How to buy sustainable holiday gifts people actually want

Illustration by Euralis Weekes

As stories about wasteful production practices and company political allegiances continue to make headlines, many Americans are becoming more conscious about where they spend their money.

Almost 3 in 4 consumers would consider spending more money on a product if it had less impact on the planet, according to a 2019 Nielson report. And 87% say they are more likely to buy a product from a company if it advocated for an issue they cared about.

If you're looking to add more meaning to your purchases during this notoriously spendy time of year, here's where to start.

Understand what factors make an 'ethical' product

When evaluating how ethical a product is, you can look at who and what it affects. Here are five factors nonprofit magazine Ethical Consumer looks at to assess whether a company ethically produces its products or not. Depending on how many of the below marks a company hits, it is assigned a score of up to 14.

  1. People: This includes the workers' rights and human rights of those who are producing the products. Does the company pay its workers a livable minimum wage? Are the working conditions hospitable? Do workers get paid time off?
  2. Politics: Does the company you are buying from seem to share your politics or values, or at least not actively fund the opposition?
  3. Animals: Does the company engage in animal testing or factory farming?
  4. Environment: The less a company affects the Earth, the better. How much carbon do the company's factories emit, how much water does it use, and, more generally, how do its operations affect its habitat?
  5. Sustainability: Unlike the other categories, sustainability has more to do with the product itself rather than how it is produced. A sustainable product, generally speaking, is vegan, energy efficient, organic, and able to decompose. Ideally it will hit all the other marks as well.
Here's how to save money on holiday spending

Video by David Fang

Use tools to assess how well products hit those marks

It can be intimidating to research all this on your own. Luckily, there are a number of resources that rate companies based on how ethical they are, and that aggregate ethically produced products.

Buy Me Once, for example, tests the longevity of sustainable products including kitchenware, clothing, and electronics, and sells those that meet its standards. Good on You rates clothing companies based on guidelines similar to those laid out by Ethical Consumer. Search its database of brands to find out how sustainable each is.

You can also check whether a product is Fair Trade Certified by searching the product on the Fair Trade database. A Fair Trade Certified product is produced in working conditions that need to meet a specific, better standard. "Our standards ensure no child labor and that lives are protected across the supply chain," says Kasi Martin, senior public relations manager of Fair Trade Certified.

Ask for a wish list

Consider what the person wants, too. A sustainably manufactured coat given to a person who doesn't want a coat is still a form of wasteful gift-giving. The goal is to give something that "doesn't end up in a landfill," Martin says.

That's why you should buy the gift recipient something they would have bought for themselves anyways, says Alden Wicker of EcoCult, a sustainable shopping blog. "Definitely ask for their wish list, and then get them the highest quality, sustainably made version of that item that can be repaired if it breaks," she says.

"Alpacas and llamas, those cute, happy, hooved animals from the Andes, are having a moment, so you can't go wrong with an alpaca scarf, mittens, or sweater," she says. "It's supersoft and ethically produced." A winter coat from Patagonia or a Bluetooth speaker from Minirig are both sustainable and desirable gifts as well, she says.

Definitely ask for their wish list, and then get them the highest quality, sustainably made version of that item that can be repaired if it breaks.
Alden Wicker
founder of EcoCult

Think outside the box

Instead of a specific product, Wicker suggests a gift that "adds to the world" or doesn't take any resources to manufacture. "Maybe it's donating to a charity that is meaningful to the recipient, or gifting them a cooking class, online course, a local experience that teaches them something new about their hometown, or dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant."

Last year, Martin says, her family pooled the money they were going to spend on gifts and donated it all to a charity that meant something to them. Incidentally, giving to charity releases endorphins in the brain and causes feelings of pleasure and social connection, according to a 2006 National Institute of Health study.

Avoid gag gifts

"They're funny for, like, 30 seconds — and then the plastic in them stays with us for 1,000 years," Wicker says. "Get a funny Christmas card if you're so inclined."

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