17 Dec

The Ultimate Sustainable and Ethical Christmas Guide: More Than 50 Tips to Make the Holidays Matter

For those who celebrate Christmas, it can be challenging to uphold your values of conscious consumerism on one of the most wasteful days of the year. Here’s our sustainable and ethical Christmas guide to see you through.

Christmas is a time of giving.

We present gifts to one another and exchange season’s greetings with our neighbours, work colleagues, and friends. We dedicate time to our loved ones and energy towards celebrating the end of another busy year and, for many of us, the rare occurrence of everyone being home at the same time. We cook delicious meals, share our traditions, and dress up for the occasion. 

But the lead up to Christmas can be stressful and tiring. Our year-long efforts to do right by the issues we care about can go out the window in the chaos of planning Christmas, buying gifts for family, friends, and colleagues, and sorting out the logistics of the day and the holidays to follow.

So we’ve compiled more than 50 tips that might make it easier for you to restore the original intentions of the season and together celebrate a greener, more ethical world. Read on for ideas and information designed to help you make each aspect of the season meaningful and beneficial to the people and environment around us.

Ideas for ethical gifting

A gift is a way to show someone they’re in your thoughts or celebrate what they mean to you. Ideally, you want your gift to reflect their meaningful place in your life, be significant to both parties, and support your values.

When you broaden out your idea of what a great gift looks like, you’re well on your way to making better choices around Christmas.

Christmas is a great time to use your buying power to support both the people that are important to you and the movements you care about.

Give thoughtfully

Give thoughtful, personalised gifts to brighten someone’s day and reduce the chance of unused, unloved, or superfluous items that create waste and clutter.

Try to give a gift you know a loved one will use and appreciate. If you’re at all uncertain, choose items that can be returned and exchanged or opt for gift cards. And if the perfect gift is outside of your budget, consider grouping up with mutual friends or family members to pool your money and invest in something you know the receiver will love and cherish for a long time to come.

Focus on a cause

Is there is a particular cause that you or the person you are giving to are passionate about? Both giver and receiver can feel good about being a part of a positive solution to a significant problem. See “Gifts for you” below for specific ideas.

Consider handmade gifts

There is nothing quite like a handmade gift. Creating a gift for someone means making something special and unique. The maker puts part of themselves into the present and often gains as much joy as the receiver of the personalised creation. Such gifts are also much less likely to have negative ethical consequences than store-bought gifts. Here are a few ideas for handmade gifts, though the sky’s the limit:

  • If you are artistically inclined, make someone an artwork, like a cute painting of a place you visited together or their beloved pet.
  • If you love writing, write someone a poem or short story. Musicians take note: a personalised song or cover of a shared favourite has got to be in contention for the best gift you don’t need money to buy.
  • If you love to work with fabrics or yarns, go ahead and sew, knit, or crochet something the receiver can wear or display like a comfy pair of booties, a quote they love, or their favourite character, plant, or animal.
  • If you love to cook or bake, have some fun making Christmas treats to give away or an extra special meal for a loved one.

Give an experience

Gifts come in many forms, including the non-physical. The intangible gift ideas below will leave you with precious memories without costing you or the environment much if anything at all. You could:

  • Give someone your time and spend it in a place they love. It might be a day out in the city or an escape to the country. Sometimes a change of scenery, a long walk through a beautiful garden, or just quality one-on-one time is the best gift you can give.
  • Give a hand-written voucher for something they would appreciate. It could be a home-cooked meal or a rose petal-festooned bath complete with candlelight and relaxing music.
  • Give something that supports a passion. Enrol someone in a class you know they would love to take but wouldn’t pay for themselves, be it a pottery lesson, a class on how to grow mushrooms, or a cooking course on making preserves.

Give to one, not many

Many families adopt a Secret Santa or Kris Kringle-style approach to gifting as children grow older. Get the circle of family or friends agreed, pick a spending cap, and throw your names in a hat (or use an online generator). In a flash, you’ve got fewer presents to buy, a comfortable spending limit, and time to focus all your energies on arranging a spectacular gift for just one person, instead of having to buy lots of ordinary presents that might go to waste.

On the other hand, we don’t recommend the $10 workplace Kris Kringle unless handled carefully—too often, it results in 5 minutes of plastic fun at Christmas lunch followed by many years of unnecessary landfill.

Gifts for you

A great way to fully enjoy the Christmas experience is to receive gifts you like and feel good about. Here are some ways to ensure you receive gifts that leave a positive impact on the world:

  • Ask for gifts that avoid negative impacts on people, animals, and the environment or that support causes you believe in. You could send your friends and family the link to our roundup of sustainable Christmas gifts and holiday presents for guidance and ideas.
  • Drop hints or ask outright for a donation to a charity you love. They could donate on your behalf to sponsor a child through an organisation like World Vision, give the gift of supplying a village with vaccines through Unicef, opt for an Oxfam Unwrapped gift card, or donate a shoebox of goodies through Operation Christmas Child.
  • Why not ask your loved one to give you something meaningful to them and their hobby or passion? For example, if someone has wanted to paint for a long time but never makes the time or is put off by the fear of failure, ask them to paint you something, anything, as their Christmas gift to you. 

