How to be Sustainable During the Winter Holidays
The holidays are the most magical (waste filled) time of the year! From plastic packaging, and unwanted gifts, to food waste and extra carbon emissions from travel, there are SO many opportunities to throw sustainable habits out the window for the sake of ‘good cheer’.
I hope this post can encourage you to show as much kindness to the planet as you do to those around you this holiday season. I’m going to cover as many categories I can think of to provide you with helpful ways you can reduce your impact.
This will be in no means specific to one holiday or celebration — I think one of the best parts of the season is seeing the amazing diversity and cultures that are expressed in their own ways. (especially here in Canada) So feel free to come back and reference this post for future celebrations if you need a good list of reminders.
Lastly, before I get started, I want to encourage you to share this with as many family members and friends you are celebrating this year so that you can get on the same page. Don’t forget we ALL need to be working towards healthier, more sustainable choices for the future of the planet and ourselves.
The more the merrier!
For some individuals, giving and receiving physical gifts is very important to traditions — others not so much. It’s important to recognize that sustainable gifting can look like a lot of things. Some people might choose to become mindful of how, what, and, where they make purchases from, while others may choose to rethink what gifting means to them altogether. No matter which direction you head in being more sustainable this way, it is a step in the right direction.
This is all about asking the right questions and preparing accordingly instead of acting on impulse. The more you get into the habit of rethinking the way you do things currently, the more opportunities there are for making meaningful change.
Evaluate your why
First off, I encourage you and your household to start asking “why” you make the choices you do on a yearly basis. Are you buying gifts because it is a meaningful experience to you or are you just participating because everyone else is? Remember that there is no right or wrong answer for your household, it is important to do what feels right for you.
If you have a discussion and find out gift-giving is the source of stress for many individuals instead of joy, perhaps restructure your holiday celebrations around quality time and activities instead!
Discuss budget ahead of time
Having a budget is an important part of living sustainably because you need to consider the carryover into every aspect of your life. If you overspend on gifts, it could have an impact on your spending in other areas of your life. Giving should not come at the expense of your own well-being — especially holiday gifts.
One of the best ways you can avoid overspending and the awkward moment when someone spends WAY more money on you than you do on them, consider having a discussion on what everyone is willing to spend. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the same number either as everyone’s income and personal circumstances look differently.
How to choose gifts
If you do choose to purchase a gift, I encourage you to make purchases from local small businesses or at the very least, from sustainable brands. Below I’ve included a list of a whole bunch of posts I have written on sustainable brands and gift ideas depending on what you are looking for:
How to wrap gifts
Gift wrapping can be a fun and creative way to present your thoughtful gifts. A simple yet effective way to be more sustainable is to avoid using wrap containing plastic foil or toxins. Instead, try one or more of these green gift wrapping ideas:
Reuse bags, tins, and containers you already have
Make your own wrap out of a collage of old newspapers, flyers, or brown paper from deliveries
Use compostable brown paper and compostable tape
Wrap your gift in useful items such as Swedish sponge clothes, a linen napkin, or a scarf
Place it in a reusable tote bag
Use a furoshiki wrap
How to handle waste
Even if you control what you wrap your gifts in, you can’t always control what you receive. In the chance, you receive packaging that would normally go to waste, try your best to make the most of it before moving towards disposal options. See if you can use it for future gift giving yourself or make use of it in a new way.
In situations where you can’t, be sure to check with your local waste management program to see how to dispose of the materials properly. It’s all too easy to throw everything straight into the trash can instead of being mindful of what can be recycled or even composted.
Holiday decor is a big part of the winter season for most. Whether you string up lights and a Christmas tree, decorate a Hanukkah bush, or hang the moon and stars around a door frame for Eid Al Fitr, there are a lot of plastic-filled, unsustainable options sold by most retailers.
This year to be more sustainable, I encourage you to make the most of what you have first and foremost. After that, I have a few tips on how you can add to your home’s styling without hurting the planet.
