Ten low environmental impact Christmas gifts

We first published this article in the Vol. 15, No. 9, December 7, 2010 edition of Gallon Environment Letter. In case it inspires readers to give lower environmental impact presents this holiday season we are reprinting it here.

As we approach gift season GL’s editors thought we might share some suggestions for low environmental impact Christmas gifts. Not surprisingly, these are mostly gifts that involve services rather than durable goods – a switch which we see as key to increasing sustainability. So, without further ado (another low impact thing, as far as we can tell),and in no particular order :

  • theatre tickets to a local theatre. We have never seen or done a LifeCycle impact on theatre, but it seems to us that cultural activities such as theatre likely have lower environmental impact per dollar spent than almost any material goods. If you cannot find a local theatre with tickets, or season tickets, for sale, then an alternative may be an educational course for your friends or relatives.
  • museum tickets. With family admissions now often exceeding $20, and sometimes much more, the gift of admission to a museum or art gallery makes a very nice holiday gift. Art will appreciate it too.
  • a season of Community Shared Agriculture. Right across Canada many small farmers are offering CSA programs, where they grow the food and all the members get a share. Many CSA farmers will sell an entire season and, if one share is too big, they will sell a half share. This means that your friend or relatives will get from 12 to 20 weeks of locally grown, often organic, vegetables that will taste better than anything that can be bought in the supermarket.
  • local food products are always a good choice. Food is a necessity and, in GL’s opinion, food production presents one of the most sustainable economic development opportunities for Canada. Depending on where in Canada you live, the following ideas might help you find a sustainable gift: on the east, west, or south (Great Lakes) coasts, look for smoked seafood such as smoked mackerel, smoked trout, or smoked salmon. Many fishmongers can help you choose a delicious local smoked fish product that does not require refrigeration (as far as GL knows, Santa’s sleigh does not carry any kind of refrigerant).
  • garden seeds and planters for growing of food plants. If your friends or relatives are not yet into gardening for food, then a book, a few packs of seeds for vegetable production, or a couple of mini-greenhouses for seed germination can get them started. If they already grow their own tomatoes, then an electric seed starter mat which warms the seed tray from the bottom can help. Search for seed starter mat on Google or Yahoo Search or inquire (by phone, to avoid driving) at local seed supply companies or nurseries. Growing your own food is a pretty sustainable thing to do, and getting the seeds started early can help increase production.
  • transit tickets or passes. All environmentally aware folks know that buses, trains, and coaches are far better than taking you car. Why not encourage you parents, relatives, or friends to use public transit by giving them a bus or train pass. If they are not in a situation where they can use transit regularly, gift them a bus tour or train pass to visit somewhere they would find interesting. Most coach tour operators as well as Via Rail Canada offer short and longer tours to all kinds of neat places. Trains and buses are usually lower environmental impact, and a more pleasant way to travel, than taking your own car.
  • a heated mattress pad or electric duvet along with an automatic turn-down thermostat if they do not already have one. GL is a big fan of electrically heated bedding. At night one can turn down the home heating thermostat by as much as 8 or 9 degrees if one has a warm bed. In most homes it takes far less energy to keep the bed warm, literally only a few watts per hour, than to keep the whole house warm. Yes, we know a hot water bottle might be better but we like an electric duvet, available in the US from bedding retailers but in Canada apparently mostly from EBay – look for Sunbeam brand – but heated mattress pads are also excellent and cheaper than the electric duvet. Your gift recipient will only save money and the environment if they turn down the house temperature overnight so if they do not have one get them an electronic thermostat as well as the heated bedding.
  • a romantic night in a local hotel. ‘Nuff said! But hotels exist and the environmental impact of another occupied room is pretty small! Many people say they never explore their local tourist sites unless they have visitors. For over 40 years, the London Free Press (London, Ontario) has offered a “Shunpiker Tour” which highlights local art, culture, old-fashioned general stores and other places to see and things to do within a short distance away. Staying in a local hotel is a great way to explore the local sights.
  • a gift certificate at a store that you know provides things that the recipient will like. Believe it or not but GL is not a big fan of gift certificates. But we have to say that giving a gift certificate so that the recipient can buy something they will use is far better for the environment than giving them something for which they have no use. So we endorse the current trend towards gift certificates as long as the giver puts some thoughts into the store in which the recipient would find value. If it is an older person or someone who can make good use of the gift of communication, then consider a long-distance telephone gift card. We particularly like the series offered by VOX, which is Bell Canada in disguise, but other brands are probably just as good. The environmental impact of a telephone call is very low and the social benefit seems to us to be very high.
  • trees for the garden or for a public space are another environmentally helpful gift idea. Although it is obviously not possible to plant trees in Canada during the Christmas holiday season, many nurseries and garden centres offer gift certificates that can be used to plant a tree when Spring arrives, or you can just pledge to deliver the tree when the season is appropriate. We don’t recommend giving a potted Christmas tree or garden tree at Christmas time. Even if the tree survives the often dry and hot conditions inside the home it is unlikely to forgive you for the transition to the cool damp conditions that will exist outdoors in the Spring.

Beyond our 10 more sustainable gift suggestions we also recommend the gift of service. If it is someone who lives alone, offer to visit their home, bring and make a meal and join with them in eating together on four, six or twelve occasions during the year or if you are driving, fill up the car and offer a ride to the grocery store. If it is a couple or family, offer to bring a meal or help them with the household chores. If it is a child, offer to play games with them or help them with puzzles or school work on a specific number of occasions and for a specified length of time in the coming year. If you have skills that the recipient would find valuable, offer to teach them, help them exercise, maintain their home, or even babysit for a number of occasions during the year. Give them a number of coupons for the activity you have chosen that they can redeem with you so that you and they will know that the obligation is real and will be delivered. Helping each other has to be one of the cornerstones of a more sustainable 21st Century society.

Above all, enjoy the holiday season and help your friends and family enjoy the holiday season and the year ahead.

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