Inexpensive holiday gift ideas, brought to you by the Ecology Center

Dear EcoTeam,
The economy has taken a toll on my finances and I expect a real hard time this year coming up with holiday gifts. I’m underemployed and struggling, but I still want to get people good gifts that are green. Do you have some inexpensive ideas for me because I’m a little despairing. —Flat Broke in the Bay

Good thing you asked! Inexpensive holiday gifts can be some of the most thoughtful, as well as the most eco-friendly. Consider the many useful things that can be made or done for others. Match up your special skills and abilities with the needs of your friends and family. Sharing your knowledge is a great present: Teach someone a skill or a craft, such as fixing a bike, bookmaking, how to cook a dish your recipient loves to eat, how to take better photographs, or bring someone bird-watching or tidepooling. Teach lifelong skills like reading or giving a haircut. What else do you know that someone would like to learn? Draw up a nice gift certificate that marks the formality and seriousness of your intent.

What do your friends and family need help with? As a gift, you could take on a task that someone might find hard or cumbersome. Caulk someone’s windows, help winterize their home, or perform a building repair. Make an herb container garden for their porch; break off some of your compost and help spread it on their yard; weed their yard at just the right time in the season; take care of their pet so that they can go on that pet-free vacation they’ve had to put off. Cook, decorate, and host a party with them. Tune up their car. Get their computer on regular backups.

Another way you might serve your friend or family member is by volunteering at an organization that they that they support, such as a women’s shelter. Find out the interests of your friends and family and get to work in their names. Many people are also working to lose weight during the holidays, or after the New Year. If this is you, pick a volunteer gig that involves physical activity such as shoreline or creek restoration rather than wasting all that unharnessed energy on a treadmill. You might also arrange a day to plant trees together with your friend, or share a similar environmentally oriented activity.

If you know an organization your friend or family member likes, you could make a donation on their behalf. For example, you could donate to an organization that will plant trees in your friends’ names, or provide an animal or beehive to a family restarting their lives after earthquake or drought, organized by groups like Heifer International, www​.heifer​.org.

Not all ecotourism has to happen in exotic faraway places. For a fun trip off the beaten path, organize a farm tour that you and your family and friends can take to learn about California agriculture. The University of California Small Farm Center’s California Agritourism Database lists an array of great places to go, and most are free. You’ll find everything from farm to micro-brewery tours, as well as family-friendly sites with petting zoos. Find and arrange a trip through CalAgTour​.org.

Another way to support sustainable agriculture while giving a practical and sure-to-be-used present is through gift certificates to local farmers’ markets. You could also subscribe someone to a year or six months of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) produce box. Providing access to healthy food during these hard times is money well spent.

Animals and pets are being hit hard by the economic downturn, too; many people who have lost their houses or jobs are no longer able to care for their pets and must turn them over to shelters. If you’re able, adopt a pet as a gift. Or, if you have a friend who loves animals, arrange a visit to Farm Sanctuary (FarmSanctuary​.org) north of Sacramento. You can visit their farm and support their rescue and shelter operations.

Now, about craftmaking. There are lots of straightforward, inspiring books and classes on do-it-yourself projects, and they run a wide range: homemade bath and body treatments made from natural ingredients like Epsom salts, essential oil, and olive oil; or gifts that incorporate your artistic skills, wood crafting, candlemaking, or framed photography. One year my brother and sister-in law made an assortment of mustards for everyone, and I still remember how good they were.

If you find yourself heading into the stores to buy gifts, here are three suggestions to help maintain spiritual and environmental soundness. First, celebrate and observe Buy Nothing Day, which is the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year. Take a break from consumerism in solidarity with others around the globe. Second, watch the online video The Story of Stuff (available free at StoryofStuff​.com) to center your thoughts. This well-told outline describes just where all these products come from, where they end up, and the harm that happens to people and the environment along the consumer chain. It reminds us of all the reasons it’s imperative to buy less and more thoughtfully.

Finally, when you’re going to purchase, follow these practices: If you buy a new item, be sure that the gift is durable and repairable, and that it isn’t so faddish it’ll shortly end up in the garbage heap. Avoid overly packaged products, and when you can, choose gifts that are energy-efficient, wind-up, rechargeable, or recyclable. Don’t buy items made from unsustainable materials such as teak, rosewood, or mahogany; try to choose items that are marked “fair trade” or are produced by workers’ collectives. When buying new body care products, first look up the toxicity of the ingredients at the Environmental Working Groups’ SkinDeep database, available at EWG​.org. Stay away from cheap electronics sales—from manufacture to disposal, electronics take a heavy toll on the environment, so if you buy any, buy ones that are going to last. Consider a solar charger for iPods and cell phones. If your products are being shipped, use ground shipping; it’s six times more energy efficient than overnight air.

Choosing something used, recaptured, antique, or not newly manufactured is the best choice. You might score a fantastic item for your friend at a reuse shop, yard sale, or at a used surplus sale. Some camping equipment companies hold annual sales in which they sell lightly used returned items at heavily discounted rates—find out about such sales in your area. Or pick a bona fide craft fair and support your local artisans and craftspeople, or check out online craft site Etsy​.com. Many items—although not all—for sale in these venues have a low impact on the environment.

Whether you give your talents, time, and care to your friends and family, make a craft or donate, put emphasis on thoughtfulness and know that you have done your part for good cheer.

[Photo by elana's pantry]


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