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Trying to shop for presents more sustainably this Christmas? Here's what experts suggest

From wrapping paper to wax wraps, a guide to making Christmas shopping a little greener.

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Want to have a Christmas that doesn’t have a big impact on the environment? We’re here to help with a new series, speaking to experts about how to be as sustainable and green this festive season as you can, no matter your budget. Green Christmas is supported by Volvo, a car manufacturer which has pledged to be carbon neutral by 20-40.

In the first of our Green Christmas articles, we look at shopping for presents. Can you buy presents in a more sustainable way?

GOING GREEN THIS Christmas? If you’re wondering how you can have a more sustainable festive season, you’re probably not the only one. 

With green and ethical businesses springing up, it seems people are increasingly considering how to make their shopping more sustainable in the weeks ahead. 

“Christmas is such a wasteful time of the year anyway, so it’s important to be mindful when it comes to gifting and shopping,” says Sheelin Conlon, founder of the zero-waste store The Kind. 

Together with Sharon Keilthy, she has founded the Conscious Christmas Store, which has opened on Fade Street Dublin. 

“There’s an appetite for change,” she says. “People are quite excited and feel they’re making a difference.”

She stresses that you don’t need to complicate things at Christmas. Instead, it’s about making honest decisions about what you – and the people around you – actually need. 

“It doesn’t always have to be brand new or something quite expensive,” she says. 

Often, says Conlon, people want simple things that can help them be more sustainable in their routines. 

How simple?

Conlon reports that wax wraps, which can be used as a substitute for cling film, are a perfect way of cutting down on plastic, while bamboo toothbrushes have similarly moved from novelty item to increasingly mainstream product. 

Other suggestions include eco-eggs, which are pitched as ethical replacements to washing powder. 

While buying products like this might not seem like your typical Christmas gift, they help the receiver to put lower-waste practices into their routine. Plus, with Irish-made options available in shops you can decide to give your money to local makers.

To cut down even further on rubbish, you could also ditch wrapping paper. It might sound like the opposite of Christmas cheer, but it’s also a major source of waste. 

Pat Kane, who runs minimal waste shop Reuzi, suggests using newspaper or re-using a bag if you can’t bring yourself not to give family and friends unwrapped gifts.

“Use what you have at home, there are oranges for sale in a natural raffia bag – imagine how good a book would look in one of those with some orange skins or a cinnamon stick,” she tells us.

‘People are more curious’

Kane says that “it wasn’t normal in the past to buy something like a shampoo bar, now people are more curious, more open to the idea of trying new things”.

Her approach is that she wants “sustainability to be mainstream”.

“Sustainability is not something just for scientists, it’s not something just for experts, it’s something for everyone because it has to be something for everyone,” she says.

Start small, do what can, until you can do more, then do more. There’s no point in thinking if you can’t do everything, you shouldn’t do anything. Do your best.

She advises people when present buying to look for things made from recycled materials, things that can be recycled, and if you buy something new to find alternatives that last. 

She also suggests buying experiences – the ‘gift of time’, if you will. Perhaps invite someone out for dinner, or gift them a facial. 

No one is perfect

These kind of products won’t end climate change alone. But Caroline Gardner, from ethical store We Make Kind, says that’s not the aim. 

No one is able to totally commit to a zero-waste, sustainable lifestyle. “It’s about making small movements,” she says. 

“It’s not just not stopping harm, it’s about creating active social change,” she adds. 

In the same way vegan-friendly options now proliferate on restaurant menus, ethical options have become increasingly in vogue in shop windows. 

shutterstock_402184069 A bamboo toothbrush might make a perfect sustainable gift. Source: Shutterstock/kc look

Gardner says that one of the benefits of dedicated shops is that people don’t have to stress over long hours of research and navigate trade-offs in their shopping baskets. 

“Everything in here is ethical. You don’t have to make complex decisions,” she says. “People are coming into the shop and saying ‘this is what I’ve been looking for’”.

She thinks ethical, hand-crafted products don’t just offer people a way to salve their climate change guilt, but also provide a unique story.

“I want to buy products with a story,” she said. 

Kane says the same thing. “As much as you can, try your best. But don’t put yourself down if you can’t do everything.”

People can then pass this forward through the gifts they give at Christmas time.

High street

One of the most pressing issues is where we shop. If your first instinct when present shopping is to head straight for Amazon, rest assured that’s not your only option.

There are plenty of online alternatives you can use, but you could first try and dig out the ethical and sustainable retailers in your local area. (We’ll look more at those in tomorrow’s dedicated online shopping piece.)

 ”Try and support a local business or a small shop,” says Kane. Look out for Christmas markets or ethical shops in your area. 

“On Amazon, you will find things cheaper. But it will come from far away and will have a large carbon footprint.”

 “Try and prioritise a businesses that produces a product in an ethical way, using natural materials or things we can find in Ireland,” she says. 

If you’re stuck or confused, she says people shouldn’t be afraid of getting in touch with businesses. 

“We’re trying to not only sell things. We’re trying to educate people,” she adds.

But with Christmas shopping already being stressful enough, people shouldn’t place too much pressure on themselves.

“If it’s about buying three presents on Amazon, instead of 10, that’s okay,” she said. 

 How to make Christmas sustainable

  • Try alternatives to physical presents. Instead, give people experiences or donate to charity – like a cinema membership, workshop, activity, or restaurant voucher. 
  • Think about gifts that will make people’s everyday lives more sustainable. Think about relatively inexpensive beeswax wraps or a bamboo toothbrush, which can make a big difference in the long-term. 
  • If you can, avoid shopping online. Seek out ethical or sustainable shops and Christmas markets. Markets – large or small -  are a particularly good way to find local and handmade goods, meaning your money is going back into the local economy.
  • Wrapping paper? Just don’t do it. Try reusing paper you already have at home, like older wrapping paper, gift bags, newspaper or magazines. Cotton bags or scraps of colourful material can also work. This isn’t new – the furoshiki is a Japanese style of wrapping cloth used to wrap gifts with.

With reporting by Órla Ryan

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