Tips for Ethical and Sustainable Gift Giving


The holidays can be a very wasteful time of year, and gift giving can be a major contributor to this. UK researchers estimated that unwanted gifts in the UK account for over 20% of the average spending on gifts per person. All this unwanted stuff can have an enormous impact on the environment. And this is not to mention the impact of gift wrapping and cards. But gift giving is such a wonderful shared experience and nothing can beat the joy of finding a loved one the perfect gift. So there is no reason we should deny ourselves this experience. All it takes is a a few principles and little planning to guide you to more sustainable gift giving.

Broadly, these are the principles that I try to stick to when choosing gifts. While this post is written with the holidays in mind, these suggestions equally apply to birthdays, mothers & fathers day, anniversaries and any other celebration that you might be wishing to give gifts for.

1. Give experiences, not things

When you spend your money on a tangible object, the materials that have gone into making it have a significant environment cost. Giving vouchers or memberships for services, rather than giving material goods, can reduce the impact of your gift. The added bonus is that by supporting your service industry you are investing money for the benefit of your local economy and helping to sustain local jobs, rather than simply buying more stuff  that was most likely produced overseas. Of course, not all services/experiences are without impact, so you might think twice about giving a flying lessons or tickets to a demolition derby! Here are some of my favourite experiences to give to friends and family:

  • Memberships to public institutions such as museums, art galleries, zoos
  • Tickets to concerts, theatre performances, the cinema
  • Lessons in a craft or skill, such as guitar lessons, painting classes, learning to knit workshops
  • Gift vouchers for massages, facials, haircuts (it is worth looking into salons that use natural products rather than conventional chemical-based beauty products)
  • Gift vouchers for local restaurants (especially ones that are usually saved for special occasions and that the receiver wouldn’t normally treat themselves to)

2. Give the gift of time

As a fairly new parent, time is precious and I appreciate this type of gift more than anything else. Giving your time to help someone who is very busy or feeling a bit swamped is a lovely thoughtful gift, whether the receiver is a parent or not. Offer to help out with something that they are struggling with. Most people tend to help out their loved ones when asked, and do this without thinking. But it can nice to consciously think about this when giving gifts, especially because people often are reluctant to ask for help when they would actually appreciate it. The added bonus of this type of gift giving is that you can easily fit it in a tight budget- there is no need to spend money on the gift if you have time to give. Here are some suggestions things you could think about giving:

  • Offer to babysit so that parents of young children can have a date night
  • Offer to wash the dishes or help out with cleaning for a friend who has been sick or swamped at work, or who just became a parent
  • Offer your particular skills to assist with something that the receiver is weak with and wanting to work on. This might be proof reading essays and assignments, helping with job or grant applications, coaching in public speaking, helping with business planning, teaching how to mend, sew, knit, grow veggies, renovate, restore used furniture, speak a foreign language or anything else you might you be skilled in and they might need or be interested in learning

3. Give food and other consumables

Giving food and other consumables that will be used in daily life can ensure that your gift is used and doesn’t go to waste. (To ensure that your gift does indeed get used, make sure your gift has a decent shelf life!) I especially like to give artisanal foods, or handmade beauty products, which can be a special treat that people don’t normally buy for their day-to-day lives. Making something yourself is also a nice way to go. A couple of years ago I gave my niece a jar of organic lentil soup mix that I had created- colourful layers of different lentils along with spices and dried tomatoes. She was only 5 at the time and she was so excited that she could cook it herself (with supervision) by just adding the contents of the jar to a saucepan of water. She had a great amount of joy from the gift, and it went to use not long after Christmas. Below are few items I love to give- you can also think about making up a hamper with some of these ideas:

  • Handmade Fairtrade chocolates
  • Locally made jams and preserves
  • Organic Fairtrade or native spices
  • Herb-infused oils or vinegars
  • Homemade cordials
  • Natural handmade soaps (most commercial soaps and beauty products contain palm oil which is a major cause of deforestation in the equatorial regions, not to mention the chemicals that most also contain)
  • Handmade body butter and lip balm (you can even try DIY these with my easy tutorials)
  • Organic make up and beauty products (see my shop page for some reputable organic beauty brands)

