Our Favorite Green Gifts and Traditions

brown paper package

1. Minimize Gifts

“In my family, we have to draw names to become a family member’s “Secret Santa,” so we limit our purchases to one gift each—especially good for big families.” — Elizabeth O’Connell, fair labor campaigns director

2. Make a Holiday Date

“Instead of exchanging gifts with my siblings, we have a Sibling Outing! In the past this has been as simple as going out to dinner or making dinner together ourselves, going to a hockey game, or pretty much doing anything together without spending too much money. It’s been working out really well, and it’s so much fun getting together!” —Kristin Brower, development manager

3. Eco-Helpful Ideas

“My brother and sister buy me carbon offsets from CarbonFund.org every year, because my parents live on the West Coast, so usually there's at least one cross-continental flight to take. And I bought my niece ten trees grown in the Amazon Rainforest through MyReforestation.com. After ten years, they are then sold, and you get a portion of the profit from the trees back. She was one year old at the time, so she wasn't going to miss getting "stuff." Maybe when she's 11, she'll appreciate the $200 it promises to return.” —Matt Grason, foundation fundraiser

4. Make Your Own Gifts

“You can transform recycled materials into unique gifts with super-low carbon footprints.
• Have some old jewelry and wine-corks? Check out this tutorial for making gorgeous tree ornaments.
Cut out colorful little squares of used wrapping paper and holiday cards and write a few dozen things you appreciate about your loved one. Place the notes in a mason jar and decorate with recycled ribbon or a piece of colorful cloth.” —Martha van Gelder, associate editor

5. Gifts With Less Fuss

“A cookie swap is a great way to celebrate with friends—no gifts needed—and you only have to cook one batch of cookies, but you get a whole variety to take home! The few gifts I do give, I try to wrap in bags or carriers I can use again. My favorite is to go to Goodwill and find tins. And finally, many of your favorite nonprofits make e-holiday cards you can forward to friends and family. It saves on postage, paper and reminds people what to be thankful for.” —Dana Christianson, membership marketing director

6. Go For A Stroll

“My family has been taking a walk after the big holiday meal for my entire life. Depending on where we are, it’s a stroll on a country road or a quick drive/cab ride to a neighborhood with great lights, but it always gets us out of the house and bonding over more than presents.” —Alix Davidson, Green Business Network® director

9 More Tried and True Ideas

1. Stockings Stuffed With Sentiment

“In my family, each person writes a note to every other person, saying one thing they really love about that person. We put the notes in our family stockings, and we read them on Christmas day.” — Russ Gaskin, Green America Chief Business Officer

2. Secondhand Gifts

" My large family didn’t want to stop exchanging gifts, but we didn’t want Christmas to break the bank either—and we realized we were really losing the true Christmas spirit with all the stress of shopping. Probably 15 or 20 years ago, we decided to limit the amount spent to $5 per person and to encourage creativity. Many of us started resale shopping at places like Goodwill—or Value Village thrift stores, which support local nonprofits by paying them to collect used items.

"My family now spends one day shopping together in November, and we have lots of fun doing it. It has become a tradition that we all look forward to, and it has caused us to become resale shopping junkies. Now we buy most of our clothes at the resale shops as well. My sister and I have had numerous compliments on our outfits, and we often say Value Village is our clothing designer!" — Green America member Nancy Madsen, Oswego, IL

3. Reuse and Decorate

“When I was a kid, most of my family’s holiday decorations were made by hand by my mom, who was both frugal and creative. From holiday-themed tablecloths to centerpieces to seasonal throw pillows, my mom made it all, often from found objects, scraps of fabric, and recyclables. Better still, she found ways to engage us kids in the creative process, and we loved decorating the house with our own handiwork. — Green America member Corey Colwell-Lipson, co-author with Lynn Colwell of Celebrate Green! (The Green Year, LLC, 2008).

4. Holiday Free Stores

“This holiday season, I am organizing Free Stores in meeting rooms at local libraries. It is my request, although it is not mandatory, that everyone bring one or more items to give away. This is an opportunity for people to give away their unwanted items to others instead of throwing them away or giving them to all the overloaded thrift shops.” — Green America member Kim Loftness, Seattle, WA

[Editor’s note: Free stores are places where people assemble a selection of gently used items and everything is free for the taking.]

5. Homemade Food, Cleverly Packaged

“Every year, I give food items I make myself. This year, I’m giving organic spiced almonds and blueberry or peach jam. I package them in canning jars with pretty spoons I find at thrift and Fair Trade stores, tied with a ribbon made of scrap material.

“I also like to invite friends over every year to help me wrap my gifts. I set out some homemade salted caramels wrapped in parchment paper, put on a movie, and they get to eat as many caramels as they can in exchange for their help! The caramels make great gifts, too, packaged in canning jars, cloth bags, or random glassware I find in thrift stores." — Alix Davidson, Green America director of standards & Seal of Approval

6. Give the Gift of Time

“The best gift is time with family and friends. Extend your hands in invitation to have coffee, lunch, dinner at your home, a walk, a glass of wine. It’s so easy—pick up the phone, text, e-mail, Facebook, or even send a handwritten note. When you’re together, stay focused on your companions and the conversation; yes, put your phone away!

“My favorite yet has been our family’s four-generation holiday-cookie-making party. There is a great deal of laughter, creativity, and tasty treats. And the only technology allowed is a camera so we can savor and share the memories.” — Green America member Denise Hopkins, Wyoming, MI

7. A Book of Beloved Recipes

“My family has minimized exchanging gifts with extended family. We no longer want ‘stuff,’ since my sisters and I have purged our belongings and try to live simply. Therefore, when we give gifts, we only buy things that can be used up, like Fair Trade chocolate or tea, or things that are useful, like kitchen items.

“One of my sisters usually gives gifts from thrift stores. We also make our own gifts, such as herbal teas, body and hair oil blends, or poems. Last year, I made a book out of my grandmother’s recipes for my mother and aunt, with family photos and copies of the original recipes in her handwriting.” — Shireen Karimi, Green America Director of Digital Communications

8. Homemade Body Care -- “I like to make homemade personal care products for gifts, such as sugar and salt scrubs or body oil with organic essential oils. One of my favorites is this recipe from Mountain Rose Herbs:

Vanilla Apricot Sugar Scrub
3/4 cup Fair Trade granulated sugar or fine sea salt
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp. organic apricot kernel oil (or carrier oil of your choice)
1 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. Fair Trade vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. powdered organic vanilla beans (optional)

Combine sugar and powdered vanilla beans in a bowl. Add oil, honey, and vanilla extract. Mix well. Package in jars, and enjoy! — Dana Christiansen, Green America membership marketing director

9. Help a Loved One Invest in Communities

“To get more people involved with community investing, I often give gift cards from Kiva.org, which helps lift up low-income communities in need through microloans. Through Kiva, you lend to individual borrowers via local community development nonprofits. These small, low-interest loans give impoverished people a hand up by helping them go back to school or start or improve a small business. Minimum investment is $25, and it’s returned to you (or the gift card recipient) as your borrower pays his/her loan back. In fact, you can watch that happen on the Kiva website.

“GlobalGiving.org has a similar gift card, except it’s a donation to a development project, rather than an investment in an individual, and the minimum is $10.” — Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, Green America editor-in-chief

Updated November 2022
Originally published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue

From Green American Magazine Issue