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Sustainable Holidays

It’s that time of year when winter starts to take hold and we prepare for celebrations and the arrival of the new year. No matter what your beliefs or what holidays you celebrate, this is the time of year for gift-giving and parties. Personally, it is a bittersweet time for me. On one hand, I love spending time with family and friends, giving gifts to loved ones, eating delicious foods and enjoying the first big snow falls. The bitter part is the thought of all the waste and other environmental impacts that come along with the holidays. According to Vanderbilt University, Americans throw away about 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve than the rest of the year. That’s not to mention the increased emissions from shipping and other transportation, the 35% of gifts that go unused every year, the immensespending to large corporations across the globe, and the use of an incredible amount of resources (most of them artificial or petroleum-based) to produce said gifts. I don’t want to be a downer, but this is how my waste-conscious mind works!

The good news is that we all have control over our own actions and with a little research, some gift innovation, and an open-mind with a willingness to go beyond conventional practices, we can personally make our holidays sustainable. That way we can still enjoy this wonderful time of year free of guilt and knowing that we are doing our best to meet our current needs without compromising the needs of future generations.

Whether you are bringing a gift for a party host, celebrating any number of holidays, or are just plain being nice, Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day alone accounts for 20-25% of all retail sales. People are buying a lot of stuff in just over a month! People are going to buy gifts but it’s important to choose wisely.

My first choice is to shop local whenever possible. Not only do I get more unique gifts, but I am supporting my community and drastically decreasing shipping and other environmental impacts of big box stores.

Food as gifts is one of my go-to options (and not just because I work at the Co-op!). I seek out Wisconsin-grown or made food or drink items that I think are delicious and give them to my friends and family. To me it covers a lot of concerns:

  • They’re unique to Wisconsin.
  • I can share something you can’t get elsewhere.
  • There is little-to-minimal waste associated with it.
  • I don’t get bored of food...usually.
  • I can share it.

Purchasing fair-trade, non-GMO and organic whenever possible is a must for me, especially if it’s a gift. You even get the added bonus of even more “green sustainability points.” Willy Street Co-op has so many wonderful options that fit this criteria. I personally think nothing says happy holidays like some 10 Year Hook’s Wisconsin Cheddar, Underground Butcher charcuterie, Potter’s Crackers and some black garlic. Yummy!

Here are a couple of other great sustainable gift ideas:

  • Consignment or used gifts can be a very affordable options and most are in perfectly good condition.
  • Support local by purchasing things like theater tickets, charitable donations or gift certificates.
  • Give a gift that helps someone “go green” like LED lights, reusable water bottle, energy efficient appliance, etc.
  • Volunteer in the name of a friend or family member.
  • Donate in the name of a friend or family member.
  • Re-gift instead of purchasing a brand new gift.
  • Give the gift of a membership to a local organization (like Willy Street Co-op!).
  • Check out or for more suggestions.

Gift Wrap & Cards
If every American family wrapped just three presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields. I urge you to get creative with gift wrap, reuse paper if you can or, if you have to, buy some paper products made from recycled material and, at the very least, make sure it is recyclable itself since not all gift wrap is recyclable.

At the Co-op, we have a number of responsibly sourced, made-from-recycled-material and fully-compostable gift wrap products including bags, wrapping paper rolls and accessories.

Holiday cards can also be very wasteful. About 2.65 billion holiday cards are sold in the United States each year—that’s enough to fill a football stadium 10 stories high! If you aregoing to send holiday cards, make sure you source them responsibly and consider local producers who use recycled paper and/or sustainably farmed paper as well as produced with natural inks like soy. You don’t have to give them up completely, but you can certainly buy them responsibly. Check out the variety of cards the Co-op offers that fulfill these concerns.

Another part of the holiday season is the insane amount of decorations that are purchased and used every year. A lot of what I mentioned about gifts applies to decorations as well. Throughout history, food and other natural items like branches, berries, cones and other natural materials were used to “spruce-up” (like what I did there?) houses for the season. It’s always fun to do craft projects with kids and using natural supplies is much more affordable.

If you do buy lights of any kind, look into LEDs for greatly improved energy efficiency and life of the bulbs. LEDs are available in nearly any form now and the investment is well worth it. Also, use timers to avoid leaving the lights on all night.

Traveling & Shipping
December is also the month for traveling and shipping products. Shipping can be abated by shopping local but that is not always possible. Really the only way to truly travel and ship sustainably is not to do it at all, but that’s not really an option. Until infrastructure and fuel sources dramatically change, the best thing to do is to utilize eco-tourism tips and to offset your traveling/shipping emissions. There are quite a few wonderful organizations out there that establish and/or protect existing forests as well as develop and install renewable energy systems to “ offset” the emissions from traveling (check out The benefits of this are extremely limited but it does help to finance carbon-reducing projects that otherwise would not have happened.

No matter how you celebrate in December, most likely you will be buying or giving something to someone else, traveling to some extent and eating. When you do, make sure you think about your great grandchildren and beyond before you buy, wrap or travel. The best gift we could possible give, is the health and beauty of our planet to future generations.

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