Handmade Cacao Lip Balm

4. Give gifts that give twice

You can double your impact by giving a loved one something that also benefits the lives of disadvantaged communities across the world. Your options will vary depending upon what is available in your local community, but they broadly fit under these categories:

  • Items sold by local or international charities that raise money for their work
  • Fairtrade items and items produced by social enterprises to fund their work in empowering people to overcome social disadvantage
  • Charity donation ‘gifts’ where you donate a certain amount of money to a cause that your loved one cares about. For my son’s early birthdays I have asked friends and family to donate to charities such as UNICEF rather than bring a gift as he already had everything that he needed, whereas too many children in the world are not as fortunate. Many charities are very clever about fostering these type of gifts, and even offer you choices to where your money can be donated, such as sewing lessons to train women to become tailors, garden tools to enable a mother to grow food for her family, sports equipment for an impoverished school and so on. This makes it really easy for you to find a meaningful ‘gift’ for someone who really doesn’t need anything themselves

5. Give DIY gifts

Making gifts yourself can be a great way to minimise the impact of your gift, particularly because it is a great opportunity to reuse and repurpose household items such as jars, fabric scraps and so on, and you also can be certain that your gift was ethically produced! DIY are also a great way to save money on your holiday budget if you need to minimse your expenditure. You will need a little time and planning, but many DIY gifts are not too time intensive and may save you time compared with battling the busy shopping centres! Here are a few suggestions for DIY gifts, depending on you time and skills:

  • Toys made with scraps from your fabric stash
  • Homemade cordial made from fresh flowers from the garden (stored in reused or new quality reusable glass bottles)
  • Herb-infused vinegars and oils with fresh herbs from the garden
  • Soup mix in a jar
  • Knitted dishcloths and face washers made with left over yarn from my yarn stash
  • Handprinted organic cotton t-shirts (see my tutorials herehere and here)
  • Handmade simple skirt from a vintage sari, or any other soft fabric you wish to use (see my tutorial here)
  • Knitted, crocheted, or sewn gifts made from re-purposed clothes such as t-shirts or jeans (you can find more inspiration on my Pinterest board Repurposed Threads)
  • Homemade beauty products (see my tutorials for cacao lip balmsimple body butter, and baby balm or check out my Pinterest board Beauty for more ideas)
Simple DIY skirt

Simple DIY skirt

6. Give only ‘stuff’ that is needed

Generally I find that most of the gifts I buy fit under the categories already mentioned, but if there are particular things that your loved ones need, then it you can still give a sustainable gift by giving ‘stuff’. There is nothing wrong with asking your loved ones for gift suggestions, if you can’t think of something they might need. And if you are really stuck for ideas, some Fairtrade organic cotton socks, underwear and other basics will never go astray!

7. Buy local

Making and effort to buy at least some of your gifts locally will reduce the carbon impact of your gifts, ensuring that they haven’t travelled too far to reach you. It also helps to sustain jobs in your local economy and contributes to a vibrant local community and industry.

8. Use recycled, repurposed or reusable wrapping

Finally, the way your present your gifts will have a significant impact on the overall sustainability of your gift giving. Where ever possible, try to reuse wrapping from past gifts you’ve received, repurpose other items for gift wrapping, or try reusable fabric gift wrapping. If you must use new wrapping, look for biodegradable options (ie paper over plastic) and preferably recycled and recyclable. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Magazines, newspapers and plastic fruit produce netting all make great gift wrapping materials (see my Pinterest board Gifts for some ideas)
  • Learn the Japanese art of fabric gift wrapping- furoshiki– and make up your own fabric gift wraps with repurposed clothing or fabric off-cuts
  • Have some crafty kids in your household? Entertain them for an afternoon by painting rolls of recycled brown paper for wrapping. Or you could get crafty yourself and do this!
Furoshiki Gift Wrapping     -       Image credit: Kat Herriman

Furoshiki Gift Wrapping – Image credit: Kat Herriman


Have fun with your gift giving this holiday season! Do you have any sustainable gift giving ideas that I’ve missed? Leave a comment to contribute your ideas to the list

If you love what you are reading, get weekly updates by email

* indicates required

Email Format