Sustainable Holidays

by Katy on November 22, 2009 · 1 comment

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.”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Eleni Papatestas Rodgers November 26, 2009 at 12:05 am

If I had been in Vancouver Washington, I would have come listen to you speak. This is a great post. I would like to add an idea to your Gift Giving Section. How about a “white elephant gift exchange” or a toy swap?
I wrote about the Toy Swap we are hosting with my son SC’s second birthday here:
By the way, I love your tagline. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”.


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