Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sustainable Holidays

I came slowly to Facebook, as did my husband, Glenn. Myspace was old hat, but Facebook took some coaxing, on both of our parts. When we finally took a peek, we never looked back. Old friends from grade school, high school, college and beyond resurfaced, encouraging conversations and connections in need of some serious dusting off. 

One of the connections that Glenn made was with Katy Wolk-Stanley, a former college friend. An RN based in Portland, Oregon, Katy's blog "The Non-Consumer Advocate" has been gaining wider and wider notoriety, even gaining mention in such illustrious publications as The New York Times. Rich with thrifty and oftentimes ecologically-minded tips and insight, Katy's blog is a treasure trove of valuable information. 

One of her more recent posts, on "Sustainable Holidays", particularly grabbed my attention. Always on the lookout for ways to tread a bit more lightly on the planet, Katy's post is full of advice I either already practice or aspire to during the holidays, and beyond. I've posted below a speech she recently gave at the Vancouver, Washington public library. Practical and achievable, I'm forever in the debt of Facebook for reconnecting Glenn, and acquainting me, with such an inspirational individual. Happy Holidays! 

"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!"

*Image from The Non-Consumer Advocate


Nancy from Mass said...

It's funny, growing up we ALWAYS reused gift wrap. It took longer to unwrap a gift - but you tended to enjoy the process more. Nowadays, everyone just rips into their gifts with total disregard for the large piece that could have been reused...I am happy to say though that we have taught our son to take his time and he is always grateful for what he gets. I still reuse whatever gift wrap I can.

nicole said...

We used to carefully save all of the ribbons and bows that were good enough to use again. They would be stored away in a box and tucked away with all the other holiday goodies to be pulled out the following year. I remember as a child how much fun it was to open up that box and see all of the shiny present toppers waiting to bring another smile to the lucky recipient.

Anjuli said...

I think your ideas are great, but some of the gift-wrap ideas are rather impractical... For example, in this day and age the most sustainable practice is to read news online rather than buy a Sunday paper, and to use reusable shopping bags rather than paper ones from the store. Also, it seems like a homemade sewn wrapping is likely to get thrown away as easily as paper? I also like the idea of just tying a nice ribbon around a plain white box, rather than wrapping it in any actual wrapping! Anyway, thanks for all the great suggestions!

ashley english said...

hi anjuli! thanks for stopping by. just to clarify, the suggestions presented are those of katy wolk-stanley. they're not mine. as with any list of green suggestions i come across, i invite you to find those tips that resonate and work the best for you and your needs. even small measures can have large impact. welcome!

EcoGrrl said...

I don't do holiday gifts anymore - instead I host an annual Solstice party where I bring my wide variety of friends together for cocktails, desserts, music, conversation, and perhaps some dancing. Getting time with the people I adore is all I can ask for. But I LOVE the "experiential gift" - promising to take someone for a hike, or paint their living room, or make them a fantastic meal..that's lovely. Remember when we were kids and neighbors used to help each other with household projects? Now it's funny, many of us can't imagine asking someone to help us for free - so why don't we offer our services on a home improvement project? Or pay an electrician, or plumber, or painter, to help someone check off that long-postponed item on their list. It may not seem as sexy as a gold bauble, but this is something that will make a difference (and has no association with the millions killed in the Congo for the gold industry).