Sunday, December 9, 2007

Making Your Holidays Low-Stuff and Low-Stress

In pulling together my tips for a green holiday season, I'm trying to keep in mind something that tempers my usual environmental fervor: Between traveling and shopping, the holidays are a pain to begin with. No one wants to be told they have to bend over backwards to be green on top of everything else.

That's why you'll find disagreement among environmentalists on how far to push people over the holidays. Some seek gradual change, others want a complete redefinition of our consumerist Christmas.

The one thing we all agree on is that you should try to give less stuff. Does anyone out there feel the burning desire for more stuff? Too much room in your closets? Not nearly enough junk lying around?

Here's just one example. Lumping sweaters, sweatshirts, and pullovers together, The Green Miles has 34 sweaters. 34! I could wear a different one every day for a month and still not wear them all. 27 of them were gifts. That collection has built up despite donating at least five perfectly good ones to the needy every year. Yet what can I expect to get 8 more of this year?

My family hasn't done very well at finding a happy medium. My dad and his friends have gone to one extreme, forgoing exchanging gifts altogether. I tried to get my mom's side of the family to not get me stuff but instead give me something I would appreciate and enjoy even more -- cookies. It worked for one year (also known as My Favorite Christmas ever) but the next year my mom chastised me for being so bossy about what my relatives could give me and it's been back to sweaters ever since.

It's with those experiences in mind that I'm a little skeptical when websites like Grist advise you to give carbon offsets as gifts. And when it comes to green gifts like the nice green box from, I wonder if there's much of an audience for that. If the recipients are greenies, wouldn't they already have a reusable grocery bag? And if they're not greenies, might they feel it's a little unfestive and borderline preachy for you to give them a CFL?

So I'll start my green holiday advice with ...

Think about alternatives to giving stuff -- experiences, like a gift certificate to a local restaurant or theater, or consumables, like organic wine. If you know someone wants stuff, think about how to make the gift greener -- clothing made with organic cotton, or adding rechargeable batteries to that gift of a digital camera. Treehugger offers the best, most comprehensive, easiest-to-read green holiday gift guide.

If you have options on how to get to your destination, you'll have the lowest carbon footprint if you take the train. The next best options would be to take the bus, ride-share or drive. The worst option for the environment is to fly -- even worse than driving alone. Flying not only burns the most fuel, it delivers the emissions directly to higher levels of the atmosphere where they can do more damage.

Buy a locally-grown tree, cutting it down yourself if you can. It will make even the most metrosexual man or Carrie Bradshaw clone feel like a lumberjack. offers a list of Virginia tree farms. This year I looked into getting a living tree and re-planting it after Christmas, but from what I've read, it's not only a major hassle, the tree doesn't stand much of a chance of survival after re-planting.

Buy LED lights. They're about the same price as standard lights and will use 80-90% less electricity, saving you the cost of the lights their first year alone. For outdoor lighting, you can get solar-powered LEDs that don't even need to be plugged in.

Use and reuse gift bags when you can. Look for wrapping paper make from 100% recycled content. You have my admiration and respect if you're one of those people who can carefully unwrap a present and reuse the paper on another gift, but as long as you make sure the used paper gets recycled, you're safely in the green.

Again, try to buy cards made with 100% recycled paper. As you receive cards, be sure the envelopes go into recycling; after the holidays, recycle the cards.

Go local and/or organic whenever you can. Avoid disposables whenever you can. If you know you won't have enough dishware for all your guests, ask a friend or neighbor if you can borrow some for the night.

... is almost over, but next year, you could consider organic Matzah.
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