Whatever you have your eye on, give people plenty of ideas and specifics so you don’t end up with a gift you can’t find a use for or even go shopping together. If you live for the surprise element, just be clear that you would prefer something that has been made consciously and that you will get good use out of and they can’t go wrong.

Gift-wrapping

The veiling of a gift in beautiful material and the excitement of the reveal are wonderful parts of any gift experience. But the paper and plastic used in gift buying and wrapping can add up to a substantial waste of resources during the holidays. Here are some ideas to change the way we wrap to reduce our impact:

  • Choose gift-wrapping that can be used again and again. Make it a part of your family’s traditions, whether it serves as wrapping each year or perhaps has another function in-between the holidays. For example, a beautifully embossed tin makes a great gift box during the holiday season and a fancy cookie jar for the rest of the year. Reusable items also include boxes, fabric, and brown paper packages tied up with string (not tape). If you receive a gift bag from someone, you can always reuse that next year as well.
  • Learn how to knot-wrap. The Japanese art of furoshiki, or knot-wrapping, is a beautiful and unique way to present gifts wrapped in reusable fabric pieces.
  • Use newspaper. You can always make wrapping out of newspaper pages, print shown or painted to your taste.
  • Buy eco-friendly, pre-wrapped gifts. Places like Lush use reusable hat boxes and embossed tins for pre-packaged gifts. They also have options for knot-wrapping items in PET bottle recycled Greenspun or Re-Wrap vintage scarves. Many sustainable brands will also have an eco gift-wrapping option you can choose at checkout or the counter.

Decorating your home for the holidays

Decorations are often costly and wasteful, made from unsustainable materials like plastic, easily breakable, and poorly made. Don’t let that be the case this Christmas:

  • Go for pieces that have a long lifetime to minimise the impact on the environment. Better yet, source them from second hand stores so they aren’t made new. By investing in durable décor you can use year after year, there will be less broken tree decorations in landfills and reduced demand for the resources needed to create new ones.
  • Make decorations yourself. What better way to celebrate the holidays than by spending quality time with the people you love doing something creative? DIY decorations can be very inexpensive and usually come at a much lower cost to the environment.
  • Create your own ornaments and trimmings from reused items for a personalised and low impact way to liven up your living room this Christmas.
  • Borrow or swap decorations with friends and family to give them a new life in a different location.

DIY decorations

No matter your skill level, there are countless ways to enjoy a handmade Christmas.

From decorative projects fit for the expert textile manipulator to festive ideas more suited to cookie cutting and popcorn stringing, many of these projects are simple, fun, and great for kids. Here are some of our favourite ideas:

There are more DIY decoration ideas in this Festive Recycled Arts and Crafts Guide and plenty more ideas on Pinterest and Etsy.

What about the tree?

The artificial vs real tree debate is ongoing and likely comes down to your situation. Here’s the lowdown:

Artificial Christmas trees

Artificial trees are typically made of petroleum filled plastic and use manufacturing and shipping resources. They also have a habit of melting in the sun and may only last for a few years, depending on where you live. But they are storable and reusable if they survive, which is a big bonus. And considering one of the most sustainable things we can do as consumers is to use what we already have, sticking with that plastic tree you’ve had for years is your best bet here. If you decide on artificial but don’t yet own one, look for pre-owned or recycled material options.

Real Christmas trees

The appeal of real trees is undeniable, and if you usually go for a chopped pine for your living room each year, are you doing right by the planet? According to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, as long as you opt for a locally-grown tree and dispose of it thoughtfully, you’re on the right path. You can even rent a tree to be returned to the vendor for replanting. If you have a green thumb and the space for it, consider buying a potted fir to look after year-round and reuse every Christmas.

Try something different

Why not avoid the debate entirely and go for something untraditional? You could choose a shrub you’ll later want to plant in the garden, make an unusual and unique tree from books, or DIY a tree out of sticks.

And the food?