A great part about winter holidays is that they often highlight the beautiful weather of the season. No matter where you live, you more than likely have access to a park or forest that contains beautiful pieces of fallen wood and other items that could be styled beautifully in your home.
Don’t go picking off living things, instead, look to the ground to see what nature is ready to be cleared and reused for a new purpose.
Search for SECOND HAND
Thrift stores are often FILLED with holiday decorations year-round! From pretty plates to wreathes, there is no reason to be buying new when you can find cool vintage pieces for your home. Not only will they make your space unique, but it’s good for the planet.
There are also a ton of fun DIYs you can make out of thrifted goods to customize your finds even more. Turn tableware into centrepieces, small nick-nacks into ornaments, or shape garlands into wreaths — the possibilities are endless!
PS. Don’t throw away decor at the end of the season — store them properly so they can be used for years to come! Try using leftover wrap from gifts, old towels, or clothes in a sealable bin so they are safe from dust, moisture, and breakage in storage.
Host a decor swap
A fun way to freshen up what you already have is to host a decor swap! This could be amongst friends, family, or even your neighbourhood. Think of it as a moneyless yard sale. Let everyone gather decor items they no longer need or would like to swap for something new and barter with one another to acquire some new pieces to use this year!
This fun social activity could take the place of a traditional gift giving holiday party and still allow someone to receive something special and new to them. Plus, it’s bound to bring up a story or two on the history of each piece!
Meals around the holidays are about so much more than simply eating food. They are about tradition, gratitude, and community. Oftentimes meals are extravagant with many different dishes and courses. A wonderful blessing sure, but oftentimes an opportunity for more food waste.
This year, try your best to prepare in advance to help you avoid ending up with more than you really need. Sustainability is all about conserving what you have and being mindful of how you spend all resources. Don’t let food be something you take for granted.
Make plenty of lists
Lists are my #1 recommendation for almost all spending habits, but especially when it comes to grocery shopping. (have you checked out my grocery planner yet?!) It might seem like common sense but I know oftentimes planning can get pushed to the wayside.
This year, make the intentional decision to plan out what you need, how much of it, and how you are going to go about getting it in the most sustainable way. Check out my guide to grocery shopping while avoiding plastic waste.
Keep bulk snacks stocked
Around this season things can get really busy and it’s all too easy to forget to keep our bodies nourished throughout the day. Not to mention if you are a host, there will likely find times throughout the holiday when you have unexpected guests around. A great way to be prepared is to stock up on easy to grab snacks. This will help you avoid buying impulsive, plastic packaged food or takeout when you don’t really need it.
Prepare for leftovers
Keep your beeswax wrap, tupperware containers, and glass jars clean and ready for any extras leftovers that come your way! Avoid wasting food by keeping leftovers at the front of your fridge, ready to be eaten. I encourage you to pack a few in a reusable bag in your car too for meals outside your home.
Set up a compost system
With all the cooking and eating happening, food scraps are inevitable. Set up a compost system that works for you in your kitchen, garage in advance so you don’t have to worry about it when the time comes to compost. I have a cute little kitchen compost with charcoal filters I’ll include here if you are looking to invest in an easy to clean (and smell proof) system.
Eat more plants
The more plant based dishes the better! Reducing your meat consumption is one of the best ways to lower your carbon footprint. Vegetarian and vegan dishes are also really accommodating for those with specific allergies or diet requirements. We’re lucky to live in a time where you don’t need to sacrifice flavour for health. Check out this post by The First Mess containing over 50 vegan holiday recipes.
There are so many opportunities for socializing throughout the season. Whether you are the one entertaining or being entertained, here are some things to think about from a sustainability point of view this year.
Spend less, Do less
When it comes to spending time with others, we are often influenced by external pressure to show up in a certain way or try hard to impress. Who has extra time and energy to navigate that?! This year I challenge you to be really selective with how you output your personal resources throughout the season.
