A Zero Waste Guide to Christmas Gifts

A Zero Waste Guide to Christmas Gifts

I am not a Christmas grinch. I love the idea of families and friends coming together at Christmas, taking time out to share experiences, eating good food and hopefully playing some board games ;)

But presents? Oh, I’m not a fan of Christmas presents at all.

I’m passionate about living a zero waste lifestyle. I aspire to own less, not more. And Christmas presents are, quite frankly, the opposite of that.

It’s not that I dislike presents. A well thought-out gift, that I truly need and love and will actually use, is great. The truth is though, that I already have everything that I need, in terms of stuff. If I did need something, why wait for it to be given to me as a gift, if I can go out and choose it myself? That way, I get to choose the exact one that I want, from the store I want to support. There is less room for error.

If I don’t know that I need it… well then, maybe I don’t need it at all.

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I particularly find Christmas present-buying so… transactional. Everyone buys everything for everyone else: it’s a big consumer-fest of stuff, most of which isn’t really wanted or needed. To tell someone exactly what you want, and then spend the exact same amount of money on a gift that they asked you to buy in return, seems pointless to me.

The idea that people tell one another what to buy isn’t meaningful, or a way of expressing love, in my mind. Now someone agreeing to spend two hours playing board games with me, even though I know they’d rather not… now that’s love ;)

Of course, I’ve been there. I’ve written lists of things I wanted, and looked at other people’s lists to choose things to buy. I’ve tried to think of things that might be useful to give to others, and I’ve received things myself that were intended to be useful. As we get older, and have more and more stuff, it gets harder, and it all just seems more and more unnecessary.

On the other hand, I understand traditions and customs. I also understand that some people like to show their love through giving gifts. People don’t want to upset their families. And trying to explain to a 6 year-old that they aren’t getting a Christmas gift from you as you’re making a stand against rampant consumption might not go down too well!

So, I’m not proposing that we cancel Christmas.

Instead, I want to help anyone aspiring to a zero waste or minimalist lifestyle to navigate the Christmas present minefield without accumulating a bunch of stuff they don’t want or don’t need, upsetting all the relatives and feeling that they’ve abandoned their values.

If you’re someone who loves Christmas, and gift-giving (or gift-receiving!), then it is not my place to try to persuade you otherwise. Enjoy the festivities! This is for anyone who feels a looming sense of dread as the holiday season approaches, and wants some hints and ideas to do things a little differently.

A Zero Waste (and Minimalist) Guide to Gift Giving (and Receiving)

Christmas Tree in Hands Collection 78 Jean Lakosnyk

Part 1: Gift Receiving

1. Try NOT to ask for “Stuff”

If you’re passionate about living life with less stuff or less waste, then think really carefully before you ask for “stuff” for Christmas. It can be tempting, especially if you’re just starting out on the journey and actually need things.

But ultimately, to live this lifestyle you need to step out of the “stuff” game, and the sooner you start, the better. It will take time for friends, relatives and family members to understand that you actually don’t want stuff any more, and asking for “zero waste” stuff confuses the message.

2. Asking for “nothing at all” can be confronting for others.

I would never have believed this if we hadn’t requested that our families not get us anything at all for Christmas one year. Nothing at all, no money, no gifts, no vouchers, nothing. We even left the country for a month over the holiday period.

It worked. We didn’t receive anything. But afterwards, we found out that my mother-in-law had really struggled with it. Not acknowledging her son in some way at Christmas felt really wrong for her, and she was troubled by it. She did it, but found it very hard. I’m not sure she’d have managed it a second year.

It did help break the cycle of “stuff” though, and helped us find a compromise the following year that everyone was happier with.

It might work for you, and it is definitely worth trying if you’re happy with that option. But remember that some people show their love by giving gifts, and you don’t want to be happy at someone else’s expense.

3. Set some rules that keep everyone happy.

If you know that your family and friends like to give gifts, and suspect they will find a no-gift policy confronting, try to choose some rules that will satisfy their need to give gifts whilst keeping the unnecessary stuff to a minimum.

