The Sustainable Business Council Blog

• Make Christmas more sustainable, from decorations to wrapping to gifts
December 25, 2008, 6:38 AM
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

What’s the greenest item on everyone’s mind this holiday season?

We’d like to fantasize that you’re thinking about how to find sustainable gifts, source natural and local foods for the feasting to come, and locate Christmas cards, decorations and wrappings made of recycled content. But with the grim economic news swirling around us (a very unwelcome storm indeed), many families are looking at the holidays this year with a curtailed budget. How can we hark and herald on less green while being green?

Fortunately, the concept of a less commercialized holiday season has been making a comeback in recent years.

Each year, it seems we hear more and more people lamenting that the spirit of the season has been masked by volumes of stuff and the waste that it generates. Robert Lilienfield, co-author of the book “Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are,” says that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans throw away an astounding 1 million tons of extra garbage each week, including holiday wrapping paper and packaging. That seems absurd, doesn’t it?

Why not simplify and save – make your own holiday gift wrap from a big roll of brown packaging paper and stamp it with designs or sponge paint it? It really doesn’t take that long and it’s 100 percent reusable (best) or recyclable (next best). Use hemp or twine as ribbon. Make personalized tags – you can hot glue on star of anise, cinnamon sticks, ribbon and felt bits, fabrics and cutouts from last year’s Christmas cards to pieces of cardboard or butcher block paper. Your presents will look so genuine, you may never go back to the glossy, glitzy stuff.

So, what about gifts for family and friends?

Gift giving for kids is particularly challenging as they are, for the most part, incredibly sophisticated and media-savvy.

I remember the tragic disappointment I felt when my 3-year-old first saw his elaborate wooden train set under the tree at the crack of dawn on Christmas, many years ago. What I took to be excitement as he handled and examined the hand-painted toy was really confusion. He tilted his head and asked in a puzzled voice, “What does it do?” He had been looking for the buttons, and even though our home was shy on battery-powered gadgets and plug-in toys, he’d seen plenty of them to know that they looked pretty fun.

This isn’t a unique problem – you may have a Christmas list from your kids that includes the latest cell phone, the newest gaming system or an HDTV for the bedroom.

It’s very conflicting for many of us, the mind-boggling profusion of cords and batteries and memory chips and power sources and warranties (that never seem to cover any real problems) – the list is endless.

And it certainly isn’t just technology; trendy fashion is on many lists as well. Unfortunately, a quick check of most of these labels shows they were manufactured in foreign countries and very few sport organic or natural fibers. Recognizing how fleeting fashion is, it’s reasonable to assume that the item’s useful life won’t be particularly long.

So, how can you balance your sustainable ethos with the need to cut costs, all the while supporting businesses right here?

An often overlooked option is making a revival – the gift of services.

How about buying passes so the recipients can go to the local theater, skiing or skating, the bowling alley, the gym, or a series of guitar lessons? For “older kids,” consider giving a massage, a poetry or watercolor class, a visit to an acupuncturist or herbalist, yoga passes or a voice lesson? For pet-lovers on your list, consider giving a trip to the doggie spa for some TLC for their four-legged friends while they’re at work during the day.

Gift certificates to local businesses also ensure a perfect fit. Think of the triple impact on the bottom line: Less gas and energy are spent returning unwanted things, which is good on the environment. The community and our local economy benefit by this kind of giving – we’re keeping our dollars here in Zoo Town and helping to preserve Missoula’s individuality.

And you don’t need to be the queen of quilting or a four-star chef to handcraft a gift.

Whether you create T-shirts with your family’s inside joke on them for your cousins, bottle up your private-label ranch dressing or freeze portions of your famous stew for the neighbors, there’s no better way to put a personal touch on a gift than with your own two hands. Plant some bulbs from your local nursery in cool pots that you find in a secondhand store. The hunters out there simply must share that special duck jerky or spiced saucissons. Delight everyone on your list with your own coupons – give the gift of time and offer to baby-sit, walk dogs, mow lawns, wash cars or clean houses.

The greenest Christmas item of all? Well, it’s the tree, of course.

Almost all Christmas trees are grown on tree farms that are sustainably managed, so don’t fret about that – but, of course, be sure to recycle it at the end of the season.

Memories from my childhood include stringing cranberries and popcorn on the tree – it’s a blast to do and at the end of the season your neighborhood squirrels and birds will love the thrown-out “decorations.”

Also, if you’re in the market for more holiday illumination don’t forget to check out the new LED lights – they’re 90 percent more efficient than regular lights.

Feliz Navidad, happy Kwanzaa, joyeux Noel, shalom, happy Hanukkah and salaam. Let our celebrations this year focus on family and friends and preserving this beautiful Earth for all generations to come.

P.S. Kick off your local shopping with a night on the town – the Sustainable Business Council is bringing the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival to the Wilma Theatre on Dec. 4. Go to to learn more!

– Lisa Swallow and Genevieve King