It’s that time of year again – we’ve got halls to deck, presents to wrap, feasts to plan and a whole load of festive cheer to soak up.
If like me you’re looking forward to a fun-filled and joyful festive season. But hopefully you also want to cut back on the usual levels of waste, consumption, plastic, toxic glitter and unwanted gifts. If so, then read on.
This is your guide to how to have an eco friendly and generally more sustainable Christmas while still bringing plenty of warmth, love and light when we need it most.
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1) switch to eco friendly christmas packaging
This is probably the most obvious place to start when it comes to having an eco friendly and sustainable Christmas, but it’s also one of the most important. A whopping 227,000 miles worth of wrapping paper is thrown in the bin after Christmas Day, not to mention a large chunk of the 300,000 tonnes of cardboard packing used to send presents in the post.
Then you’ve got sticky tape, tags, bows, and of course all the card and plastic packing that comes with the presents themselves.
Just the simple act of choosing recycled and recyclable, or even reusable, Christmas wrapping can make a huge difference.
There are lots of wonderful creative ideas around this year and some of my favourite eco friendly Christmas wrapping and packaging options include:
Frugi’s organic Christmas Furoshiki Cloth (inspired by traditional Japanese wrapping techniques)
If you’re on a budget, I’m also loving the simple brown wrapping paper look, with simple cotton string and natural materials such as dried oranges, cinnamon sticks, fir leaves or star anais as plastic-free decor. If that doesn’t fit your style, many high street stores have recycled or recyclable wrapping paper too – just look out for designs that are paper only with no glitter or foil element.
I’ve been collecting loads of inspiration for my own wrapping in my Ethical Holiday Ideas board on Pinterest if you’d like to take a look – give me a follow while you’re at it, I post loads of great ethical and natural solutions!
2) find an alternative to your christmas tree
I know, I know – ethical Christmases are all well and good but getting rid of the TREE?? Outrageous! Heresy!
But I’m sure I’m not the only one that sees all those discarded Christmas trees lined up on streets on the first bin day of January and feels thoroughly depressed – we throw away a devastating 6 million Christmas trees every year that could go to compost. But even if you sent it to compost, it’s still a pretty wasteful act: growing an entire tree from scratch, chopping it down, putting it in your house for a month, if that, then getting rid of it.
What about fake trees? Surely the fact that you’re using it again and again makes it better, right? The main problem with fake trees is that their core component is plastic, no matter how realistic they look, and that makes their carbon footprint pretty epic. Buying a secondhand fake tree would be the better option here.
But how would it be if you thought beyond the tree and did something else altogether? Again I’ve been sharing lots of alternative to trees on my Ethical Holiday Ideas Pinterest board, but I thought I’d share my own family tradition with you.
Before Christmas trees where imported to the UK from Germany, people used to decorate their homes with boughs (or “bowers) of greenery at the winter solstice. This tradition stills hangs around in the form of mistletoe and door wreaths. Anyway, my dad’s side of the family passed down the old school greenery bower and steadfastly refused to take on the “new-fangled trend” of the Christmas tree (I swear, this was 100% my grandad’s stick-in-the-mud thinking…!)
So every year we would go on a woodland walk and collect ivy, holly and other evergreens from the local forests, taking only what we needed and thanking the land. Then we’d bundle up at home all nice and warm in front of the fire with a hot chocolate and make our bower – three hoops fashioned together into a globe, covered in fairy lights, greenery and sparkly decorations, all suspended from the ceiling. It’s always been frustratingly difficult to capture in all its glory but this photo should give you an idea of how it looks (I know there’s plastic tinsel galore on there, but that’s genuinely about as old as me now!)
We did this every year as a family growing up and it’s a wonderful tradition, especially since it involved getting outdoors as a family and foraging for the materials. It may or may not be your thing but my point is that a tree isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all of festive decor. There are lots of alternatives out there that can be just as exciting and enriching for you and your family.
