It’s December, I’ve started listening to festive songs and preparations for Christmas are fully underway. I want to have a sustainable a Christmas as possible – just like I want my whole life to be as sustainable as possible – and maybe you do too.
But knowing we’re all at different points on our journey of sustainability, how are you supposed to deal with friends and family who don’t want a sustainable Christmas?
This year, I’ve seen plenty of excellent ethical and sustainable gift guides, vegan or vegetarian Christmas recipes, and tips on how to significantly reduce your environmental impact this festive season.
But unless you’re spending Christmas by yourself – consciously or not – it’s very likely other people will be involved in your celebrations. And other people mean problems. They mean things you can’t control.
Things like Quality Street wrappers. Mountains of metallic paper. Blister packs, cellophane and teeny, tiny cable ties. Far too much food. Glitter.
These are all unsustainable Christmas things which happen when other people are involved.
Here’s a guide to dealing with other people’s lack of sustainability at Christmas, your own obsessions, and when sometimes it’s ok to take a pit stop on the sustainability journey.
P.S. My family make every Christmas wonderful and I wouldn’t change a thing about them. They are not the family of the title.
You could argue Christmas cards are incredibly wasteful; most are made from virgin wood pulp, many contain elements which are difficult to recycle (e.g. glitter or sequins) and nearly all end up getting shredded in the New Year.
And yet, my family live far away from each other. We lost a key member of our family this year. Christmas cards are a way for us to stay together, whether we are physically together or not. There’s something about seeing my friends’ and family’s handwriting – rather than an e-card – which makes me feel connected to them.
I bought my cards back in the sale in January and have plenty left over from previous Christmases, which I’ll be putting into use this year. Any new ones will be charitable or eco-friendly.
After Christmas, I’ll make paper decorations from the fronts of the cards – circles strung onto ribbon – which we use to decorate the house each festive season.
This is an area where I feel my family’s approach – send cards, and send lots of them, because it’s about love – is more important to me than the environmental impact, especially when there are plenty of ways to reduce this impact through more sustainable choices.
What you can do
If you feel the card situation is out of control, but you know your family want to send them, ask them to write you a Christmas letter instead; you’re likely to keep it for many years to come, and they’ll still feel like they’re connecting with you across the miles.
E-cards are much nicer than they used to be; Verena Erin has made a great sustainable Christmas tips video which features one brand, Greenvelope. You can buy charity cards online via Cards for Good Causes, or make your own using old Christmas card fronts and brown Kraft card blanks.
Recycle any cards you can, reuse others for decorations, and let family know in advance if you won’t be sending a card. Lack of festive greetings are the things grudges are built on.
I come from a family of magpies, so if wrapping paper is glittery, metallic or holographic we can barely tear our eyes away. This sort of paper is very hard or impossible to recycle – often it’s a bonded plastic and paper mix, a bit like coffee cups – and therefore pretty unsustainable.
I also come from a family which secretly takes part in competitive wrapping. The bigger, bedecked and be-ribboned it can be, the better that gift is – fact. Again, an unsustainable amount of stuff goes into wrapping like this, much of it plastic-based.
My own choice (which I practised last year) is to use brown craft paper, recycled papers, fabric ribbons and real ornaments to decorate the presents. All of these can be recycled or reused. This year, I’m also going to attempt to go Sellotape-free to make this process even easier.
I don’t know where to start explaining to my folks that wrapping papers could be unsustainable. They delight in wrapping things beautifully and having a ‘wrapping evening’ (and so do I), so instead I’ll try and showcase sustainable wrapping (see tip below). I’ll also be the one scurrying round, collecting the recyclable bits, flattening the reusable bits, and donating all the gift bags to the local charity shop.
What to do
Showcase your sustainable wrapping expertise with recycled papers, natural decorations and reusable ornaments. You can also find more ideas in Francesca’s guest post for Holly Rose on Leotie Lovely, including links to recycled papers and second hand fabric.
Politely request that the most lavish of your gift-decorating family reins it in this year – or if this feels like an impossibility, set a secretly-sustainable wrapping challenge using only reusable packaging.
Food and drink
I’m not vegetarian, although I’ve significantly cut down the amount of meat I eat. I’m not dairy-free, paleo, vegan or anything like that, so this time of year isn’t a complete minefield for me. But I hate food waste.
Luckily, so do my folks. Bringing Tupperware to a dinner is actively encouraged and my mum is some sort of magician with leftovers. Yet not every family is as anti-waste or as accommodating of alternative diets.
