Rethinking the way we give gifts

Mayuri Wijayasundara

Mayuri Wijayasundara

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Gift-giving has been an age-old practice and has evolved to fit different traditions and cultural norms over time. They were given on special occasions to display one’s affection or as incentives and rewards.

But over time, this wholesome practice has turned into a well-oiled machine of consumerism. We, as consumers have turned to practices such as giving gifts that often lay collecting dust on forgotten basements or landfills. Not only has this act of thoughtfulness turned into a shallow expression of instantaneous gratification but has also led to a lot of unutilized or underutilized products, hence wasted material.

Let’s look at some facts,

  • The overall cost of unwanted gifts over the holidays worldwide is approximately $24 billion USD with an estimated waste of £700 million in the UK, $400 million in Australia, and $13 billion in the US.
  • In the UK in 2018, it was estimated that Brits threw away the equivalent of 108 million rolls of wrapping paper after Christmas was over.
  • Five million tons of waste is generated over Christmas, four million of which is wrapping paper and shopping bags in the USA
  • It is estimated that around 50,000 trees are cut down each year to make enough wrapping paper.

Impacts of gifts on the environment

The first aspect to question about a gift is whether it would be useful and desirable to the receiver. If it is functionally not useful, technically, the valuable material in the wrong place, in other words, waste, that has an environmental cost in creating a gesture.

Another aspect is the extent of value added to the product to make it look and feel “special”, which is often boosted through unnecessary packaging.

So, for giving to be worthwhile and less burdensome on the environment, what would we need to do?

Questioning the practice of gift giving

As every product satisfies a fundamental human need, the thoughtfulness of giving a gift can simply be shifted to questioning, “what needs of the recipient do you intend to fulfill by giving?”

It would not be difficult to identify the “service” or the “utility” that a gift is associated with if you look at it from that point of view. Going for low-impact and regenerative ways of satisfying that need and communicating thoughtfulness or affection through it can be a good place to start.

What are 6 ways to rethink gift giving?

1 Give services as gifts for growth, experience, and satisfaction

This is a great opportunity for a person to try something new, grow and learn. Compared to a tangible item being produced, when you take part in an activity, there is less environmental impact in general. In addition, they are very personal and memorable. Some examples could be music lessons, intriguing online classes, or a subscription to an entertainment platform.

2 Look for preloved or second-hand gifts

Though gifts are sometimes valued based on how new and expensive they are, they do not need to be. If the product has the same utility and is still usable, giving a preloved gift is a great way to reduce the impact of producing it brand new. There is immense potential seen in this sector of pre-loved and used items with a study in the retail sector showing that the resale market is expected to nearly double between 2015 and 2022 with apparel and electronics leading the way.

3 Give access to gifts and products rather than the product itself

Gifting a means of accessing products instead of the gift itself can be worthwhile. Providing a membership to a toy library rather than buying a toy, or library membership rather than a book could open up a world of new gifts. These types of gift ideas might also introduce your loved one to a new lifestyle and a way of living, in addition to having the ability to experience a wide variety of choices, instead of just one.

4 Give the choice to the receiver

Rather than buying items that would be kept on shelves and discarded, giving gift vouchers is a handy way to help the receiver to buy an item they need. This will prevent them from spending unnecessarily on additional products and replace their consumer spending with your gift.

5 Say no to expensive packaging as a way of differentiation

It is evident that some packaging is made exquisite to communicate how special/unique it is. The packaging is used as a differentiator to charge premium prices. Some classic examples include perfumes and home care items with lavish packaging.

The more these tactics are encouraged by consumers, the more they will be used as a differentiator, to upsell regular products. Customers can question this aspect by asking for more information about the packaging and making informed decisions about how to spend their money.

6 Say no to trinkets

Souvenirs and replicas, coming in the form of stuffed animals, plaques etc. are often items that collect dust and bring less practical use on a day-to-day basis. While some might carry sentimental value, there is a limit that we can accumulate more and more of these items which we don’t use and keep it close to us. So, it is likely that they will clutter up where we live and be relegated to the basement or attic.

How we overcome this from the givers’ point of view would need thinking. As an example, if the same thing is given to a mass of people, gifting products that have a high frequency of use and high utility, which people usually do not have a particular taste for (e.g. towels, cups, and mugs) may ensure its use more than otherwise.

Ultimately, the gifts we give in a regenerative society, are gifts to celebrate – not just because it means something to the receiver, but because it is respectful to the environment.