onto the roof of the cab when the seatbelt was unhooked.

Just a few hours earlier, my h usband and I were struggling with trying to manage the urge to buy more for our kids than what our budget is allowing.

Amazing how things can immediately be put into perspective! All that stuff isn’t meaning much to two sets of parents this year! I will never receive a greater gift than having my son call me and tell me”we are okay, but can you send dad out here?” vs “This is the Sheriffs dept, and we need you to come to the hospital. Your son has been in an accident”.

The gifts already purchased are seeming just fine, and the extended family could never receive a better gift than a healthy grandson,nephew,cousin, etc.


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