Ideas include:

  • Make a rule that all gifts should be second-hand.
  • Specify that all gifts should be homemade.
  • Put limits on the types of new goods (eg books, tools, plants, or whatever you think would work).
  • Suggest DIY hampers (food, beauty products or something else) – but be clear about limiting excess packaging!
  • Ask for only edible goods or drinks (although remember at Christmas the shops are full of novelty, overpackaged, palm oil-filled gifts).
  • Suggest a Secret Santa where rather than all adults buying gifts for everyone, all names are put into a hat and everyone buys one gift only for the person they picked out of the hat.
  • Ask for experiences, tickets for shows, workshops or events; even vouchers for restaurants or cafes. Avoid vouchers for shops as these will lead to “stuff”.

4. You need to communicate!

Stepping out of the consumer-fest of Christmas can be difficult, and if you want to make it easier for yourself and everyone around you, it’s better to tell everyone how you’d like things to be, and as soon as you can! There is no point having rules if you haven’t communicated them!

Be clear on your expectations. Don’t leave any room for ambiguity. If you find it hard to tell people in person, send a letter or email.

Just don’t assume that people will realise that your new way of living means you don’t want “stuff” – they likely won’t.

5. Don’t expect the first year to be easy.

It doesn’t matter how clear you think you’ve been, or how many times you’ve explained it, there will likely be mis-steps along the way. You’re on a journey, but everyone else is doing the same thing they’ve always done, and they might not see a reason to change. Or they might think it’s just a phase you’re going through. Or that the rules don’t apply at Christmas.

Rest assured, every year it will get easier, as others understand that it isn’t a phase, and also adjust to the new way of thinking.

The first year that we went plastic-free, we received a number of Christmas presents packaged in plastic. We even received a novelty plastic item packaged in plastic. Everyone knew that we lived plastic-free, and yet somehow it didn’t occur to them that this also applied at Christmas. It took time for the new way of life to sink in.

Now, they wouldn’t dream of it!

6. Don’t hold onto anything out of guilt.

If you get stuff that you don’t need and didn’t ask for, there is no need to keep it out of guilt. Someone choosing to give a gift (out of social pressure, convention, or their own personal need to express their love and appreciation this way) does not mean that you need to choose to keep it.

The meaning is in the gift-giving, not the gift itself. They made that choice, not you.

Donate it, sell it, give it away. Don’t dwell on it. There will be someone out there who will really want what you have, and will use it. If you can connect your unwanted stuff with them, then that’s a far better use of the item than languishing in your cupboard, making you feel guilty every time you see it.

There’s no need to tell the gift-giver, if you don’t want to (although if you do, it will help with not receiving anything next time!). Chances are they won’t remember anyway.

Part 2: Gift Giving

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7. Don’t push your values on others.

Deciding to purchase a zero waste kit for your family because you really think they should go zero waste, or buying them a collection of books about decluttering because you think they have too much stuff isn’t actually that different from them buying you a bunch of junk that you didn’t ask for.

You might think it’s useful, but if they won’t use it (and will possibly be insulted in the process!) then it’s just as much a waste.

Similarly, donating money on their behalf to a charity might seem like a great way to avoid present-buying, but if they are expecting a well-wrapped gift from the high street, they won’t thank you for it.

In the same way that you don’t want them to push their expectations on you, don’t push yours onto them.

8. Listen to what they say.

You’d hope friends and family would listen to your requests, and you need to listen to theirs. If they’ve been specific about what they would like (no handmade gifts, no second hand stuff) then you need to honour that.

That doesn’t mean that you need to buy them a bunch of overpackaged stuff. You just need figure the best way to work around what they want without betraying your own values! ;)

9. If in doubt, ask.

If someone has been very specific with their list, but you’re not keen to buy anything on it, come up with your own ideas and ask them what they think.

How do they feel about tickets to the cinema or a show? A voucher for a restaurant? A one-night stay at a local B n B?

What about a day together at a National Park? A picnic or a seaside outing?

Could you offer some kind of services – mowing the lawn, babysitting, cooking dinners for a week?

Is hosting Christmas dinner an option instead of gifts?

