The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

An Open Letter to My Family on Sustainable Gift Giving

This is an update of an old post. I can tell you that it did its job, and now I get a few stocking stuffers and donations in my name. It works!

Dear Family,

I’m probably writing this a little bit too late, knowing how on-the-ball you are about buying presents. Why wait for Black Friday when you can have all your shopping done before Thanksgiving?

But, I wanted to talk to you about the issue of presents. This is a fraught one for us — for everyone, actually. But us especially, because buying presents for a sustainable living freak is not easy. I will admit that.

You must know that my relationship with personal belongings is a bizarre mixture of Buddhist non-attachment and borderline-obsessive identity formation. Part of me is disdainful of shopping. As a past time, I think it is shallow and damaging to both our psyche, the environment, and people in developing countries. Research bears this out. I do not wish to participate in the massive industrial complex that supports malls, strip malls, Walmart, TJ Maxx, Kohl’s, Forever21, and all the other amoral corporations which have built their business models on unsustainable consumption. I also consider myself a minimalist, constantly donating, recycling and giving away anything that does not reach the very high bar of my standards for being occupying space in my home.

On the other hand, my personal belongings are also a very important part of my identity. When you walk into my home, I want every object to tell a story, to say something about me. If you were to point to every single item in my living room and say, “Tell me about it,” I want to be able to proudly tell you where it came from. Oh, that couch I got at the ABC Warehouse Sale–did you know that ABC sources its furniture and wares sustainable and ethically? This bluetooth speaker is made from bamboo in the USA. That blanket is alpaca and made in Peru, those artsy magazines are about sustainable fashion, the ice box is an antique passed on to me from you, dear family, and the jewelry box where I keep my business cards was my Nana’s.

Add into the mix the fact that I live in a tiny, six-floor-walkup apartment in New York and don’t have a car, and unnecessary presents become outright exasperating. Unless you have experienced the 15-block Goodwill Schlep, you will never understand why I might heave a sigh when I open up a present to find an enormous coffee table book. I pick it up, and imagine the journey I will take to carry this out of my building, to the subway, up subway stairwells, then a 15-block walk. I can feel the sweat prickling underneath my collar, and the handles cutting into my hands or shoulder as I endlessly shift my burden around trying to make it there. And then to finally heave it onto the counter of The Strand in the hopes they will pay me 10% of what you paid for it in Barnes & Noble.

Now, you could chalk this up to greed or entitlement. Can’t I just be grateful for whatever I’m given? But it’s not the thought that counts here. It’s the toxins released into the environment, the carbon expended, the below-living wages paid to the person who made it —that is what counts. I’m just one person, but if you add up all the environmental damage and wasted money that goes along with bad and not-quite-right gifts every year in the U.S., well, I bet you could hit the U.S. carbon target and fix the issue of saving for retirement, just by figuring out the solution to this one problem once and for all. In fact, according to a 2009 EPA study, the way Americans procure, produce, deliver and dispose of goods and services accounted for nearly half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.  More importantly, I do not want to be the reason some child in Bangladesh worked overtime inhaling toxic fumes in a leather tanning facility.

On the other hand, these high standards don’t feel very fair to you, my family. After all, I spend my career researching stores and brands that make and sell ethical stuff. Yeah, it’s work. (It shouldn’t be work, but that is a topic for another time.) Should I really expect you to get me the perfect thing, and sustainably to boot? No, no I shouldn’t.

I’ve try to make your job easier, because I know I am annoying. Here is what I’ve tried:

1. Nothing. Which means you completely ignore the fact that my entire career is based around sustainable and ethical living, and I am presented with an item whose only merit is that it’s “cute.” Then I grapple with the question of what to do with it. Do I A. Keep the item, knowing that it is made in a way that I strongly disagree with? B. Tell you that ethically I don’t agree with how it was made, thus preserving my integrity but hurting your feelings? C. Fudge the truth and tell you that it doesn’t fit or doesn’t work for some other reason? Or D. Keep the item for a year trying my best to integrate it into my lifestyle and wardrobe, before finally giving up and donating or consigning it? I have done all four of these, and none of them feel satisfying.