3) find an alternative advent calendar
Plastic chocolate advent calendars have become so popular in recent years and they certainly are incredibly exciting for children. But all that mixed material – single use plastic, foil and glitter – make them impossible to recycle chocolate and they create a huge amount of waste.
Last year I made an adorable felt calendar with little stuffed animals in each pocket, from a pattern by Japanese crafting expert Sachiyo Ishii.
It was a lovely fun project and I hope it will become a family heirloom that Ursula will enjoy for years to come as a family tradition.
Some of my other favourite zero or low waste advent calendar ideas include:
4) eco friendly crackers
Maybe I’m a Scrooge here but I’m genuinely not that fussed by Christmas crackers and would quite happily ditch them – even as a child I found them a bit pointless and wasteful! But I know for many it’s a staple of the Christmas feast, so let’s try and find some alternatives using less glitter and plastic.
If you’re handy with a sewing machine I found this tutorial on how to make your own reusable fabric crackers, or if you’re more into glue and paper then here’s a great post on making DIY plastic-free crackers.
If the thought of making your own fills you with dread then Etsy is your friend, as always! I found these beautiful reusable fabric ones and some lovely fabric crowns to go inside. Alternatively here are some lovely minimalist personalised brown paper crackers that come with hat and joke but space for your own gift; and a DIY cracker kit made with seed paper so you can plant wildflowers for the spring.
As for fillers if you’re going the fill-your-own route, how about vegan and Fairtrade lip balm tins, individually wrapped organic vegan truffles from Booja Booja, or charming keyrings that double up as a papercraft punch? For the younger members of the family I found these colourful wooden spinning tops which are just the perfect size for fitting into a cracker.
5) eat no (or at least less) meat
Now I grew up 100% vegetarian, have been vegan or plant based for around 5 years and have never knowingly had a bite of meat so I’m very aware that it’s easy for me to say this – but cutting out (or at least cutting back!) on the levels of meat is a really simple way to have a more sustainable Christmas.
Meat and dairy accounts for an estimated 14.5% of global emissions, including the poultry and pork products that are particularly popular at Christmas. Not only that, a huge amount of it goes in the bin as people find their eyes are bigger than their stomachs (more on food waste later).
Vegan Christmas buffets don’t have to consist of a dry nut roast and a watery gravy substitute anymore. The internet is overflowing with amazingly creative vegan and plant based recipe creators who are coming up with awesome turkey alternatives. My favourite is the lovely Ania from Lazy Cat Kitchen but again I’m posting loads of ideas on my Ethical Holiday Ideas board over on Pinterest, so give it a follow for some inspiration.
6) buy less food
Speaking of Christmas dinner, whatever you decide to cook for it, simply buying LESS FOOD in general is an easy way to make Christmas more ethical and sustainable.
Over four million plates worth of Christmas dinners are thrown away every year, equivalent to 263,000 turkeys, 7.5 million mince pies, 740,000 portions of Christmas pudding and 11.3 million roast potatoes.
Given that we’ve got hardworking NHS workers using food banks here in the UK that’s pretty outrageous, actually.
Christmas might traditionally be a time of excessive feasting but maybe we can all dial it back a bit this year and just buy what we need.
And on the subject of food banks, please head over to the Trussel Trust UK website to find your nearest one and make a festive donation of food or other essentials. If Christmas is about anything it’s about giving so if you’re going to add an extra pack of mince pies to the shopping trolley, why not give them to someone in need in your community.
7) rethink & repurpose christmas cards
Although many people have stopped sending Christmas cards anyway (snail mail is soooooo 20th century after all…), for many of us it’s a way to wish a happy festive season to someone we’re not buying a gift for. Let’s face it though, they do create a lot of waste.
Start to think creatively about how you can cut back on the waste created by Christmas cards. Plantable Christmas cards containing wildflower seeds are growing popularity. If you’re crafty, you could make your own cards from recyclable materials.
Meanwhile, try to give last year’s cards a second life by cutting them up and using them as gift tags.
8) ditch the glitter crafts
One things I’d never considered when I became pregnant was how, two years later, I’d find myself being encouraged to cause so much waste through glitter and plastic-based baby and toddler crafts and activities.
