Challenging gift-giving: How to shop sustainably this holiday season

From wrapping with multi-use materials to gifting an experience, there are ways to shift the consumerism engulfing Christmas

Art by Christina Tran

Art by Christina Tran

Christmas is known as the season of giving, but finding the perfect holiday gift can be stressful, which is exactly how Anita Chan felt before changing her consumerist lifestyle.  

Anita used to define herself as a shopaholic who would not miss a sale when she lived in San Francisco, California. Now, living with her husband and son in East Vancouver, Anita has completely reinvented her approach to shopping, especially during the holidays. 

“Everyone in our family consumes, everyone shops, … [and] I really don’t want to perpetuate consumerism … and this idea of having stuff all the time,” she says. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and inflation have changed the way Anita views shopping for all occasions, but having a child changed her view on consumerism the most. She’s noticed her son’s reaction to receiving a gift is different from other children his own age. 

“My son really appreciates things a lot more, I’ve noticed because I have nephews that live differently,” Anita says.

“They have a lot of toys, they’re used to new things, and they get bored of them easily. So I do see the gratitude of kids who are not overwhelmed with toys versus those who have too many, so [my son] does savour what he receives.”

Although her husband is on the same page about buying their son second-hand or wooden toys, it took Anita’s mother a while to get on board with these wishes. Sometimes these conversations were hard to have, especially when Anita’s mother continued buying her son cheap, plastic toys from the Dollar Store. 

“I had to raise my voice a couple times … [and] it took a long time for her to understand,” she says. “I said, ‘Mom, if you really want to give him something, I’d rather you buy him clothes.’”

Last Christmas, Anita’s mother gave her grandson a mango and money which he was happy with, Anita says. Even though these conversations can be awkward and difficult, she is grateful her family and friends are now respecting her sustainable values. 

Even though the rise of interest rates and inflation is at an all-time high in Canada, a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Ltd. found consumers are expecting to spend an average of $1,635 this holiday season, which is an increase of 13 per cent from last year. However, people’s spending isn’t the only thing that increases this time of the year. The average family in Canada creates 25 to 45 per cent more garbage during the holiday season, the Comox Valley Record found, whether it be food waste, single-use decorations, or present packaging.  

To help work towards sustainable gift-giving, Metro Vancouver is leading their “Wrap Wise” campaign to “create memories, not garbage” by offering tips on recycling and creative ways to wrap presents during the holiday season. 

“We try to push that message out to people to give gifts of experiences or creativity gifts,” says Chris Allan, director of solid waste operations at Metro Vancouver. “If you’re giving physical gifts, make sure it’s something of quality … that’s not going to be used once and thrown out.” 

Whether it’s reusing gift bags or wrapping an item in a cloth or newspaper, there are many ways people can wrap their presents into an appealing package while also being conscious of the environment. 

“With online shopping, a lot more cardboard and packaging materials come into our recycling depots, It’s definitely noticeable,” Allan says. 

“With inflation and people’s paychecks getting pinched, people are looking for hopefully more thoughtful type gifts and not just running out to spend money. Hopefully that will be reflected in the kind of waste we see that comes out of the Christmas period.”

Anita also suggests buying cookie tins from thrift stores, wrapping gifts in unbleached parchment paper with twine, or putting smaller items in jars. 

Although consumerism exists all year round, the Christmas season is particularly high because there are societal pressures to buy everyone in your life a gift. 

“There is this sense of obligation that not spending a certain amount [on a gift] would be an insult or not keeping with the kind of relationship people might want to have,” says Kai Chan, professor at the University of British Columbia in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

This results in people buying things that might not get used, Kai says. 

This perpetual state of buying from big chain stores or online companies also has a huge impact on the climate crisis. Kai uses American Thanksgiving to show how consumerism, especially in recent years, has gotten out of control. 

“It is just an incredible creed of consumerism and marketing,” he says. “The Black Friday sales … take advantage of the fact that people are together in the holiday spirit.”

“The contradiction between the idea of giving thanks for what you have and then this massive spending spree for stuff you don’t even need, it’s just sick.” he adds. 

Although there are solutions to become more sustainable, Kai sees consumerism as something that is now ingrained in the system, even when it comes to shopping more sustainably. 

“We keep absorbing these messages that to be green, we should buy organic produce and now it’s electric cars,” he says. “The reality is, we need to change the system whereby we continue to think we need to buy so much stuff.”

