Q. Dear Umbra,
What are good holiday gifts that are environmentally responsible?
— Seeking A “New Toys!” Antidote
A. Dear SANTA,
I love presents. I do! But I also know that purposeless consumerism lies at the heart of so much climate evil. And the December holidays are the grand championship of consumerist culture; everyone spends all year gearing up to do their most intense and crazed shopping for a lot of unneeded items, just to show their appreciation for their loved ones.
That desire to show appreciation for loved ones is a marvelous, beautiful thing, and gifts are a great way to do it! But if you’re stumped as to what a climate-conscious present might look like, worry no more. I’ve put together no fewer than 79 ideas, at a wide variety of price points (from free to Tesla!), grouped into themed categories. Each one of these gifts is intended to make a more climate-conscious life easier and more enjoyable, because isn’t that the real holiday dream?
Please consider this hopefully helpful collection of ideas my holiday gift to you.
- Train travel, especially in the U.S., can be cost-prohibitive. For the person who wants to be more rail-mobile: an Amtrak gift card.
- If you’re feeling even more ambitious and creative, you can plan a plane-free travel itinerary to a destination your friend has been wanting to visit, complete with fun stops along the way.
- Look, I love my e-bike. If you love someone who’s been wanting to bike more (and if you’re prepared to throw down a few grand), an e-bike is an excellent present.
- … Or, you can pay for them to get their regular bike converted into an e-bike.
- OK, OK, there are lots of people not as hill- or sweating-averse as I am who would be really happy with a good old-fashioned analog bike.
- For the seasoned bike owner, well, those things can always be upgraded with gadgets and repairs. Voila, a gift certificate to a local bike accessories and repair shop!
- If your pal’s city has a bike or scooter program like Spin, Lime, or Jump, get them a shared micromobility credit that they can put toward exploring their town on two wheels. (Note: Citibike in New York offers a gift credit option, but Spin, Jump, and Lime do not. So you might have to borrow their phone and enter your payment info yourself. Look, not all gifts are graceful.)
- If your friend has wanted an electric car but keeps getting hung up on having the proper charging infrastructure available, offer to help design or pay for a charging station at their home.
- Hell, you could also buy them an electric car. Perhaps this is your husband or your mom, or someone you’ve greatly wronged and need to make it up to, and you have a lot of extra cash to throw around this year. Maybe you’ve just always wanted to do that thing where you put a huge red sticky bow on the hood of a car! (The Verge has a helpful guide for electric car shopping.)
- City-dwellers regularly feel isolated from nature, which can result in tangible mental health problems. Antidote? A guidebook to local flora and fauna that can be used to explore all the clandestine nature that cities have to offer.
- Lots of cities have urban walking or biking tours that offer a zero-carbon way to explore and hey, meet people.
- Pay for a class on native plant horticulture for the gardener in your circle. (Here’s why native plants are important for ecosystems.)
- Know any recent homeowners? Offer yourself as free labor to help them tear up their lawn and plant native species there instead.
- Or buy them a native plant. Audubon offices around the country offer lists of trees, shrubs, and flowers that are native to the region. Plant them and make birds and insects happy.
- It’s good for your mental health to get out in the wild from time to time. Get a friend who’s been anxious or depressed a regional, state, or national parks pass — and offer to drive them out for some good tree time.
- Already got someone you regularly take on the trail? Get them a framed print of a photo of you in the wilderness together — exploring nature or marveling at it in some way — to brighten stressful days stuck indoors.
- Your friends with kids might kiss you if you offer to pay for the young ones to go to a local nature camp for a week or two during the summer. It’s a win-win: Instilling the next generation with a love for all things green, and solving the dreaded summer childcare problem.
- How many times have I been at a coffee shop and realized I don’t have my travel mug with me because, well, it’s annoying to tote around? One of my colleagues brought this insane collapsible mug to work and folks, my jaw fell to the floor.
- Did you know that there are collapsible food storage containers, too? I think you just found the solution to your plastic-guilt-ridden friend’s takeout waste woes.
- Look, your friend is also going to need a bigger backpack or purse to carry around all this stuff. It’s the price of admission; climbing stairs with my pocketbook is a core workout. I love secondhand, but I like Baggu.
- I want all the leftovers in my fridge to look like beautiful origami gifts. For anyone in your life who’s been yelling about metal straws, get them the even more useful alternative to plastic: pretty printed beeswax-coated cloth wrap.
- I understand that upscale water bottles are a cool teen trend now? I’m ancient, I suppose. But it’s definitely a more climate-conscious gift for your VSCO girl niece than a Kylie lip kit. I think Hydroflask is the thing.
- I’ve found that even in cities with municipal composting services, there are a ton of people who don’t compost simply because countertop compost bins are ugly, or smell bad, or any combination of the above. A sleek, charcoal-top compost bin takes care of all of the above, and I personally find there’s something super-satisfying about tucking your food waste in there.
- Sometimes, the town or city you live in takes a while to develop a municipal composting system. For the pal who’s always sighing about food waste, consider a home composter.
