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How to Buy or Make Green, Eco-Friendly Gifts for the Holidays

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The holidays can be exciting, magical…and, unfortunately, wasteful. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the volume of household waste Americans produce each week goes up by about 25% between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Many of the items we buy during the holidays – Christmas trees, wrapping paper, holiday cards, extra batteries – just end up in the trash by the time January rolls around.

One holiday item that shouldn’t be wasteful is the gifts we give each other. But all too often, holiday gifts contribute to the waste problem. Many common holiday presents, from jewelry to electronics, require a lot of energy to produce and create a lot of pollution. And in some cases, a gift of a new music player or tablet computer results in the old one being discarded, creating still more waste.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative. By seeking out green gifts, you can make your holiday celebration a little lighter on the Earth. So if you’re dreaming of a green Christmas, here are some tips for finding environmentally-friendly gifts for everyone on your list.

Types of Green Gifts

In general, green gifts are presents that use fewer resources and produce less waste than ordinary, mass-produced items. However, there are many different types of presents that fall into this category.

Green gifts can be:

  • Nontoxic. Many mass-produced goods, including items for children, contain harmful chemicals. A 2014 study by the United States Public Interest Research Group found a variety of toxic chemicals in toys, including lead, chromium, and phthalates – chemicals found in soft plastics that have been found to interfere with childhood development. Greener gifts are made with nontoxic materials, such as untreated wood, lead-free paint, and safer plastics.
  • Secondhand. Shopping secondhand is a green choice for several reasons. Buying used items saves the energy and natural resources that go into producing new ones. It also reduces waste by keeping old items that are still in good condition out of landfills.
  • RecycledRecycling is another way to cut waste while saving resources and energy. You can buy gifts made with recycled materials, or you can recycle materials you have at home to make your own gifts, such as patchwork quilts and wine-bottle candle holders. You can recycle the packaging for your gifts too, either by reusing wrapping paper or by wrapping gifts in reusable cloth bags.
  • Sustainably Sourced. If you can’t give gifts made from reused materials, you can look for gifts made from new materials that were produced in ways that don’t harm the environment. Examples include organic foods and wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which come from responsibly managed forests.
  • Fair Trade. One particular type of sustainable sourcing is Fair Trade. When the Fair Trade label appears on products grown or made in developing countries, it guarantees that the people who produce the items get fair wages and decent working conditions. You can find sellers of Fair Trade goods – such as coffee, chocolate, and clothing – through the environmental group Green America.
  • Minimally Packaged. Many gifts, such as kids’ toys, come nestled into a molded plastic insert in an over-sized box. No matter how welcome the gift itself is, all this packaging is nothing but waste. Choosing gifts in smaller boxes with less packing material saves resources and helps keep your trash barrels from overflowing.
  • Durable. Holiday sales often feature deals that look unbeatable, but a $150 flat-screen television is no bargain if it breaks down within a few months – and it’s certainly not green to spend money on something that will quickly end up in a landfill. So if you want your gifts to be eco-friendly, check reviews first and find a model you can count on to last for years.
  • Nonphysical. Many green gifts are things you can’t put in a box. For instance, you can give an experience as a gift, such as a trip to the zoo with your child or a candlelight dinner with your spouse. You can also give gifts of your time and skill, such as offering to babysit for a friend or giving piano lessons to a niece or nephew. These gifts require little or no material to produce, and there’s no packaging to throw away.
  • Charitable. Another way to give nonphysical gifts is to make a donation to a charity in a loved one’s name. If you choose an environmental organization to support, this kind of gift is doubly green: it produces no waste, and it helps protect the Earth.
  • Waste-Reducing. A final type of green gift is an item that helps someone else live a greener life. Examples include a set of rechargeable batteries with a charger, a set of seeds and tools to start a home garden, or a travel mug that can eliminate the need for disposable coffee cups.

Green Gift Types

Green Gifts to Buy

Using the green guidelines shown above, you can come up with eco-friendly gift ideas for just about everyone on your list. Start by considering each person’s particular needs and interests, and then look for a green gift that fits them.

Here are several examples of green gift ideas for particular types of people:

  • Coffee Lovers. Get the coffee drinker on your list a pound of a high-quality organic, Fair Trade coffee, such as Peace Coffee or Grounds for Change. What’s great about this green gift is that it can’t possibly be a duplicate – even if someone else gives them coffee as well, they can always use more.
  • New Parents. One thing parents with a newborn can always use more of is diapers. Cloth diapers are the most eco-friendly type, and they can also save parents money in the long run. However, they cost more money up-front – so buying new parents a half-dozen of their favorite cloth diapers makes an incredibly useful gift. If you know the new parents on your list prefer disposable diapers, you can buy them a pack of an eco-friendly brand that’s free of chlorine, perfumes, and dyes.
  • Children. Because young children are still developing, it’s especially important for them to have toys and clothes that are free of toxic chemicals. Web-based stores like Green Toys and Hazelnut Kids specialize in kid-safe toys made from natural materials.
  • Gardeners. For anyone who has a home vegetable garden, plants and seeds make eco-friendly gifts that are sure to be useful. And for apartment dwellers who would like to garden but don’t have the space, a window box garden kit offers a great way to grow a few herbs and vegetables at home. You can find kits online that come complete with containers, seeds, and potting mix, or you can buy the parts separately to create your own.
  • Fashionistas. For the “clothes horse” on your list, great ethical clothing choices include secondhand finds from consignment stores and handmade items from artisans on Etsy. For stocking stuffers, you can pick up nontoxic, cruelty-free cosmetics for $5 or less at e.l.f. Or, if you’re not sure what styles your fashionista friend likes, you can give a gift certificate for any of these businesses.
  • Shopaholics. People who love to shop are really hard to buy gifts for, because anything they want, they’ve probably already bought for themselves. However, one thing they can always use is a sturdy, reusable shopping bag to hold all their purchases. There are dozens of types available, from big flat-bottomed totes for grocery shopping, to foldable nylon bags that fold into a parcel small enough to tuck in your pocket, so they can go wherever you go. You can accompany this gift with a gift card or a reloadable prepaid card.

