Imagine this: You are sitting in a circle with your loved ones, with a pile of presents in front of you. Some presents are meticulously wrapped in wrapping paper, rectangular shaped boxes of all sizes, while others that have an easily recognizable shape are wrapped in gift bags. Utmost care has been taken to preserve the mystery of what hides behind the extravagant wrapping. Sometimes, you are the sole recipient of the presents (e.g., a birthday party); other times, the exchange involves the whole family.
How many of you have received, in a neatly wrapped box, articles like clothing and accessories that you have never worn? Now imagine how many people have such items lying in their closets that are never going to be used. Seasonal gift giving creates an artificial demand. This demand not only has consequences for our environment, but it also contributes to the human rights abuse in the clothing and manufacturing industry. Thus, it is in all our interest to cut down on wasteful giving.
The notion that we buy excess and unnecessary items during this season isn’t a novel one. Writers have called out1 our materialistic predilections long before your grandparents sat around in a circle opening their birthday or holiday gifts. Some even advocate for ditching the tradition2 altogether. Every year, brands compete for our dollars. Every year, we fall prey to buying pretty gift sets presented in colorful and appealing packaging. Every year, we hear about the uselessness of some of these gifts, along with the environmental impact of the extra consumerism during this time, like this3, this4 and this5. There is plenty of information about how various elements of gift-giving can be harmful to our earth. Today, I would like to address a slightly different problem – the phenomenon of giving gift for the sake of giving a gift.
There is pressure to buy gifts for various celebrations and holidays, such as birthday parties, holiday events, weddings, bridal showers, and baby showers. More emphasis is placed on the act of giving the present, than on the quality or usefulness of the present. Often it seems like it is more important to have a wrapped present under the tree than what is wrapped. Many of us end up getting things that we never use, or use very infrequently. A simple Google search about this topic reveals several mothers begging you not to buy their kids toys6. The excitement surrounding the surprise lasts for about a few days, and then it fades away. A lot of these presents, especially clothes, end up sitting in storage before eventually becoming landfill7, along with the pretty box or the pretty gift basket that it came with.
There is also the pressure of “Buying the Perfect Gift”. I feel like my gift says a lot about me – the cost, the amount of thought I put into it, and the presentation. In addition to wanting to please the recipient, I often don’t want to embarrass myself by getting someone a present that’s too cheap, or too weird. A lot of socio-economically-minded people will argue that seasonal spending creates jobs and fuels the economy, and I am not arguing with that. I am not advocating for spending less, or even buying less. I’m just advocating for buying better, buying different. Instead of buying more objects, I’m suggesting we diversify the practice of gift-giving. I want our collective experience of gift-giving to be more creative, more thoughtful, more fun, and less wasteful.
For many of us, the practice of exchanging gifts is one of our favorite activities surrounding the holiday season. Indeed, there is something to be said about the special feeling of thinking about your loved ones, treating them, and being pampered in return. This tradition spans across many cultures8, and has existed for a very long time.
I would be doing nobody a favor by suggesting we ditch this tradition. It is in our nature! Instead, I would like to offer some suggestions that you can implement to a) give more meaningful presents, and also b) reduce the possibility of your presents ending up in landfill. Here are some things that you can do to give and receive better presents, while helping cut down on consumer waste:
- Wish list – Ask people what they want. You can preserve the surprise of gift-giving by exchanging wish lists with your friends and family, and by choosing one or two items from that list. We often do this for weddings and baby showers, so why not for holidays and birthdays? You don’t have to flat out ask “Hey what do you want for your birthday?”, you can subtly squeeze the topic into casual conversation. For example, try casually mentioning what you would like for the holidays, and it will naturally flow into the conversation. If you’re organizing a secret Santa exchange, consider making a template and asking everyone to fill out their likes and dislikes.
- Alternative gift giving – If you are turned off by the idea of commercial exchange, but still like the idea of treating and spoiling your loved ones, you can propose the idea of making gifts for each other. We all have special talents, and don’t be shy sharing yours with your friends, or asking for someone to share theirs! If you have a friend who paints great landscapes, hint at wanting one as a holiday present! It is more personal, more meaningful, and creates less waste. Consider proposing this idea with the extended family – everyone has something to offer!
- Pooling resources – if you know many people who are buying a gift for someone, instead of everyone having to think of a separate present, everyone can pool resources and buy one bigger, nicer present. That way, the recipient can get a pricey item that they really want (e.g., a gaming console), instead of several small things that they might or might not want. if you have a large group of friends, or many members in your family, you can also draw names from a hat to decide who you get to give a gift for. Then, you can invest your mental energy in getting a meaningful and great present for one person, instead of everyone getting slightly less meaningful presents for everyone. If you don’t have anyone to collaborate with on a present, or if you’re not part of a group, you can still find a way to make a contribution towards a larger item. For example, if you know your friend is saving up for a laptop, give them an accessory that they are also looking to buy with the computer!
- Gift cards – If you’re buying for someone who doesn’t care much for thoughtful presents, you can get them gift cards instead of getting them a sweater they’re never going to wear. This is an especially good idea for students and young adults, who typically don’t have much money.
- Gift experiences – Instead of gifting objects, you can always gift someone experiences. Think about their passions and interests, and try to find an experience you think they’ll enjoy. It can be as simple as a gift card to a coffee shop to something as generous as a vacation. For example, if someone you know loves going to the movies, you can give them movie vouchers!
You can mix and match the suggestions to your fit your budget and preferences. For example, if you have a lot of time and money to spend on someone, you can bake them a basket of muffins, along with a gift card to their favorite store or nice concert tickets to see their favorite band.
I get it, it can be hard to hard to change your habits. It’s easy to get caught in the enthrallment of the shiny and ostentatious displays of holiday gifts at department stores. If we collectively decide to change the way we give gifts, companies will catch on to the trend and offer more ways of exchanging presents.
About the Author
Shreya is passionate about social justice, science, and cats. She completed her MSc in Organizational Behaviour/Human Resource Management at Wilfrid Laurier University, and continues to work there on her research. Her research focuses on workplace diversity. Through her research and volunteer work, she hopes to help people unlearn problematic behaviours in order to make this world a better place!