Can you Christmas shop sustainably?

The holidays are a time of family, love, and belonging to many of us. We drive home to visit family and friends, spend time with our loved ones, and enjoy a few mulled wines over Christmas dinner while listening to Aunt Annie’s stories about how things were different when she was young. The holidays are also a time of spending, purchasing, and wasting. We buy gifts for people we barely know, many of which will end up collecting dust on a shelf. We wrap those thoughtless presents (and the few thoughtful ones) in wrapping paper with bows and stickers and a card. We receive yet another gift set with bath soap and shampoo that smells like grandma or a sweater that is so plasticky that it’s itchy when looking at it–let alone wearing it.

With sustainability becoming a trend, it is not uncommon to read headlines like “How to shop sustainably” but is there such a thing as “shopping sustainably?

When I tried to buy gifts this year–as is expected and hard to avoid when going back to a traditional German family–I tried to find gifts that won’t be collecting dust on shelves. What can I give that won’t be wasted? Food? Alcohol? Everyone likes those, right?

I ended up choosing Dutch beer from a local Dutch brewery. When I got home and opened the bags, I realized that each bottle did not only feature some fancy plastic ribbons but was also wrapped in plastic for no reason at all (Seriously, it wasn’t even very visible.) Then I took my plastic-wrapped bottles and put them in a rental car, drove 6 hours to Germany where the car then sat for a week, unused. So while I had spent the time thinking about what to gift that would be used in packaging that could be properly recycled (the glass bottles), my efforts to be sustainable failed shamefully. Plastic packaging was wasted. Greenhouse gasses fumed into the atmosphere. And let’s not mention the economic loss of the rental car that just stood on the street without being used for most of its time. The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that the average car is used only 8% of its life.

So what could I have done to “shop sustainably?” Assuming there is such a thing as shopping sustainably, I should’ve asked for unwrapped bottles and reused packaging I had at home to package them myself. If I had gone somewhere less rural, it would also have been a better idea to take the train. But, I think, there is an even better solution.

Don’t shop sustainably. Instead, don’t shop.

We always think about how we can do things better but, as William McDonough explains in Cradle to Cradle , we need to focus on doing better things. What if instead of gifting meaningless cleaning products, clothes, and yet another piece of Christmas decoration (I am proud to say I avoided that last cliche entirely this year.), we gave people something that represents the essence of the holidays: togetherness, appreciation, and love?

How can we do better things when it comes to Christmas presents? That was the question that I considered while scrolling through articles talking about more sustainable gift ideas.

While I am not perfect at it (or even close), I consider myself a minimalist. And, I believe, we can learn a thing or two from minimalism when it comes to gifting Christmas presents. What if instead of giving a shampoo bottle with weird fragrances like “Spekulatius” or “Baked Apple,” we make baked apples together and eat them as a family? What if instead of giving someone a printed photo book with “memories” from the past year, we made new memories by building a snowman together?

I believe, most of us own way more than we need and this obsession with want-want-want becomes more pronounced over the holidays. A cute angel figurine here, a new scented candle there. We tell ourselves that it’s okay because it’s for someone else without pausing to consider if this “someone else” actually needs yet another scented candle–especially one that smells like Christmas, a season that is essentially over the moment we gift the candle. So what will happen to the candle? It will sit in a drawer for a year being saved for next Christmas. Or it will get forgotten completely. At some point, the candle reemerges from the drawer it vanished into, all of its artificial scent lost, and gets thrown out.

In a time where loneliness is the largest factor contributing to anxiety and depression, what we really need is more affection, more company, more togetherness.

So instead of thinking about how to buy more sustainably, think about how to buy less. Gift togetherness. Gift experiences. Gift love. Don’t buy things because it is expected. We have enough.

So, next year, don’t buy into “buying sustainably.”

Don’t do things better. Do better things.

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.