A Guide to Sustainable Gift Giving

December 20, 2019 EcoVadis ‏‏‎

With every holiday season comes a flurry of shoppers, stuffing their carts with the latest gadgets and garments. These special finds are then meticulously wrapped, only to be torn open a matter of hours later. But, we rarely think about the bags of paper and packaging left behind. We think even less about where our gifts came from or how they were made. 

Yet, with climate change and plastic waste at the fore of our collective conscience, it’s getting harder to ignore. The vast majority of wrapping paper is non-recyclable and used only once. Not only that, but it takes five litres of fresh water to make one standard sheet. After its single use, it’s sent to a materials recovery facility or to another country in a container ship. In 2018, China was the first, followed by several South East Asian countries, to close their doors to foreign waste imports. As wealthier countries shipped their waste overseas to meet their own recycling targets, developing countries were inundated with contaminated plastics. Without the infrastructure to support the influx of materials, much of it ended up in burn piles or waterways. 

In the face of these global waste issues, several countries have taken actions to ban single-use plastics. Companies are also focusing on new ways to manage plastic manufacturing more responsibly. Recently, Coca-Cola Sweden released their first fully-recycled Coca-Cola plastic bottle. So, in the spirit of the times, we’ve prepared some tips to help you practise sustainable gift giving this season.

Rethink Gift Wrapping 

Laminate gift wrapping paper may be what we’re used to, but its plastic coating renders it non-recyclable. Every year, more than eight million tons of plastic finds its way to oceans. This poses a fatal risk to marine life as well as a risk to our own health via consumption of microplastics in drinking water or seafood. 

So, what are the alternatives? Brown paper is a better option, since it doesn’t count as a single-use plastic and since it’s technically recyclable. In some cases, brown paper comes with product packaging, so you can reuse it as gift wrap. A similar option is newspaper: If you want to spruce up your gift with colour, use the cartoon section of the paper. You can also buy recycled paper to use as gift wrap. Note that paper still has a carbon footprint, so an even better option might be to use cloth or a basket that you already have, both of which can be reused. Better yet, don’t wrap at all.

Gift Local Food 

Experts estimate that the average meal travels an average of 1200 km. So, it’s probably not surprising that food transport alone contributes 11 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to food production. If you’re gifting food items, consider buying local, in-season items. Also, think about buying organic: Synthetic fertilizers also contribute to GHG emissions. If you want to take it one step further, use zero-waste packaging, like a jar, a cloth, or a basket.

Donate to Food Banks 

A 2011 report by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology estimated that 33 percent of edible food across the globe is lost or wasted each year. This waste can happen anywhere between agricultural production and the point of consumption. To help address this issue, the United Nations created Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One specific goal is to halve “per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and [reduce] food loss along production and supply chains by 2030.” Ultimately, it will be up to food production companies to intervene and set environmental objectives related to the reduction of food waste. This means they must calculate GHG emissions, the land footprint, and pressures on water resources. It also requires that they understand where food loss and waste happens in the supply chain. 

Clearly, the majority of the responsibility for food loss and waste is in the hands of those who grow, produce, and deliver food. But, there are ways for you to do your part as a consumer. Start by donating any extra food that you have to food banks, so that it doesn’t go to waste. Share leftovers with your neighbours. Research and donate to charities that help tackle world hunger. Knowing that one third of consumable food is lost or wasted, accounting for eight percent of GHG emissions, while 820 million people are undernourished, is plenty incentive to give away your extras this holiday season. 

Buy Vintage or Donate to Clothing Banks 

Decisions about which clothes to buy are usually made on the basis of personal fashion or utility. But, another factor to consider is their environmental impact. The clothes industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined. It’s responsible for 20 percent of all waste water, 10 percent of global carbon emissions, and billions of dollars lost due to extra fabric disposal. It also contributes to ocean plastic and relies on employees to work in unsafe conditions

So, what can you do? Buying vintage clothing is a great way to bring back old styles while spending less. Alternatively, you can donate the clothes you don’t wear anymore to charities or clothing collection agencies.

Support Sustainability-Focused Companies 

As an individual consumer, the majority of your contributions boil down to which companies, industries, and environmental policies you support. Research which companies are striving toward a circular business model to minimize their external impact. Try buying gifts from companies who have clear sustainable development goals focused on reducing energy consumption, GHG emissions, and waste in their supply chains.

Learning how to support a sustainable world as a consumer is no simple task. But, it never hurts to do what you can, especially at the peak of our consumption during this holiday season. 

Happy Sustainable Giving! 

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About the Author

EcoVadis ‏‏‎

EcoVadis is the world’s most trusted provider of business sustainability ratings, intelligence and collaborative performance improvement tools for global supply chains. Backed by a powerful technology platform and a global team of domain experts, EcoVadis’ easy-to-use and actionable sustainability scorecards provide detailed insight into environmental, social and ethical risks across 198 purchasing categories and 155 countries.

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