5 Tips to Combat Overconsumerism this Gift Giving Season

A pile of presents for the holidays | Source: Inc. Magazine
A pile of presents for the holidays | Source: Inc. Magazine

As long as humanity has existed, so has the gesture of gift-giving. Research suggests that cavemen gifted unique looking teeth or rocks as a sign of appreciation for another. As the status quo has evolved, so has the role of gift-giving with soaring expectations and obligations. When more complex tools were invented, gifts became more elaborate.

In the Egyption era, extravagant luxuries were gifted to Pharaohs. Gift giving also occurred worldwide throughout history. The people of Ancient Greece and Rome exchanged good luck tokens as a form of gift giving and also practiced welcoming gifting in the belief that any stranger could be a god in disguise.

Native American tribes communally gather in the ceremonial feast of Potlatch to give gifts to retain the esteemed status of a gift giver. In the Medieval era, gift-giving was a demonstration of loyalty to strengthen bonds between powers like the King and the Church or personal gifts of coins, cattle, or other common commodities.

Gift-giving is ingrained in society, but large corporations have changed the gift-giving season into a submissive, inescapable experience promoting a major climate concern: overconsumption. During the month of December alone, Americans generate 23 tons more waste than any other month in the year and each person generates 36 more pounds of waste during December.

In 2017, a study showed that almost ⅓ of Americans were unsatisfied with a gift they received and threw it away. Overconsumption is not just the norm, it is encouraged through commercialized strategies like Black Friday and Cyber Monday that continue to pressure Americans to just keep buying more. In order to reduce these impacts change must happen on a large scale, however, there is still a lot that can be done on an individual level. 

Consuming and buying gifts is not evil; it is fun and mutually beneficial to both parties. Presents can have the power to forge connections that give us purpose. Although they may be less traditional, there are methods of gift giving that lead to less waste and still produce the same wonderful feelings coming from the ancient tradition.

An experience will last forever

Rock climbing | Source: The Circuit Climbing Media

Longevity is an essential part of sustainability. As cliché as it seems, it remains true that experiences and activities can add valuable memories that will last much longer than any material possession. While trips and luxury events can have higher environmental consequences than material gifts, there are plenty of effective alternatives to just buying something that isn't built to last. Some examples are museum tours, yoga classes, game nights, camping, rock climbing, ice skating, escape rooms, and endless other options. Visit this link for a gift guide to curate the ideal experience to give to your loved ones.

Create handmade gift

Handmade gift | Source: First Cry Parenting

The DIY craze continues to take the media by storm since the initial DIY craze of the 2010s. Even though DIY videos are unique to this era, the DIY movement was a huge aspect of the zeitgeist in the 1940s-1970s through all of the DIY and “How to” books that became hugely popular.

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That is to say, making something at home is by no means a new revelation, but it can be helpful within the modern reality of climate change. Creating a gift can be a breath of fresh air for the receiver because the gift giver puts time, care, and effort into a gift which is a much more valuable gesture than a high monetary price. Now more than ever with the internet, it is incredibly easy to shop mindlessly, but when you are making something with your own two hands it forces you to be intentional. Some good handmade gifts are soap, jewelry, bath products, baked goods, candles, ornaments, knitted or sewn textiles, and so much more! Click this link to check out a list of great DIY gifts! 

Shop small & local

Shop small reminder | Source: Facebook, Small Business Saturday Shop RI

Black Friday was initially coined as a term in the early 1960s by Philly cops to describe the sheer amount of suburban shoppers and it was meant as a negative term. By the mid-1980s, large corporations twisted the original negative term to a celebration of these giant stores turning profit.

Black Friday is not an environmentally friendly practice because it supports the businesses that have some of the biggest environmental impacts through their shipping, creating, and investing. To combat the craze of fast fashion and strategically marketed deals on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, was created.

Supporting local small businesses and artists is a way to use your money on quality goods created without the catastrophic environmental detriments. Ideally, in-person stores are the best ways to shop small because there are no transportation impacts, but etsy is a great option if you are not in an area with any small businesses. Shopping small and supporting local artists is a great way to buy a gift that is environmentally conscious, thoughtful, and specific.

Purchase Second-hand

Clothes in a thrift shop | Source: The Guilfordian

While plenty of people shop second-hand for themselves, it comes less naturally to many of us to purchase something second-hand as a gift, probably because it seems to be lower quality or feels as if it is not enough money to be spending. Nevertheless, according to ThreadUp’s recent poll, 66% of people are open to receiving a second-hand gift.

While it is important to put thought and care into your selections and find things that seem like appropriate gifts (without holes, stains, etc.), thrifting is still a viable way to find incredible gifts that everyone will love. Increasing the longevity of clothing by giving it a second, third, or fourth life as opposed to buying something new can dramatically reduce your gift giving impact this holiday season. Click here for second hand gifting and ideas and here for the best thrift, consignment, and vintage shops in the Philadelphia area. 

That’s a Wrap

Sustainable gift wrap | Source: Lauren Saylor

After finding unique sustainable gifts for all of your friends and family there is only one element left: wrapping. Wrapping paper was first recorded in China where paper also originated in the 2nd century B.C. Gifts were wrapped in paper and given to government officials, these envelopes were called chih pao. Modern wrapping paper that we see in the United States today was invented by the Hall Brothers in 1917. They continued to expand, adding new designs and ribbons expanding into the next few decades before finally creating the iconic Hallmark that remains a leading company in the industry.

It is estimated that gift wrap produces 3.2 billion dollars annually. Not only is the industry expansive, it is also wasteful; for example in Britain during the holiday season, 226,800 miles of wrapping paper is wasted. Gift wrapping is also difficult to recycle because of the wax coatings and plastic films on them. Other countries like Japan have much more sustainable wrapping practices like the method of furoshiki that uses cloth wrapping.

There are alternatives to stop using single use materials like wrapping papers and scotch tape while still being fun, festive, and maintaining the classic element of surprise. Some of the best substitutes are parchment paper with a flower decoration, using regular printer paper with doodles, a nice cloth or towel (this could be a part of the present), newspaper, and book page. For a full comprehensive list of 18 different alternatives click here

Even though gifting is an important and valuable aspect of our human culture, getting the best gift or the most expensive gift might not have as impact as you might think. According to a 2022 survey by the American Psychiatric Association, 87% of respondents said holidays should be more about family and being together as opposed to presents and material items.

Another survey in  2022 by the Center for Biological Diversity found that 84% of respondents think that gifts are given too much emphasis, and 90% of respondents wish that holidays were less materialistic. Both of these numbers have risen significantly in the past decade. Deemphasizing gifts as a whole will make for less pressure to buy the next new flashy shiny thing each year, which will benefit holiday culture. 

Many people want to reduce their consumption during the gift-giving season but don’t know how or where to start. According to a 2018 analysis, 82% of people are willing to reduce their consumption and 31% of those people need education on how to do so. For those looking for ways to reduce their consumption, these 5 tips are great jumping off points towards a more sustainable future. 


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