Buy Green Gifts

Green Gifts to Make

If you have trouble finding just the right green gift for someone on your list, you can always make your own. DIY green gifts can fall into many different categories:

  • Pampering Gifts. You can find lots of recipes online for nontoxic personal care products made from natural ingredients. For instance, the design site Inhabitat explains how to make homemade lip balm with nothing but oil, beeswax, and a few drops of essential oil for fragrance. The craft blog By Stephanie Lynn has a recipe for a lemon-sugar scrub that’s great for cleaning and exfoliating the skin.
  • Wearable Gifts. It’s easy to make jewelry and other accessories with recycled materials. On Instructables, you can learn how to convert strips of old magazines into beads that you can use to make necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. If you have an old wool blanket with holes in it, SewGreen can teach you how to use the good parts of the material to make a cozy pair of bedroom slippers.
  • Gifts for the Home. You can also recycle materials into unique items of decor. Capitol Romance explains how to turn old book pages or sheet music into paper roses that will never wilt, and Country Living shows how to make one-of-a-kind coasters from salvaged wood.
  • Edible Gifts. For the person who has everything, food makes a great gift, because it’s something anyone can use more of. Homemade goodies such as baked goods, salsa, jam, or pasta sauce usually taste better than store-bought versions, and because you make them yourself, you can control the ingredients. That makes it easy to use organic ingredients or avoid allergens. Other edible gift ideas include herb-infused oils and recipe mixes in mason jars – you can find recipes for both in the Green Gift Guide from Inhabitat.
  • Playful Gifts. Young children are often happy to receive homemade gifts, because they don’t care where their toys come from as long as they’re fun to play with. Simple toys that are easy to make at home include blocks made from scrap wood, sock puppets, and empty food boxes for playing store. A “dress-up” box of secondhand garments – either pulled from your own closet or picked up cheaply at yard sales – can help spark imaginative play. If you have the time and space to set it up, a treasure hunt with a series of clues to follow makes an exciting and memorable gift for kids – one that might actually keep them busy long enough for you to get your holiday meal on the table.
  • Gifts of Your Time. One gift that only you can give is the gift of your time. You can offer to do a job for a friend or relative, such as babysitting, washing the car, or cleaning out the garage. You can also arrange a date to spend time together, such as a trip to the zoo or a dinner at your favorite restaurant. If you have a special skill like art, gardening, cooking, or canning, you can offer to provide your services for free – or share your skill by giving lessons. Since gifts of time are hard to wrap, you can write out your offer on a gift certificate or coupon, as in, “This coupon is good for one free night of babysitting.”

Green Gifts Make

Finding More Green Gift Ideas

When it comes to green gifts, the ideas listed here are just the tip of the iceberg. Just by searching online, you can find dozens of links to stores that sell green gifts and tutorials for making your own.

If you can’t find just the right idea for someone on your list, try checking these green gift guides:

  • Eartheasy. At the Eartheasy online store, you can find dozens of green items. Gift ideas are grouped into categories, such as “For the Gardener,” “For the Chef,” and “Under $50.”
  • Treehugger. Treehugger has compiled suggestions for DIY green gifts from all across the Web. Suggestions include “upcycled” gifts made from reused materials, edible gifts in mason jars, and gifts of experiences rather than objects. The category of “easy last-minute Christmas gifts you can make at home” is particularly helpful, including ideas such as coupon books, baked goods, and secondhand books from your shelves.
  • GoodGuide. If you already have a gift idea for someone but you’re not sure how green it is, GoodGuide can help. This site rates products in dozens of categories, from food to apparel to personal care products, based on their impact in three categories: health, environment, and society. The three ratings are averaged together to produce a single score on a 10-point scale, making it easy to compare products.
  • Simplify the Holidays. The Center for a New American Dream is an organization that seeks to combat consumer culture by promoting sharing, community, and sustainability. Its Simplify the Holidays booklet offers lots of suggestions for alternative gifts that are both greener and more meaningful than the mass-produced goods sold in most stores.

Finding Green Gifts Ideas

Final Word

The most important step in finding green gifts is to take the time to consider what the recipient really wants and needs. For example, if your father-in-law really wants a new cordless drill, it may be better to buy it for him (even if it’s not a particularly eco-friendly product) than to give him a pillow made from a recycled sweater that he has absolutely no use for – because a gift isn’t truly green if the recipient is just going to throw it away. And if you get stuck, it’s better to give a gift card – or give no gift at all – than to waste money and resources on a present that won’t be welcome.

What are some green holiday gifts you’ve given or received?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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