(First published October 2011, updated November 2012)
For many people around the world, we are approaching a time of giving, of family and of renewal.
Whether you celebrate Diwali in October or November, Saint Nicholas Day on December 6, Hanukkah, Winter or Summer Solstice, Christmas, or even just New Year, it’s likely there’ll be some kind of gathering of family or friends, possibly involving gift giving, almost certainly involving one or more large meals.
While these celebrations can provide an important time for renewing relationships, personal introspection and joyful participation, sometimes they can feel like a mass of over-consumption.
So what are the issues of sustainability that walk hand in hand with these festivals?
Firstly there is the obvious issue of conspicuous consumption when it comes to gift giving. Some families now choose to avoid this aspect of the holiday season altogether, preferring to celebrate without the added stress and expense of Christmas shopping.
However there are plenty of options for sustainable and ethical gift giving, from gifts of time or homemade gifts to carefully chosen purchased gifts or charity gifts such as those in the World Vision Smiles catalogue. or Oxfam Unwrapped. If your family and friends exchange gifts, consider making a pact that they will all be either locally produced or home made gifts this year.
Other areas to consider your impact during this holiday season are:
If you need to travel, can you choose a more sustainable mode of travel, such as car pooling? Can you help someone out by giving them a lift? If you have to fly, have you considered paying extra to offset your emissions?
You can use children’s paintings or the colourful comic pages from your newspaper; or can you reuse wrapping from previous presents? You could also make gift bags from old worn out cloths. If none of these appeals, you can buy recycled gift wrap from various charity organisations such as Oxfam or Amnesty International.
Instead of mailing Christmas cards, consider sending free e-cards. You can choose from many different e-card programmes. One option is from Friends of the Earth.
- If you have children, you can also make homemade cards using paintings they have done during the year. These also make great gift tags.
- Reuse old cards to make gift tags this year.
Can you ensure any meat served is free range and ideally organic, and locally sourced? Or, how about having one less meat dish and introducing a vegetarian holiday dish? Food can be a difficult one to control if you are spending the holiday with family, but it will often be welcomed by the head cook if you volunteer to bring a particular dish.
- If you are in the habit of eating less meat, or locally sourced produce, perhaps you can use the opportunity to share you experiences with your family, preferably in a low-key, non-preachy way, that won’t start any family bickering!
- If your extended family share the food prep for your big event, could you challenge each family to include something locally grown? Or if that’s too easy, to go for all local produce?
- You can choose Fairtrade chocolate and coffee both for consumption on the day, or for gifts.
- If you are in Australia, see the Ethical Consumer Guide, for ideas of what to buy and where to shop.
If you like to display outdoor Christmas lights, consider making only a small display, turning them on later in the season, and having them on for a limited time each night, to save electricity. Also make sure you are using low impact LEDs. If you are purchasing new lights, look for solar powered LED lights.
If you are buying a new Christmas tree, consider buying a live tree, which can be re-potted into a larger pot for several year’s use. Plastic trees are generally shipped from a distance (often from China, for instance), and are made using petroleum products.
When your live tree has reached the end of its useful life as a Christmas tree, you may wish to plant it out, or you could wood chip it for use in your garden. Check out whether there is a Christmas tree wood chipping service in your local area. Or, use your dead tree in a new hugelkultur garden bed.
If you are buying decorations, look for fair trade, or locally made ornaments made from recycled materials.
- If you have children, you may have a large pile of paintings and drawing you don’t know what to do with. You can create an activity with you kids to make these into Christmas decorations. Either cut them into strips to make paper chains, or make folding doll or angel chains.