I have complicated feelings about gift-giving. Having grown up in China where a lavish gifting-giving culture in cities has flourished in recent decades, and reciprocity is very much expected, I know firsthand how toxic a pervasive gift culture can be. My mother, for example, has a bathroom drawer filled with cosmetic products that she will never use, just waiting for the right occasion and the right person for regifting. Needless to say, even I can hear the annoyance and impatience in my own voice when my parents inevitably ask each year: “what would you like for your birthday?” (“Umm nothing? because I’m an adult in my 30s and in an extremely privilaged financial situation largely thanks to you guys?” #SorryImNotUngrateful)
On the other hand, it is very much true that when it comes to gift-giving, “it’s the thought that counts.” In modern societies where we live far away from family and friends, a gift is often a way we remind one another that “I’m thinking of you.” In the absence of being able to spend time together and offer help in a tangible way (e.g., childcare), particularly in the time of covid, I know gift-giving has its place.
This is why I put together this guide – reluctantly – that will hopefully give you some eco-friendly gift ideas for the holidays and other occasions. Just remember: there are many ways you can express your love and affection, and you are never obligated to gift! If you are not sure whether to gift, you can refer to a fun graphic I made last year: a decision tree for holiday gifting.
This is probably the category of goods I most often gift if I do buy something, because it’s hard to go wrong, and they are easy to be re-gifted. For example, I am a huge fan of buying coffee when I travel, because it’s a special treat I can’t usually find where I live and definitely something people will consume (and *worst* case scenario I get to enjoy some very tasty coffee). Below are some consumable gift ideas, and I linked to some favorites of mine (there are of course endlessly more options than what I listed below). Some have storefronts in the greater Boston area, which I marked with *. All ship their goods with the exception of the local natural wine store!
- Coffee, tea & hot chocolate: Equal Exchange*, Coffee by Design, George Howell*, Arbor Tea.
- Herbs & spices: Burlap & Barrel, Curio Spice Co*, Mountain Rose Herbs, Frontier Co-Op.
- Chocolate: Bedré Fine Chocolate, Theo Chocolate, Alter Eco, Taza Chocolate*.
- Flour & grains (know a baker/chef? they’ll love this!): Maine Grains, Moose Lake Wild Rice, Central Milling.
- Bath & beauty: Dr. Bronners, Dulse & Rugosa, Hippie Haven.
- Candles: Soy Much Brighter, Aromeaux Candles, Sequoia.
- Misc: the Mala Market (specializes in Chinese condiments), Rebel Rebel* (natural wine store in Somerville, MA), Brewer’s Crackers (crackers made with spent grain from beer-making).
There should be absolutely no shame in gifting thrifted items that are in good shape. That said, some things are better suited than others for thrifting, for example:
- Books. Do you feel like gifting books is something that has fallen out of fashion as people grow older? Anyway, I adore the idea of gifting books because used books are easy to find in mint condition, and recipients can pass them on once they are done reading. Better World Books is one site I know of, but start with your local indie booksellers!
- Etsy probably has the largest collection for secondhand house decor, vases, glassware, posters, jewelry, and other one-of-a-kind vintage goods.
- Scarves, hats, and gloves – a lot easier to find brand-new or like-new than other types of clothing. Poshmark and ThredUp are my go-to for secondhand fashion!
- Know a craft lover? Make and Mend is a Somerville, MA retailer that sells secondhand craft supplies! Etsy also has a great craft supply section.
Nothing says “I’m thinking about you” more than homemade gifts! I also love that you can start with the ingredients you already have at home, and order only what you need. There are SO many awesome DIY gift ideas online, but I linked 9 below that I would be very happy to receive as presents myself (if you feel like this is slowly turning into an open invitation for you to get me presents, I’m sorry).
- DIY lotion bar (Polly has an article on where to order DIY ingredients online)
- This Rooibos Chai blend, yuuuuuuuum
- A jar of homemade granola (totally customizable recipe here). Just make sure to label clearly for possible allergens
- A cookie decorating kit (special thanks to my coworker Laura for this sweet idea!)
bottlegallon of this homemade Chinese chili oil
- Do you have a lot of plants? (*raise hands) Make a mini terrarium or a collection of plant cuttings!
- A few herb-infused syrups to take your family & friend’s cocktail game to the next level. They are also great for adding a little zing to good old plain water.
- A jug (or 6?) of homemade sodas (a dozen of recipes here)
Cash (or gift cards)
Money is so underrated as a gift, y’all. Though it might appear impersonal, cash is actually a super practical, versatile, and impactful gift because the recipient can do whatever they want with it! Think about all the things your family and friends could do with some extra cash right now: they could use it towards basic necessities (like um, rent? or health insurance?); they might use it to purchase something that they really need but are too embarrassed to ask as a gift (hello new underwear); they might donate to a local food bank or a favorite charity; or they might stash it away as part of their saving or a future travel fund.
If you just can’t get over the idea of giving cash, gift cards are a good alternative. A gift card to a favorite restaurant or local retailer is always a thoughtful idea, though if the logistics of arranging it get too complicated, you can of course resort to bigger businesses.
3 example ideas for folks local to me (greater Boston area) that offer gift cards:
- Cleenland: a shop in Cambridge, MA that offers eco-friendly personal and home care products and refillable bulk products.
- Clover Food Lab: a food-truck-turned-local-institution churning out tasty vegetarian fare and meal boxes that can be delivered to your house.
- Russo’s: grocery store in Watertown, MA specializing in local and culturally appropriate produce, flowers, baked goods, and more.
Other (just ask!)
Search “eco-friendly gift ideas” online, and you’ll find things like reusable water bottles, cute bento boxes to pack your lunch in, and stainless straws. While these ideas are lovely, focusing on these products seems to me a narrow way to define what counts as an “eco-friendly” gift. Think about your family and friends whom you consider environmentally conscious – who doesn’t already have a reusable water bottle or lunch box? And if they don’t have one, do you think they would appreciate an expensive metal lunch box when they can continue using their good old tupperware? They very well might, but I think it’s hard to know without asking!
Unless there is a specific reason why you can’t ask (e.g., you are buying a gift for a secret party), I really believe “what do you need” is a question we should be asking more often when it comes to gifts. Perhaps your grandmother really doesn’t want any physical presents, just a few more phone calls from you (#notetoself). Maybe what your work-from-home cousin really needs this holiday is a NYTimes Cooking Subscription because he doesn’t get to eat out as much anymore…the truth is, you’ll only know if you ask!
Bottom line, eco-friendly gifts do not necessarily mean “gifts that’ll help someone practice eco-friendly behaviors” (because let’s be honest – there is a lot we can already do without acquiring more stuff). To me, the essence of sustainable gift-giving is all about being more mindful and less wasteful, and to that end, asking “what can I give you that will fulfill a genuine need?” seems like a pretty good place to start.