Whether it’s zip-lock sensory bags, glittery pom poms floating in water bottles or the ubiquitous googly eyes stuck onto toilet roll bumblebees, there is a LOT of waste in the early years craft and activity world, and indeed the adult crafting world. Add Christmas glitter on top of that and I can practically hear the landfills wincing!
Now I am very much not an activities blogger but I’ve dug out a few folks on Instagram who are doing some lovely children’s activities that are low or zero waste, with an emphasis on natural materials:
9) boycott amazon
Ever since I started this blog I’ve been using ethical retailers only, as I knew I couldn’t claim to be writing about ethical subjects while encouraging my readers to go and shop at Amazon.
I think most of us know by now that Amazon is a terrible place to shop, but just a few facts to remind you:
- They treat their workers badly, making them work in gruelling and unsafe conditions, including inadequate COVID protections
- They suppress all attempts to improve conditions, including attempts to set up a worker’s union
- Despite being started by the world’s richest man who earns an unfathomable $3,715 per SECOND, Amazon aggressively avoids paying tax anywhere. They have paid just $3.4bn in tax so far this decade despite achieving revenues of $960.5bn and profits of $26.8bn
- Not only do they avoid taxes, they are actively quashing attempts to fund socially important projects through business tax, as in Seattle where Amazon helped kill off a business levy that was intended to fund affordable housing.
- They are helping to facilitate aggressive US-Mexico immigrant deportations
- Amazon Prime in particular is responsible for a huge increase in excess packaging – if you’ve ever received a single tiny item in a massive box you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!
That’s not even all the reasons Amazon is bad, to be honest, so make sure you give your hard-earned cash to someone more deserving!
10) shop local, indie, preloved & ethical
So that brings me neatly onto the next tip, which is to choose where you DO spend your money more consciously.
I think shopping locally is the most positive things you can do right now, since you’re supporting members of your local community in a very difficult time for the high street. Getting out there and making the effort to go into your local small stores will be very much appreciated by the business and their staff.
Shopping secondhand via charity shops or your local online selling groups is another option. I buy the majority of Ursula’s clothes and toys preloved and I’ve picked up some wonderful finds for myself too. I don’t see any reason not to start normalising giving preloved gifts for Christmas.
That said most people do still prefer to buy new. I’ve got a post on some of my favourite eco-friendly Christmas gifts for the family to give you some inspiration.
Meanwhile, here are my favourite places to find unique treasures that are either sold by sustainable companies or small, independent sellers:
Etsy – I’ve found some gorgeous items on there for both my own wishlist and other people’s presents, including the wonderful ColourMeJ who makes scarves, headbands and face masks made from stunning African fabrics.
Veo London – a range of beautiful eco-friendly and ethical gifts where you can filter by values, such as plastic-free, vegan etc.
Frugi – when I do buy new for Ursula I only buy from Frugi. Their organic clothing is so fun and colourful, mostly ungendered and they go to great lengths to make sure their packaging is as green as possible. They also sell things like water bottles, lunchboxes, wellies and backpacks, and an increasing range of adult’s clothing too!
World Of Books – if books are on your Christmas shopping list, I invite you to consider online secondhand booksellers World Of Books. I realise many of us are wedded to the idea that gifts need to be brand new, but WOB sell a great many books in nearly-new condition so you honestly don’t need to worry about the quality. I’ve had books described as in only “Very Good” condition appearing barely read and I personally would have no qualms in giving someone a book from these sellers. World Of Books also give back by donating thousands of books every year to children in poor communities so you can get a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing you’re supporting a genuinely good business.
Neals Yard Remedies – I have always love Neals Yard Remedies ever since my mother took me to their flagship apothecary store in a quiet corner of London’s Covent Garden as a child. The sights and smells of all the interesting, hand-blended potions and remedies was an evocative experience. Now they’ve gone global but are very much still committed to the ethics of their small, humble, natural health roots. In 2014 they were the first health and beauty brand to score 100/100 for ethics by the Ethical Company Organisation so their credentials are literally impeccable.
