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Two years ago, I wrote the below article for the Sustainability@Duke website. Most of the ideas in that article are still valid, but many of the links have gone bad, so I’m re-posting it here with new links and a few additional edits. Another advantage of reposting it here is that this site has the ability for you, dear readers, to comment with your own sustainable holiday tips!

Note: Many of these tips are appropriate for birthdays, and holidays at other times of year.

  1. Give a gift that will help a child be curious about the natural world: a zoo membership, an ant farm, a kite or a tree you plant together.
  2. Skip material gifts all together! Give an experience: performance/event tickets, a camping trip, cooking classes, a hot air balloon ride. Give a service: provided by you or a local business: a baby-sitting gift certificate, a massage, a dinner out, hire a chef in, dance lessons
  3. Give gifts you make yourself. For adults, these often have more meaning (and a smaller environmental impact than mass-marketed products):
    1. Cook or bake a gift
    2. Write a poem or story about the person
    3. Glaze some pottery
  4. Give socially conscious gifts! Shop fair trade:
    1. Ten Thousand Villages Fair Trade Online Store
    2. Grounds for Change Fair Trade Coffee, Tea & Chocolate
  5. Put your money to work helping others and the planet. Instead of buying a physical gift:
    1. Adopt a whale, wolf or polar bear
    2. Give a flock of chicks, a pig or llama to families living in subsistence communities
  6. See if you can find or create holiday decorations that are made from natural materials, will last from year-to-year and provide a unique holiday feel (unlike the cookie-cutter decorations found in stores).
  7. Stuff stockings with nuts and fruit instead of plastic do-dads. Most of them end up in the wastebasket before Christmas day is over and last hundreds of years in a landfill. My family did this and we would always end up sitting around cracking and eating nuts for days after Christmas.
    Did you know that Americans throw away 25% more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s holiday season? That amounts to 25 million tons of garbage!
  8. Wrap your gifts with newspaper (Sunday comics are great!), cloth that can be reused or wrapping paper made with recycled content. Save and re-use ribbon from year to year.
    If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet!
    If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in re-used materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.
  9. Use holiday lights in moderation. If you are buying new lights, buy LED lights that use one tenth as much energy as conventional holiday lights and last much longer. If you enjoy holiday lights, turn them off during daylight hours and after most people in your neighborhood are in for the night. This can be done easiest with timers that can be found at your local hardware store.
    A study by the Florida Solar Energy Center found that average household energy use for lighting increases 130 kwhs during the thirty-day holiday season following Thanksgiving. That’s the same amount of energy that would be consumed if every household in America left an electric oven on 350 degrees for 2.5 days!
  10. Buy energy efficient appliances and electronics, if those are on a wish list. Look for the ENERGY STAR label!
  11. Send e-greetings. Instead of sending cards through the mail. You can find great e-greetings from sites like BlueMountain.com. If you must mail cards, try to keep your card list to a minimum. Send postcards instead of envelopes to save paper or buy holiday cards that are made from recycled paper. Recycle the holiday cards you receive or make gift tags out of them for next year.
    The 2.65 billion Christmas cards sold each year in the U.S. could fill in a football field 10 feet high. That doesn’t even include birthday cards!
  12. Donate unwanted gifts or items replaced by new gifts. Should you receive any unwanted gifts or if you are replacing old possessions with new ones then consider taking them to a charity shop, instead of throwing them away.
  13. Share these sustainable holiday tips with your family and friends! They can be a great conversation starter.