We don’t have to sacrifice special meals and treats for an ethical Christmas. It’s easy to incorporate a focus on feasting sustainably even when you celebrate with others. Not quite sure how that looks? Here are some ways you can make mindful food choices this holiday season:

  • Choose locally sourced produce and other goods. Get in the habit of supporting your local vendors by making big purchases at markets and independent shops near you. You’ll have a better idea of how the products were made, contribute to producers in your area, and can be confident that locally grown food won’t have stacked up thousands of food miles making its way to your celebration.
  • Shop seasonally. Buying produce in season not only saves money but also reduces the need for suppliers to ship out of season veggies from overseas or store them in energy-gobbling long-term refrigeration throughout the year. You can usually tell what’s in season based on the fruits and veggies on sale or offer. To help plan meals before you go shopping, look at seasonal food guides. Here’s some for Australiathe UK, and the US.
  • Include meal options for everyone. To avoid waste, make sure you have meal options that everyone will eat. Perhaps you can find a recipe that will cater to your aunt’s vegan diet but is also tasty enough for your meat-loving uncle to enjoy.
  • Opt for bulk food to avoid packaging waste. If you’re passionate about reducing landfill and keeping plastic out of oceans, buy bulk when you can. It also often ends up cheaper in the long run.
  • Research or avoid animal products. If you do include them, make sure the seafood and meat you serve are as ethically sourced as possible by supporting small, organic, free-range farms in your area. Otherwise, why not avoid animal products altogether and host an all-vegan Christmas? The animals will thank you for it, and trust us—you won’t miss the meat.
  • Enjoy leftovers. Don’t toss those uneaten veggies in the bin. Encourage guests to bring reusable containers and send them home with lunch for the next day. If you have a lot left in your fridge, think outside the box for recipes that can incorporate what you have on hand.
  • Lastly, don’t overdo it. While snoozing after Christmas lunch on a very full stomach (aka going into a “food coma”) is a time-honoured tradition, it’s easy to get carried away when putting together your Christmas shopping list. Go for dishes that will work as leftovers, and try to buy things that don’t last so well—such as seafood—in moderate amounts to reduce waste.

Finding your Christmas outfit

We have all been in that situation where you are rummaging through your wardrobe, your closet, and—let’s face it—your dirty laundry in an attempt to pull together an outfit that looks stylish, effortless, and appropriate for the festive season. Here is some ethical fashion advice to help you find the right festive outfit on a budget:

  • Go for second hand. You’ll be surprised what you can find at a second hand store or op-shop, so take advantage. The beauty of finding articles of clothing in thrift stores is in the possibility of what they can become. Don’t expect to find a perfect fit—expect to find something that can be modified with a little creative imagination. Skirts can be hemmed up, dresses can sometimes be taken in, and a worthy embellishment can be stitched onto a headpiece or appliquéd to a brooch. Get inspired and have fun with it.
  • Spruce up what you already own. Sometimes, when we are overly familiar with our wardrobe, the excitement and inspiration of trying on a successful outfit combination becomes dreary and drab. We fall into the mindset that buying new clothes will break the cycle of this perceived monotony. When this happens, try accessorising or other tips to shop your closet. Accessories are great for making outfits appear cohesive, diverse, and stylish. Just adding an elegant pendant necklace, beaded drop earrings, or an oversized wrist bangle can bring colour, style, and interest to what you are wearing. Love your little black dress but finding it a bit plain for the holidays? Add sparkling heels and a jewelled hairpin, and suddenly your outfit is party-ready.
  • Plan a clothing swap. For those of you who are on a serious budget or would like to try something radically different, why not plan an outfit swap with your best friend, sister, or flatmate this season? It may sound drastic to some, but what better way to try new styles without having to spend a cent? And it doesn’t have to end with clothing—you can also swap jewellery and bags, even if just for the night.

The holidays are a time to enjoy yourself and the company of others, so choosing an outfit shouldn’t be a source of stress. Relax and work your creativity with the options you have at hand.

Check out our list of ethical outfits for the festive season

After the holidays

The celebrations may come and go, but there’s no reason the spirit of an ethical holiday season needs to pass with it. The following tips will help you finish out the season without costing the earth:

  • Dispose of your Christmas tree (the right way). Contact your local council to find a tree collection service that will use your tree for another purpose, such as mulch for gardens in the area.
  • Re-gift, return, and donate unwanted gifts. Instead of tossing gifts you won’t use or letting them pile up in a closet, see if you can return them to the store or exchange them for things you’ll use. You can also sell the gifts online or donate them to a local op-shop or charity, or give them to someone you know who will appreciate them more than you do. Many charities will happily accept donations of unused items.
  • Simplify and declutter. While you’re in the mindset of donating, selling, and re-gifting items, take the time to clear out your closet, cabinets, garage, etc. Maybe you received a new blender for Christmas and can donate your old one to your nephew’s share house?
  • Make sustainable resolutions for the New Year. Take the time to make plans for living sustainably next year. What causes matter most to you, and how can you support them in your daily life? Are there wasteful habits you’d like to break? List your ideas and coordinate with friends or family members to prepare for a year of conscious consumerism.

We hope this guide helps you navigate a conscious Christmas with more ease. Whatever you do, eat, drink, be merry, and enjoy your ethical and sustainable Christmas.

Editor's note

Images via Unsplash and Whimsy + Row. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 3,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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