11) give all handmade gifts
If you’re crafty yourself you could choose to give all homemade presents. If you’re worried about how they will be received, mention it in advance to people and let them know you are making gifts this year, and even encourage them to do the same.
My husband’s family did this one year and his gift as a composer and trumpet player was to write and perform a song all about their family Christmas traditions. That was over a decade ago but they still ask him to perform it again every year! You might not be musical but my point is that doing something a bit different can lead to some wonderful new traditions, experiences and memories.
For those family members who are likely to appreciate handmade gifts, you could consider knitting/crocheting clothing, making bath bombs, soaps and other beauty treatments, baking, concocting seasonal fruit liqueurs, or sewing or embroidering homewares such as cushion covers and placemats. Hey, you could even go old-skool and make a mix tape…!
Most people will genuinely appreciate you going to the time and effort of making something completely unique just for them.
12) give one big present
With 1 in 9 Brits sending unwanted gifts back to where they came from, there’s clearly a lot of misguided gift-giving going on out there.
Far more sustainable an option would be to decided to give just one big gift rather than lots of smaller ones, perhaps in the form of the increasingly popular “Secret Santa” approach within families.
Our families have been doing this for a few years now to make Christmas easier on everybody. We all get a name picked for us from an online random name-drawing website and have a strict budget of up to £50 to spend on that person. Everyone is encouraged to do an online wish list too to reduce the amount of returned gifts.
13) make a wreath that feeds the birds
Birds really struggle to find food over the winter, so instead of putting up more plastic why not help our feathered friends while also decorating your front door?
The Wildlife Trust has a wonderful tutorial on how to make a bird-friendly wreath so you can not only have a traditional decoration but you get the chance to see some beautiful wildlife up close.
14) reuse or upcycle your christmas jumper
I never really got the whole ironically-cheesy Christmas jumper thing but they have become a big thing (at least here in the UK) in recent years so I feel I have to mention it.
Most commercial novelty Christmas jumpers have a large amount of plastic in them and tend to be fairly low quality. Add on that the fact that 2 out of 5 Christmas jumpers only get worn once before being relegated to the charity shop, back of the wardrobe or, sadly, the bin, and they can be pretty wasteful.
If you’re a Christmas jumper fan though, Twinkl have a guide to making a DIY version.
Or if you want to celebrate all those jumpers from years gone by for an excellent cause, Save the Children run a campaign to get schools, workplaces and communities fundraising while wearing their silliest Xmas garms. While you’re over there, Save the Children also have a sustainable gift section so you can also get some presents bought in the name of a good cause.
15) share the load
When we think of what it takes to have a sustainable Christmas, making it eco friendly is probably the first thing we think of. But for my last tip, I wanted to address a different kind of sustainability – making it sustainable for you.
There was an almighty uproar on social media a while back when the UK’s Independent SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) published a report which claimed:
“Women carry the burden of creating and maintaining family traditions and activities at Christmas. Messaging should be supportive of women adapting traditions and encouraging those around them to share the burden and to be supportive of any alterations to adapt for Covid-19 restrictions.”
It’s not hard to see why there was a furore over on Twitter about whether this was a deeply sexist or simply a blunt comment about the reality for many women. If the parenting groups on Facebook are anything to go by, it would certainly seem that it’s largely women putting in the emotional, mental and physical labour of manifesting things like elves on shelves, Christmas feasts, stocking fillers and trips to grottos.
But whether you’re male or female reading this blog, the fact that you’re researching how to make Christmas more sustainable and generally better for everyone tells me that YOU care a LOT.
Do what you can to go easy on yourself this year and make sure you distribute the labour associated with this holiday season among the others in your household and wider family. Parenting (and life in general!) is exhausting and you deserve to relax and let go over the festive season.
So that’s it for my top 15 tips for a more eco friendly, sustainable Christmas. I hope you found some helpful hints on here. Happy holidays and I wish you a joyful, healthful and abundant 2024!