That isn’t to say you can’t celebrate or partake in holiday events — just be sure to spend your time, energy, and money in a sustainable way. Never forget you deserve rest too!
Set a budget ahead of time
In the thick of the holidays, it can be so easy to lose track of where the money goes, especially if you are using credit cards. One small extra expense can easily lead to five, ten, or more “because it’s the holidays!” which has the potential to leave you very stressed out come January.
Take some time to plan out a budget for every area of the season:
Don’t forget to also plan for unexpected expenses and include a buffer or emergency fund!
New experiences are way better than REPETITIVE ones.
Instead of focusing parties around the same gift-giving and dinner year after year, why not choose some fun, experience-based activities and put the focus on memory-making? A year from now, your friend and family are going to be much more inclined to remember that fun group trip to a holiday market instead of just another sit-down meal.
Changing up the narrative and time of day of typical entertaining will help you step outside the box and get creative. You can still incorporate holiday themes and traditions while in a new place or at a different time of day. Simply put, there is no right or wrong way to celebrate. Expand your planning past traditional celebrations and try something new this year!
The busiest time of the year can require a lot of moving around. Even if it’s as simple as a couple of extra trips to the grocery store — the extra emissions add up quickly when everyone is doing it. Here are a few ways you can approach travel more sustainably this year.
Keep things local
As much as you can, try to stay local to your area. The closer to home the better! Support local stores, keep celebrations close to home, and take advantage of carbon neutral travel such as walking or biking as often as you can.
If you do need to travel by car to an event or store, try to carpool is often as you can! It might take a few more minutes of planning but it will save money and emissions for everyone involved. Extending the invitation to a friend or neighbour allows you to spend some extra quality time with them as well!
Offset carbon use if possible
If you need to fly to visit family or friends and have the means, consider paying into your airline’s carbon offset program to minimize your impact. These programs are pretty standard now, though greatly under advertized. Carbon offsetting doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide produced when you fly; instead, programs invest money into clean air programs which reduce it elsewhere instead.
Another opportunity to be more sustainable if you are travelling far and need to rent a car is to see if they have electric options in stock to rent instead of gas.
Gratitude is such an important part of the holiday season. In a time of such affluence, it’s really important to create time, space, and conversation around what we can do to give back and contribute to those less fortunate. Sharing your wealth and abundance with others is humbling and encourages a more sustainable community.
Make a donation
It if is within your means, I encourage you to add ‘donation’ to your holiday budget. If it’s possible to spend money on those you love, it shouldn’t be laborious to also spend a bit on those who might miss out on a nice gift otherwise. The Salvation Army is a wonderful and accessible option in most places throughout Canada and the US — they will have donation spots in their stores and across cities during that time of year.
You can also do some research to look for initiatives local to you who are either taking monetary donations or physical gifts to be given to those in need. Opportunities to give aren’t hard to find during the holiday season. Just be sure to do a bit of research to make sure who you are donating to are ethical and align with your morals and values.
VOLUNTEER your time
If spending a lot isn’t possible for you this year there is still lots of ways to give back. In fact, sometimes hands-on opportunities can be a lot more impactful than donating money. Again, this will be specific to the area you live but it won’t take long to find plenty of opportunities to help out your community. Contact your well-known neighbourhood initiatives or city for a list of non-profits to reach out to.
Spending an afternoon working in a shelter’s kitchen, sorting gifts for underprivileged children, or visiting the elderly doesn’t take much out of you but can provide a lot of value to someone else. Don’t underestimate your ability to help others.
Do you have any other tips on how to be sustainable throughout the holiday season? Share them with me in the comments!
Hey, Claudia here
I am a senior graphic designer, a dog mom, an advocate for a zero-waste lifestyle, climate change, and sustainability. My articles are based on personal experience and well researched to give you the best source of information for all things zero-waste.