- Lots of communities have developed tool libraries, which are exactly what they sound like and prevent the unnecessary purchase of expensive tools for a few jobs around the house. If there’s someone on your gift list who’s been itching to try a lot of DIY projects or home repair, but just doesn’t have the necessary kit, buy them a year’s membership to a tool library.
- Isn’t everyone sick of Apple’s toxic cycle of planned obsolescence? A DIY iPhone fix kit is the path to freedom. At least, in this very specific instance.
- Your homeowner brother is always complaining about heating bills, because he is turning into your father. Introduce him to a smart thermostat like a Nest, and the fact that the real scourge is the carbon emissions from wasted heat, not the money required to keep his house at a comfortable temperature. (Don’t do that, unless you want to get uninvited from Christmas.)
- But let’s all listen to the Dads within us and keep the heat turned down low! Anyone trying to limit the carbon footprint of their household should own a super-snuggly, extra-luxe robe and slippers set to stay warm in the winter. It’s life-changing.
- Foldable, reusable shopping bags. This sounds deeply unsexy, I know, but I use my Baggu version pretty much every single day. No, I am not personally sponsored by Baggu.
- I have so many friends who host these gorgeous, elaborate dinners and then shame-facedly whip out a stack of paper napkins. It doesn’t have to be like this! A good tablecloth and napkin set reduces reliance on deforestation-dependent disposables and creates ambiance.
- Ditto a set of dishtowels, for the person who’s trying to cut their paper-towel habit.
- And if you have a friend who’s always dreamed of being a fancy lady or gentleman out of a Jane Austen novel, a handkerchief set eliminates a lot of Kleenex waste in the winter. You can buy them embroidered, or even monogrammed.
- If you’re gifted in the sewing department — bless you — you could even make the last three items yourself.
- Nothing like a mini Greta Thunberg On A Shelf to help your eco-friendly habits stick. (This is not a real product … but you could make one!)
- I know that kids are plied with advertising for a million dumb toys and gadgets a day, and that makes holiday shopping for them really hard. I’d challenge you to try to put together a gift bag of the weirdest things you can find at thrift stores — because kids also love weird things!
- Pay for your favorite animal-lover to take a farm tour in their area. It gives extra income to local farmers who could use it, and you usually get to snuggle (or pet) at least one of the animals.
- Who doesn’t fantasize about the kind of life where you lounge around in a beautifully lit breakfast nook on a Sunday morning, catching up on all your print magazines? You can at least facilitate the print magazine part. Get a subscription to a print magazine that does great reporting on the climate, like High Country News, California Sunday, The New Yorker, or Mother Jones.
- The slightly less Nancy Meyers, slightly more civically useful version of the above: Subscription to a local news outlet.
- Do you know someone who’s been meaning to restore their grandfather’s vintage record player since 2005? Offer to take on the repair or restoration yourself (even if that just means taking it to the shop.)
- Endless chores and household responsibilities keep a lot of people from getting involved in causes they want to get involved in! Offer to take on some of the cleaning load for a friend. Pay for a regular housekeeping service for a number of months, or commit to cleaning their home yourself!
- In the same vein: Cook dinner for your friend’s family a few times, or pay for takeout.
- Got a parent friend who wants to get involved in some local organizing but hasn’t had the time or childcare to make it happen? Your gift to them: a series of babysitting sessions.
- Perhaps you have a friend who’s felt guilty/frustrated/FOMO about not being more civically engaged? Buy them a 2020 planner and fill the first month with different community meetings that they can attend.
- If you’re close with someone who’s always wanted to learn more about some type of ecology or climate science, pay for them to take a local adult learning course on it. (Local colleges and environmental centers sometimes offer classes, too.)
- Look, books are excellent gifts, especially when you buy from local bookstores! And there are so many climate-focused or -adjacent books that are both thought-provoking and beautifully written. Here are just a handful of recommendations from me and my colleagues:
- The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh
- A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers
- The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
- Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg
- The Wall by John Lanchester
- Parable of the Sower or Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
- Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
- The Imperiled Ocean by Laura Trethewey
- Did you know even Googling things has a carbon impact? I know, everything is impossible. Any low-tech thing you can give that promotes offscreen hobbies — a sketchpad! An ancient keyboard synthesizer! A yoga studio membership! A jigsaw puzzle! — is probably not a bad move for both climate and mental health!
- I’m very conflicted about making this recommendation because so many of the companies that make them are terrible, but a videochat device like Facebook’s Portal can make long-distance friendships feel closer without carbon-intensive travel.
- Anyone who’s dealing with the realities of climate change could probably use a massage or a spa day of some kind. It’s a gift that’s usually appreciated and doesn’t require any manufacturing or shipping or disposal. Win-win.
- A donation to a climate-focused nonprofit in someone’s name: the most anticlimactic gift of all! Here are some Umbra tips to charitable giving.
- The secondhand clothing market is a crazy-easy alternative to fast fashion, and it also makes for way more interesting wardrobes. But sometimes the best finds are sequestered in upscale consignment shops or specially curated stores that are a little pricier than what the secondhand newbie might want to spend on, let’s face it, someone else’s old clothes. Get a gift certificate to a particularly well-regarded vintage store in said newbie’s area to alleviate their anxiety.
