6 Ways to Be a Conscious Consumer This Holiday Season

The upcoming holiday season can be exciting for those fortunate enough to give and receive gifts. Now is the time of year you finally get those shoes you’ve been eyeing or that sweater you love or some good old socks. Already, email inboxes and television screens and Facebook newsfeeds are being flooded with things to buy, things you NEED, things you must get this holiday season. However, it is this excessive consumption that drives so much environmental degradation that we see today. One filmmaker discovered that, “of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale.”

This is not to say that everything you personally receive as a gift this year will only be used for six months, but it is horrifying to imagine the sheer volume of STUFF purchased and disposed of. So much STUFF ordered last minute on Amazon with rush shipping, so much STUFF wrapped in plastic, so much STUFF forgotten or replaced well before its lifetime is over. Giving and receiving gifts is fun, but often times the actual impacts of those gifts are ignored. The thoughtfulness behind a gag gift might be amusing and touching for a few moments, but the energy used to produce and ship that gift, and the space it will take up in a landfill, cannot be undone.

However, I don’t want to sound like a total downer! Gifts are fun! People do need things! The reason I point all of this out is just to highlight how little thought people often give to the broader implications of their consumption. This holiday season, if you are buying gifts for people (or yourself!), I would like to offer up a few ways to use your money in a way that benefits your loved ones and the world we live in.

  1. Buy things that people actually need. First and foremost, before you buy something, ask yourself if it is really necessary. Will it be used regularly for a long time? If not, will it fulfill an important need that is not being met? Can you borrow it from someone else? Is this money well spent? If you answer no to any these things, consider skipping the purchase or finding other options.
  2. Experiences over things! This might be a millennial thing but I think it’s beautiful. An alternative gift idea could be planning a fun day with someone rather than giving them stuff that they might not need. You could plan a day to go to the movies or the beach with your friends! You could clean out the garage or offer to cook dinner for a week to help out your parents or siblings! There are lots of options, but whatever you do, creating lasting memories or helping someone out with a project can be more impactful than giving them something wrapped up.
  3. Minimal packaging is neat-o. If you are going to buy something, trying to find things that come with less packaging and wrapping is a good way to mitigate waste! Buying things in-store rather than online eliminates shipping waste and often results in less packaging in general. Look for things that come packaged in cardboard, metal, or glass rather than in plastic so that you can at least recycle!
  4. Secondhand is first. Items that you can find secondhand are a great way to give meaningful gifts without generating demand for new products. Thrifted clothes and Craigslisted doodads can be even more interesting than what you would find brand new at the mall. This will often save you a few bucks too! Don’t be shy about giving secondhand gifts- explain how by doing so, you’re also working towards a cleaner planet and better future.
  5. Support marginalized groups with your purchase. Instead of feeding into large corporations that control America, try supporting local artists, women, or indigenous folks when you buy gifts this year. Using your money to support small businesses or individuals can help people on both ends of the transaction! I understand that small-scale work can often be more expensive than something found at Walmart, but this is because with small-scale work people are often being paid better wages and produce higher quality goods. Not everyone can afford to make this choice, but if it is within your means, I really encourage you to try it out.
  6. Get creative with your wrapping. Wrapping paper looks so pretty, but is often admired for only a second before it’s ripped off and tossed. There are plenty of fun ways to present a gift without wrapping paper! Newspaper, magazines, shopping bags, your final paper that you got back before the semester was over… If you look around, you’d be surprised what can be repurposed.

I write this with the understanding that not everyone has families to go home to during the holidays, and that not everyone is able to give gifts. Spending time with the people who mean most to you in life, whoever they may be, is what matters most. You are also not a bad person if you compulsively online shop or don’t have time to think about the packaging that things come in.

All I wish to advocate for is that we all take a moment to think about the impacts our decisions have on the world around us. If you are in a position to change your consumption patterns, I hope you consider it. If you aren’t, no worries! There are very big problems in the world and they reach a deeper level than the impacts of the waste created in these months. All I want for Christmas, however, is for the world to collectively take action to address climate change and environmental injustice. Reducing individual waste is a small part of that, but every bit counts.

Kira Barsten

Kira Barsten is a senior majoring in Society and Environment with a concentration in Global Environmental Politics and double minoring in Peace and Conflict Studies and Conservation and Resource Studies. She is passionate about zero waste and minimizing her personal environmental footprint, as well as environmental politics, justice, and policy. She has been involved with the environmental community on campus through ECO-sponsored ASUC senator offices, the Berkeley Student Food Collective, undergraduate research, and Epsilon Eta. In her free time, she enjoys backpacking, climbing, skiing, and watching as many sunrises and sunsets as possible. Kira Barstein covers conscious consumerism and capitalism’s impact on the environment.

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