10. Can you cancel gifts altogether?

It’s possible that you’re overthinking this, and that actually it’s possible to come to the mutual agreement of not buying anything. As much as people love to receive gifts, many people hate to go Christmas shopping. They might be relieved to know that they don’t have to brave the busy, crowded shops in a desperate attempt to find something you probably won’t like anyway.

Christmas is an expensive time of year, and they might actually appreciate having one less gift to buy.

Don’t rule it out.

How we personally deal with Christmas has evolved over time. It’s still not perfect, but we’ve slowly come to a mutual understanding amongst our family and friends. From the first year, when we asked for stuff; to the second year, when we boycotted the whole thing; to the third year, when we even bought some “stuff” for others, we seem to have reached a balance. We no longer buy presents for most of the adults (with mutual agreement), and for those that we do, it’s limited to experiences. For our niece and nephew, we focus on experiences too – things that we can do together. It works for us.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are your experiences of Christmas? Is this your first year of living a plastic-free, zero waste or minimalist lifestyle? What are your concerns? Have you had any conversations with family yet and how did they go? Have you been living this way for several years? If so, have you found balance that works for you? How have your choices changed over time? Do you have any tips to add? Any stories or experiences to share? Questions to ask? Anything else you’d like to comment on? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

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20 Responses to A Zero Waste Guide to Christmas Gifts

  1. Last year, i suggested to the family that we give each other second hand or homemade gifts or that we share skills or experience. I drew the names for the secret Santa and knew my brother in law was my secret Santa and was quite excited because he’s a chef and I was expecting he’d teach me a great kitchen skill! Imagine my disappointment when he gave me a mug and a teapot!

  2. I am one of those that loves to give gifts. It is just part of Christmas. But as another perspective, you say why give you something you need if you can just buy it yourself. But there have been many years in my life that I could not buy what I needed, so getting one of those needs for Christmas thrilled me to no end. As for giving gifts to my children, they got one toy on their birthday and Christmas was when they were given anything else. No toys through the year. It was the same for me when I grew up, except we got nothing on our birthday. I love all the traditions of Christmas, including gift-giving.

    • I love the balance you’ve found Mary Ann :) Saving presents up for Christmas and only getting one thing for birthdays sounds like a good compromise. Do you find that your kids have high expectations of Christmas, or do they just love the magic of it all?

      As for receiving things that you need when you can’t afford them yourself, of course that is great – but sometimes there is the pressure to also buy when we can’t really afford to. So we get something we need, but we have spent a lot of money we can’t really afford buying stuff for others. Of course, if you love giving gifts and have a budget then it can work really well! But sometimes it is just extra pressure. It all depends on your outlook – and if you love it and it works for you that is the perfect solution! :)

      You’re making me feel festive!

  3. I am so with you Lindsay with the pointlessness of giving gifts for the sake of it. I am now so happy when I actually get nothing. Nothing I have to find a home for, deal with, feel guilty about not using! If I have to give a gift I find that one of my homemade pots of jam or Mango Chutney or Beetroot Relish is always appreciated but apart from a calendar I can never think of anything to suggest when someone wants to give me anything.

  4. Well, I’m a Christmas grinch. I’ve been that way since, at eight, I discovered Santa and “The Three Magic Kings” tradition (I’m from Barcelona, and here in España most families do both. Plus, in Catalunya we also do “el Tió”. Search for it and have a good laugh) were big lies adult told us children while telling us not to lie. This, added to the fact that I’ve never been into Christmas decorations and carols (I hate them with passion) and also the realization, when I was 13, that this whole Christmas thing made me really, really sad, converted me to the total hater I’m today at almost 25 years old. I can’t stand the hypocrisy of it, specially in my family, where no one is religious and where there are serious issues between its members so why in the world must we be together, exchange presents (A LOT) and pretend we get along and are happy when we clearly don’t? It all revolves around buying stuff and indulge in fatty foods that will make us feel heavy and guilty afterwards? For years, I managed to be drunk during meals (better, before!) to avoid reacting and stabbing someone. As you can see, Christmas is a depressing time for me and I would really want to scape far away but I can’t, because, troubles. Aaaand noooow… I’m a minimalist and this will be my first zero waste Christmas and I will really try every point of your guide to make it happen but I’m anticipating I won’t have any success. My parents and brother will probably respect (they usually gift me what I really need and this past Christmas they were happy to be gifted a experience), but my extended family won’t. And I will end with a lot of (plastic) crap, clothes I don’t need and I don’t like, books I will never read, etc. I no longer have the time or patience to change every item because sales here start the day after “Three Magic Kings”. I don’t like shopping, so sales are the absolute hell to me. The lucky part is that my love is also a grinch, so we get to be depressed together!! Haha. Joking. We try to show just the two important days and then we usually isolate ourselves in the mountain and pretend that we don’t know what’s going on.