Of all the unsustainable Christmas practices that happen, I think this is one where you can get away with putting your foot down. The general population still struggle with effective materials recycling, saving energy and making sustainable choices, but most people get when you make food choices for health or moral reasons.
I’m going to be piling my plate high with veggies and choosing smaller meat portions, as well as offering to cook some of the meals over Christmas – to ease pressure on my folks, provide healthier options and maintain a feeling of control (one of the things which I feel is most missing from Christmas in general).
What to do
Work out what the problem is with your folks not accommodating your choices; is it time, energy, access to the right foods, cost or the feeling you’ve rejected your upbringing? If you can work it out, you can work out a solution – which might be bringing your own foods, contributing to the Christmas food fund, or reassuring them that you still love that specific dish they cook.
If you want to introduce your family to some healthier recipes, Elizabeth of The Note Passer has compiled a blog post, Pinterest board and blog links to vegan recipes – these are for Thanksgiving, but they’d work equally well for Christmas.
Don’t forget as well that you’re allowed to break out of habits occasionally. If you are sworn sugar-free, and you fancy a marzipan fruit, have one; no-one is going to be annoyed that you’re enjoying yourself.
Gifts are the most frustrating, argument-inducing, difficult things to talk about. I really like Alden Wicker’s post on getting your family to give you sustainable presents, which articulates just some of the problems you might face.
As Alden mentions, in 1995 a book was published about The Five Love Languages. My partner and I talk about these a lot to help us understand each other. My top ‘love language’ is quality time.
At the bottom of the list is receiving gifts. Twinned with my sustainability-led value system, this makes me really rubbish at understanding gifting, and being fully appreciative of the gifts I receive.
My value system is not my friends’ or family’s value system. Some of them love stuff. I don’t. You can, and should, talk to your folks about gifts, what they mean, and how you can all feel happy about what you are giving and receiving.
But be aware that when you say “I don’t really like it when you buy me lots of presents”, they might subconsciously feel you’re rejecting one of their favourite ways in which they love you. So how are you going to deal with that at Christmas?
What to do
There are two main areas to tackle: gifts you receive and gifts you give.
You can control, completely, the gifts you give. Ask your family what they actually want – don’t guess, because then if you get it wrong it’s wasteful. If they don’t know, ask if they’d like a donation or a voucher instead. Where you can, get the most sustainable option possible.
Only tell people it’s a sustainable choice if they ask; alternatively, include a little bit of information with the gift for them to read at their leisure. Just like marketing ethical brands, product needs to come first, then ethics.
Sometimes sustainable options can be significantly more expensive than unsustainable choices, and there’s a reluctance to pay if you feel the recipient might not give a toss. Try shopping second-hand on eBay or in charity shops for a cheaper alternative.
Or, and this is a last alternative, don’t worry about it. If your family member wants a £30 gift card from Zara and it makes you feel a bit queasy, ask yourself: which is more important, my ethical stance or their happiness and full use of whatever I get them?
As for gifts you receive, be specific. Make it simple – send links. If you don’t want any gifts at all, explain why and what donations you’d like instead. Be prepared for gifts to be there anyway, and be grateful – they’re showing you love, and that’s important.
Having a sustainable Christmas with friends and family
When sustainability is at the heart of your life, it can be difficult to forget it’s just not that important to other people – and even more difficult to realise that those ‘other people’ are people you love and care for.
I believe in a secular and traditional Christmas; spending time with people who are important to you, in a way you all enjoy. And while sustainability is something I think about every day, it’s not something which is more important than the love for (or of) my family and friends. Sometimes ignoring those things you would consider sustainability ‘blips’ is essential to the happiness of the season.
You can make good choices, and be a visible alternative to the excess consumerism and waste that dominates this time of year. But you can’t control what other people do, and nor should you; they’re on a journey, and they’re trying to show they love you.
Helping others at Christmas time
For many people at this time of year, there are bigger dilemmas than whether or not someone has chosen an easily-recyclable wrapping paper.
Hunger and homelessness are pressing concerns for children and adults across the UK, and can be exacerbated at Christmas. We can’t be a sustainable society until everyone in our population is living in a way which is sustainable, with warmth, food and protection.
The charity Shelter helps people find safety and security all year round. If you read this article and recognise some of us have bigger problems at Christmas, please donate £5.
If you read this and want to help us move to a sustainable society, please donate £5.
If you read this and realise you don’t need to buy a grande cinnamon-spiced latte and mince pie to feel happy, please donate £5.
If you read this and want someone to have a happier Christmas, please donate £5.
And please tell me about it, on here or on Twitter.