- I don’t like to mend my clothes, even though I (sort of) know how, because my sewing kit is frankly a piece of shit that I bought at CVS a decade ago, and it makes me depressed. But there are so many cute, well-designed sewing kits out there that people with the best intentions of mending their clothes would love to have.
- Say your friend isn’t as amateur a seamstress as I am, but wants to take her skills up a notch. A sewing machine is a mending or make-your-own-clothes game-changer.
- Or, if you’re an experienced mender and a little low on cash, give your friends the gift of a mending group where you teach them how to repair their own clothes.
- Ask your friend which big-ticket, durable, staple clothing item they’ve been lusting after and think that they’ll wear and use for a long time, and buy it for them!
- How many beloved pairs of shoes have you discarded because of some easily fixable annoyance: a broken shoelace, a scuff, a hole in the sole. Solution, in gift form: nice shoelaces, a shoe polish kit, and a gift certificate to a cobbler, all wrapped up in a pretty box.
- I also need to share with you that one of my colleagues owns a shoehorn and reports that it is a “game changer.”
- If you have a clothing item that your friend has always coveted but can’t find in their size, have it tailored to their size and give it to them. (I also love this idea for family heirlooms!)
- Knitting needles + yarn = an antidote to disposable fashion, and apparently a really effective way to calm down.
- How many times have you heard “I wish I cooked at home more” from your takeout-reliant friend? How many times have you heard “I want to eat less meat, but I just don’t know what to make?” The breadth and quality of vegetarian or vegetable-focused cookbooks out there is astounding: Plenty and Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi, Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden, Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters, On Vegetables by Jeremy Fox (fancy), and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman (not fancy).
- For less money, a little more heart, and a lot more effort: Put together your own cookbook — with index cards and a 5×7 photo album — of your favorite vegetarian recipes.
- Fair-trade chocolate, coffee, or tea. Or all three, if you really like the person. (Here’s why it’s important.)
- Apparently all tea bags are full of microplastic? Sorry. But a metal tea steeper and a fancy set of loose-leaf tea are a) fancy-looking and b) low-waste.
- Throw in a vintage tea set, too, just for fun!
- For your cousin who’s addicted to Keurig, a programmable coffee maker (for the convenience) and high-quality grounds are going to change her life. Seriously, everything that comes out of those pods tastes terrible, and the compostable ones only work in places with municipal compost facilities.
- Maybe you’re a well-seasoned alternative protein expert, but you have a friend who’s still in the try-curious stage. Gift them an alternative meat starter pack: some samples of your favorite non-animal proteins (tofu! Seitan! Beyond Burgers! Crickets! I don’t care!), with handwritten recipes that you love for each one.
- The best solution to eating local when there’s nothing growing? Having canned or preserved everything that was ripe at the end of the summer. Get a canning kit so your friend can preserve their own local, in-season produce and lord it over everyone else next winter.
- And to supply that local produce: a CSA subscription to a local farm.
- Or, for hyper-local produce: Help your friend build a raised bed in their yard to grow their own vegetables this summer. Bonus points if you also help them plant in the spring!
- I guess you need garden tools for that. If the tool library suggestion didn’t work out, buy some gardening essentials.
- No yard? Who needs one! Pay for your friend to get a community garden plot, and supplement it with a little window box for herbs.
- If you want to go hunter-gatherer, pay for a wild edibles identification class with a trained guide in your giftee’s area. And be very careful with the mushrooms.
- Or DIY it, and get them a guidebook to wild edibles. But again, be careful with the mushrooms.
- One reason people don’t cook at home is that they get intimidated by spices, an upfront expense that feels extra-annoying because you only use a teaspoon at a time. Buy your beginner-cook someone a comprehensive spice kit.
- Another reason is terrible tools — specifically, terrible knives. One nice knife can improve the entire cooking experience.
- And one knife sharpener can keep that joy going, because yes, they need maintenance. A sharpening stone (or an electric sharpener for the more extensive knife collection, perhaps) is a great gift.
- Maybe you have a friend who wants to cook more but straight up doesn’t know how, or needs some inspiration. Get them a cooking class, baby. Make it vegetable-centric, for extra climate points.
- A climate-friendly diet is one that’s mostly plant-based, but (at the risk of infuriating the most hardcore vegans) you can still get some animal products in there. The ones raised in ecologically conscious ways, however, are always more expensive. (For good reason!) Buy some special-occasion, regeneratively raised steaks.
- The inconvenient truth of “eating for the planet” is that if you want ethically or ecologically raised ingredients, they come at a premium. Get your friend a gift certificate to that excellently sourced grocery store that they always say is just too expensive.
- Bring them a growler from a local brewery, already filled with their favorite brew and ready to be refilled after they drink it.
Thanks to Clayton Aldern, Laura Anderson, Jesse Nichols, and Kate Yoder for their help in gift brainstorming!