2. Passed along my Pinterest board. This is pretty helpful. (Thanks, Aunt Lisa, for the wooden pencil highlighters–I use them all the time!) But this isn’t a perfect solution. I often pin items that I think my readers would like, but aren’t necessarily something I want myself. Which means I’ve gotten things that are ethically-made, but I end up never using and then finally donating them. It’s just as wasteful.

3. Made a very specific request for an item that I need in my life. This way, I know I would have gotten the thing anyway, so it’s useful to me. But often, you don’t nail the style and it’s unethical, and I end up replacing it within a few months. Again, I realize this is not fair to you. You really are trying your best.

4. Requested you donate to charity. When I did this, it was somewhat honored. But then there are all the “other” presents that show up under the tree anyway. Which I feel like misses the point. But I get it–my reaction when I open a card that says, “I donated $50 to charity” will never be as rich and satisfying as opening a box and saying, “Oh my God, you got me cashmere? I’ll wear it everywhere! It’s the perfect color! It fit wonderfully.” Etc., etc. Donating to charity isn’t always fun. Though it can be!

The Real Point of Gifts

I’ve read the very valid opinion (probably in an advice column) that giving is not for the recipient. It’s for the giver, allowing them the satisfaction of showing you that they care and have good taste. And I know it’s that way for you, dear family. We are a family that delights in choosing just the perfect thing for each other. I remember the Christmas that Mom received about a dozen wonderful presents from Stepdad. Because all year he kept finding just the perfect thing, buying it, hiding it in a closet, and then forgetting he bought it. When Christmas season arrived, he sheepishly discovered the entire trove. Mom, your present-buying season is all year round. You buy presents on vacation, for Easter and Valentine’s day, and of course birthdays. You buy presents when the only occasion is a particularly good sale. When I discovered the concept of Love Languages, suddenly, it all made sense. The way you express love is through presents! I would never want to take that away from you, nor could I. Dear Aunt, you are like me that you love items with stories, just not the same stories as what I go for. And I want to reward the care you take in buying something that speaks to my personality.

I don’t want you to think you’ve never hit the mark. I’ve read some really good books because of you, treasure the hand-painted dish you made me, love the beautiful bike basket on the front of my bike, and wore a certain dress so much it fell apart at the seams. It’s just that when you don’t hit the mark, it creates a mini crisis for my conscience.

I’m guilty of this too, of course. I really respect you, Brother in Law, for asking for simple yet useful things every year, like a plastic bag holder for under the sink. But that you asked me for a reusable coffee filter, that didn’t seem grand enough. I made an afternoon of going to the best coffee bean seller in the city, picking out some fair trade roast for you, and bundling it in along with the filter. I’m not sure if you liked it. Hopefully you did, but maybe you thought, I just wanted the damn coffee filter. Now I have to drink this dark roast or I’ll feel wasteful. 

What Is the Solution to Ethical Holiday Giving?

If you are reading this because another eco-freak you love sent this post to you, like, “Please read this,” then here is my advice: Buy her experiences. Don’t buy her an object, because you will fail. But if you buy her an experience, she will be so delighted. Unless you make the mistake of getting her a helicopter ride, this is guaranteed to be much more eco-friendly than anything that you could wrap up and tie with a bow. Get her a gift certificate to a farm-to-table restaurant. Buy her a class on hand weaving, indigo dying, bike repair, philosophy, photography, painting, upcycled jewelry making, aerial dance, book binding, tea ceremonies, or a gift card to a place that has cool classes from which she can choose. Pay for a monthly unlimited pass to a local yoga studio. Buy her a train ticket to Storm King upstate and reserve a night at a local B&B.

If you must, must buy an object for her, I recommended a few minimalist, anyone-would-love items to The New York Times. Go with things that will last forever, that have guarantees, can be repaired. Oh, and come with a gift receipt so she can swap the not-quite-right thing out for the perfect thing.

The Too-Long-Didn’t-Read Short Version:

Don’t buy me anything for Christmas. Just donate to Environment New York.


  • Alden Wicker

    Ruth Alden Wicker is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of EcoCult, and author of To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – and How We Can Fight Back. She also writes for publications including Vogue, The New York Times, Wired, The Cut, Vox, and many more.

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