    So here you have it, my raw Christmas experiences from all my life. I will really (try to) follow your guide so I thank you with all my heart for it and also for asking us for our Christmas experiences, since I cannot share them with my family or friends without being judged and labeled as a hater (which I am… because of them). I really needed to express how I feel.

    • Oh Gina, you definitely sound like a Christmas grinch! But it is horrible to have to pretend that you really enjoy something when in fact you don’t. I hope that my guide helps but I don’t promise that it will be easy. Our families tolerate the way we feel, and are more accepting of it than they used to be, but I cannot say that they understand – or that they ever will. Maybe they don’t want to. I am lucky that in Australia, Christmas is in no way as big a deal as in the UK, so it is much easier for us. I read to think how I would cope if I was in England at Christmas now I live like this!

      I hope Christmas this year isn’t too depressing for you, and at least you have your partner, who understands! That is worth a lot :)

  5. My friends were all relieved when I suggested that we not buy anything for each other. We now make a date to have cake/cocktails/pizza instead. Its great to spend the time and the money on enjoying each other and is a beautiful new tradition to look forward to each year.

    • That is great Katy! Buying things for friends can be a real burden I think (goodness, I do sound like a grinch when I say that!) What I mean is, it can double the cost, and whilst we can rely on our mothers to buy us useful stuff, friends tend to choose the fun and pretty but often unnecessary stuff that we don’t really need. That multiplied, is a lot of stuff! Fortunately all of my friends are Christmas grinches too (maybe that is why we are friends!) so we don’t buy each other anything.

      I love your idea though! Such a great Christmas tradition to nurture! :) Enjoy this year’s festivity!

  6. I wish I could say my extended family was on board with zero waste Christmas, but they are ABSOLUTELY NOT! We’ve been trying at every holiday & every birthday, to drive home that my kids, husband and myself would love experience gifts or homemade gifts or second hand gifts for 3 years now, with no luck. My mother in law makes a valiant effort. She’s sewn a birthday sack and embroidered gift tags with each of my 3 childrens’ names on them, to avoid wrapping, but she buys new things and just places them in the bag without the packaging…”it’s zero waste, right?” She says proudly. Sigh . I try to explain again, but it doesn’t matter. My daughters actually tell her she doesn’t need to buy them stuff, just come out to eat lunch or dinner with them, like that will happen. My son, who is only 12 and still LOVES stuff, always requests second hand video games for Christmas or his birthday, but my own parents don’t understand games, so they buy him clothes (that he doesn’t like) or toys (that he won’t play with) all brand new of course. We re-gifted for awhile, but that just kept the clutter piled up in the closet, so if we can’t return the items, usually for store-credit that we won’t use We just donate them to the charity shops. It’s just so wasteful, but our family find second hand shops to be only for the poor. They feel it’s dirty and beneath them. I’m not sure why they don’t go for the idea of just taking someone out to eat, or to watch a movie…. maybe because it can’t be wrapped? Unfortunately, I’m labeled politely as the weird hippie daughter that homeschooled her children and is teaching them to conserve energy, catch rainwater, grow their own food, create less waste, and pick up other people’s trash We’ve been making our gifts for the parents. My sisters find the holidays stressful, so my suggestion that we not exchange gifts was reluctantly accepted, but they still want gifts for their children. I get my nieces and nephews second hand toys, or handmade ones and they seem to enjoy them. I think you’re right, we can only do the best we can honoring what others want, but still trying to stay true to our values.