Kai created the project CoSphere, which aims to make society a more sustainable place through creating campaigns to change the system and having conversations with people in our lives. 

One of Kai’s solutions to change society’s approach to consumerism is to buy differently and celebrate what we already own. This could be through creative mending, where people repair and reuse old things, instead of throwing them in the landfill, or changing the way we approach shopping during the Christmas season altogether. 

“Change the norms about how your family celebrates,” he says. “Instead of everybody getting everybody gifts, … only get a gift for one person and make it a good gift that they really need.”

He also suggests giving second-hand gifts to families and friends. Vancouver’s Hospice Opportunity Boutique (HOB) is a volunteer based second-hand store providing funding to the Vancouver Hospice Society. The store offers a variety of high-quality items such as clothing, small furniture, and household items. 

“We have everything from can openers right up to high end jewelry and silver,” says Colleen Crowley, a volunteer at HOB. 

Crowley suggests people do more research on stores and where the profits are going before buying from them.  

“People should really think about looking at shops like ours, which are 100 per cent volunteer operated and all our proceeds go to support charities,” she says. 

“I did all my Christmas shopping in the thrift store last year. … As long as you are buying a gift that is chosen with care and love with the person in mind that you’re buying the gift for, I wouldn’t think there is any stigma involved with buying someone something second-hand.”

Crowley also suggests giving family and friends the gift of an experience, rather than an item, which her family did last year. 

“We’ll buy them a pass to go skiing … and do something together as a family, like go on the Christmas train or go down to Jericho [Beach] for a walk,” she says. 

Lakeisha Barrington, a recent graduate from Kwantlen Polytechnic University who lives in Surrey, prefers giving experience gifts to family and friends, rather than buying them something from a store. 

Barrington took her partner to see Jesus Christ Superstar the musical at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre because it was his favourite musical, but also shifting from buying a gift to something that is through quality time. 

She suggests friends and family create a budget on how much they will spend on gifts for one another, which are also conversations Kai Chan encourages people to have before Christmas day so everyone is on the same page. 

“None of this is going to be easy for many people to change because most people have really strong feelings associated with the traditions for holidays that they grew up with,”  Kai says. 

Asking questions like “What if?” and “How about?” instead of “I want,” is a good way of going forward, he says. 

Using the environment to lead into the conversation is also something Kai suggests, especially if there’s sensitivity around money and spending conversations with friends. Using terms like, “how about we do this?” or “it could have multiple benefits,” with one of them being to help reduce the impact on climate change, are good ways to approach the topic, he says. 

Tim Herron is the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability’s (CIRS) engagements and events manager at UBC, and offered alternative ways students can create meaningful gifts, rather than buying something, at an event held for the third year in a row at UBC. 

Herron says those in his work place were all expressing a lack of ease around consumerism during the holidays and decided to plan a large event to discuss the issue. The event offers different hand-made projects students can take part in, whether it is creating cards out of flowers or candle making. 

“I think people are looking for ways of participating in the holidays without spending a lot of money. But also, people are aware of the amount of packaging, waste, and consumer driven behaviour that happens around this time of year,” Herron says.

Herron adds it’s the thought that counts when someone takes the time to hand-make something meaningful rather than purchasing something. 

In terms of the gift-giving game “Secret Santa,” Herron suggests giving someone an unused object in your house that you don’t use or want instead of buying new gifts. 

Another approach people can take to give meaningful gifts is buying items, especially children’s toys, on Facebook Marketplace, Anita says, because they are almost always in brand new condition. 

“If you are good at cooking or baking, take advantage [of that],” she says. “I make granola and candy almonds, just wrap them up.”

Anita also suggests giving a gift of service, like offering to walk a friend’s dog, or giving a gift card to a local artisanal store like Earnest Ice Cream. 

“We have to really start accepting that we are okay without those things, we don’t need the latest shoes or retail puffer,” she says. 

The holiday season is being surrounded with those you love, Kai says. 

“[Christmas] is supposed to be a significant, religious occasion and has been morphed into a critical retail occasion,” he says. 

Barrington views Christmas as a good time to reflect on the past year and be thankful for what we already have. 

“I don’t think the holiday should be about consumerism. … [Christmas] is a good reminder to slow down from your busy life and connect with people you might not have spoken to or seen in a while,” Barrington says. 

“Going to the store to buy something brand new that’s super expensive and going to break your bank, I just don’t feel like that’s what Christmas should be about.”