Sustainable Gift-Giving: Is There Such a Thing?

This past month, I’ve been on the go! With special events nearly every weekend, I’ve had to find the appropriate gift for many diverse occasions. Like many of you, I’m looking to declutter rather than acquire, so when considering a gift for someone, I try to tune in to the essence of the gift receiver and contribute something that will actually be useful and bring them joy.

Interestingly, gift-giving dates back to the “caveman” days, when a tooth or a piece of bark were common gifts. Later, with the advent of tools, items could be turned into other more elaborate objects like necklaces or body adornments. As society has continued to develop, our concept of gift-giving has also evolved.

Today, a huge marketing industry exists just for gifting. None of us are strangers to the constant marketing pressure to buy more — things we know that we (or our friends) don’t really need. Yet despite the pressure, gift-giving seems to be part of our human DNA - it makes both the giver and receiver feel good.

But, in the face of today’s reality, where many of us already have more than enough and our over consumption is leading to dire warnings about the health of our planet, a little sensitivity when gift-giving might bring some insight to the process. There is no easy solution nor is there absolute agreement on the best solution, but since I am not ready to opt out of gift-giving entirely, I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainable gift-giving, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

1.       Where is it made? – Is the item made in a country that is doing little or a lot to control global pollution? Do they have child labor laws? Do they have strict laws regarding the safety of the components used in making the product?

While we often think of China and India as the worst offenders, the US is always #2 behind China as the country with the highest greenhouse gas emissions. So does that mean avoid American products? No, instead look for companies that are moving to more sustainable, energy efficient practices or seek out companies producing Fair Trade or Organic products, or individuals selling on Etsy for more handmade or vintage items.

2.       What is it made from? – Many foreign countries have lax laws regarding the safety of the materials used in their products. Some children’s toys, food products, and cosmetics may contain high levels of lead and other contaminants. Be aware that even some vintage kids’ toys, could be painted with lead based paints that are now outlawed.

Many clothing items contain plastics which are contributing to global pollution by contaminating waterways. Fast fashion, with its ever changing, then quickly discarded clothing, is a huge problem for landfills.

Read the labels and look for fabrics that are organic, natural, or made from recycled materials.

3.       Can it be bought second hand? The world is filled with amazing goods that were once in but then fell out-of-favor and were cast aside. Remember the adage, “What’s old is new again?” You can source these vintage finds from secondhand stores, flea markets, and online yard sales. Almost anything you see new today has a close relative living in second hand store near you.

Because no one takes the time to polish silver anymore, beautiful sets of ladles, serving forks, spatulas, and spoons can be had for a song. They make a beautiful and lasting gift. Thrift stores are also filled with vintage crystal in intricate patterns and colors that add a unique touch to any tablescape, mantel, or shelves. Purchasing these goods gives homage to great crafts men and women of the past.


4.       Can it be found in nature? House plants and items that bring nature indoors are all the rage these days. Our first instinct may be to run to the store and buy a newly manufactured plant and planter or indoor herb garden. But question that instinct - many beautiful, natural, perfect gifts exist just outside your front door.

Take a walk in the woods. Pieces of bark with natural holes make a really cool gift when filled with moss and fresh growing herbs or succulents. The forest floor is fertile with plants that have runners and won’t be bothered if you take a clipping or two.  Jack-in-the-Pulpits and ferns are two plants that are easy to propagate. These perennials spread and can be planted in backyard gardens or window boxes.

Take a walk through your neighborhood. You’ll be amazed what can be found on the streets of America and re-purposed into something wonderful, personal, and meaningful. Look on Pinterest and other design sites for ideas. With a little leg or finger work (and a lot of fun) sustainable gift-giving can bring good vibes to both the giver and the receiver.

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Judy Caplan is a nutritionist by day (founder of Go Be Full: Good Nutrition in a Nutshell) and co-founder of Field & Gown. With an excellent eye for style, her favorite hobbies include scouring antique stores and 'dumpster diving' for cast-away furniture and other odd-and-ends discarded to the side of the road. Field & Gown is a wedding decor rental company based in the Washington DC area.

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