    • That sounds super hard work Stacy! I have to say, I can see that children add a whole other dimension that I can’t even begin to comprehend. It is hard enough persuading adults not to buy for fellow adults – but kids?! Whole other story. I actually think it is kind of disrespectful of your relatives to not adhere to your children’s wants. I could understand if they thought you were “inflicting your own ideas” on your kids – I love your ideas, and I’d do the same, mind! – but if the kids are old enough to make their own decisions, and those decisions are ignored, that’s pretty rude.

      I think when you can see the effort (like your mother-in-law’s sewing) then that is worth a lot! Even if she doesn’t really understand, showing that she is trying is very heart-warming. Shame she doesn’t quite get it! But I feel there is hope…

      I think my parents have a similar view of charity shops. They are more than happy to donate their things to the charity shop and think it is the right, good thing to do – but as I’ve tried to explain, if you don’t then buy stuff from the charity shops it doesn’t work as a system! Hence why charity shops tend to have too much stuff. We all donate but we don’t all buy.

      We do what we can. And yes, sometimes it is hard. Christmas polarises because it amplifies consumption – which people either love or hate!

      Good luck with this Christmas x

  7. My immediate family (of 8) lives on 3 different continents. My parents, with 2 overly cluttered homes, have finally decided they don’t need or want more stuff. If we will be in the same location, experience gifts and dedicated time are priceless. For other years, they love charity donations to specific projects at Global Giving. I love searching for specific projects that match their intetests and passions, they love to see what I pick and read / watch all available online info usually before brunch. We get project updates a few times during the year. It is amazing how much good can come out of small donations.

    • Mel, that sounds like a perfect outcome! My parents and siblings live on a different continent and whilst they haven’t got to the stage of not wanting more stuff yet, they are happy not to do gifts. I have been there for a few birthdays, and like you, we do experiences now (meals out, time together). I think they can see that experiences are valuable, even though they still really like stuff!

      I love that you have found balance and it is working out so well. Hopefully you will give others hope that people can change!

  8. I love your ideas for reducing waste at Christmas – we’re keeping gifts to a minimum now. Over the last few years, financial difficulties and separation from family has highlighted what I need to be happy: time with family and time in nature. I admit I love decorating our Christmas tree – we’ve had it for years and it brings back family memories, especially the decorations our children made. I allow myself just one new bird-themed decoration each year and I get excited about choosing that. I’ve always made our pudding, mincemeat and mince pies and when our children were young, we’d make presents and cards for teachers and family. I do still have a weakness for bird-themed stuff but it’s under control! Creating and sharing is the best thing about Christmas :-)

    • Thank you Tracy! As a kid I used to love getting a Christmas tree and decorating it – although as a teenager my enthusiasm waned somewhat! If we enjoy things and they bring us joy – well isn’t that the point? I love that you’ve kept the traditions that you love and enjoy, and you’ve ditched the rest. It sounds like your place is still pretty festive, but without all the excess and guilt. Perfect!

  9. HI Lindsay,
    I haven’t been away from home for an entire year, where I have been pursuing a plastic/waste free lifestyle, and have been worried about how to continue avoiding waste when travelling. People tell me to just let go, not worry about it for a few days, otherwise I will ruin my holiday. I am stressing because waste and plastic bothers me so much, as well as being a climatarian (plant-based diet), finding food can be difficult, even eating out. I can’t take lots of food or buy bulk foods where I am going. Any tips on how to go on holiday?

    • Hi Sarah, where are you going? I wrote a couple of blog posts about being plastic-free in Asia a couple of years ago, and more recently Monica from girlforacleanworld.com went travelling around Asia for a few months. But if you’re not going to Asia, that won’t help much! Let me know and I will do my best to help.

      I would also say, don’t stress. See it as a challenge, but as something fun, something to get stuck into, to embrace your creativity and learn problem-solving skills. We had a great time in Thailand when we went – our first task when arriving somewhere new was always to figure out how to get plastic-free water, and when we did it was such an achievement!

      I have every confidence that you can do it! :)

      • Thanks Lindsay. This festive season it is just to the Sunshine Coast, but we are only there a few days. I know I can avoid bottle water which is my biggest hate.
        Next trip is to Japan! I will have a look at Monica’s blog. Cheers.

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