8 Sustainable Gifting Traditions to Start With Friends and Family This Year


Christmas gift exchange ideas: an older person handing a gift in white wrapping paper with a red bow to a young child

Gift giving can become an overwhelming task during the holidays. Your list probably encompasses not just immediate family, but extended family, friends, neighbors, your boss and that new guy Tim that you drew for the office Secret Santa.

Amidst all that gift giving, how many times have you ended up receiving things you never actually use? Once? Twice? More than you count on your hands? I’m guessing most of us will fall into the latter category.

While Christmas gift exchanges are a festive and fun tradition, it also results in a lot of waste. Roughly 25% of items bought during the holiday season get returned, and that doesn’t account for all the well-intentioned gifts that ended up in closets or under beds waiting to be regifted or donated.

If you’re looking to take a more intentional and sustainable approach to gift giving this year, here are some Christmas gift exchange ideas that will be kinder to the planet and possibly your wallet too.

8 Christmas Gift Exchange Ideas for a More Sustainable and Intentional Holiday Season

Christmas gift exchange ideas: a person tying a red bow an a gift under a Christmas tree

1. Secondhand gift exchange

It may be hard to convince everyone, but see if your family would consider doing secondhand gifts only. A thrifted gift will always be more sustainable than buying new and by opting for secondhand you’re narrowing your scope of options. This may seem like it would make gift giving harder, but sometimes it can make it easier by reducing decision paralysis.

For instance, if you can get a gift from anywhere, you have essentially an infinite amount of options to choose from. It makes it much harder to choose the “best” one. With secondhand gifts, much of that decision paralysis disappears. It also forces people to get more creative and thoughtful with the gifts they do pick out.

You might also be surprised to discover just how many things you can find secondhand. Sites like Back Market make it easy to find secondhand technology, Facebook Marketplace is a great place to shop for home goods, Poshmark and Depop are great for clothes, and of course your local secondhand shops are worth checking out too.

Related: Thrift Like a Pro—Everything You Need to Know About Building a Pre-Loved Wardrobe

2. Mug exchange

A mug exchange would be a great option for co-workers or friends. After all, pretty much everyone is guaranteed to use a mug. It can operate just like a white elephant gift exchange, but instead of a free-for- all on gifts, everyone has to bring in either a mug they already own or one they found secondhand.

Everyone exchanges and guesses who brought which mug. It’s not only a cute low-waste Christmas gift exchange idea, but a fun way to get to know people’s personalities (I find you can tell a lot about a person based on the mugs they fancy).

3. Don’t judge a book by its cover

Similar to the mug exchange, this would be a fun idea for friends or co-workers. Everyone would be asked to bring in a book, either secondhand or from their own collection. The book should be wrapped so no one can see the cover, and everyone takes a turn picking one out. Again, a fun way to get to know people’s personalities, and everyone could use a good book to read, so minimal waste is involved.

4. Experience gift exchange

Experience gifts can work for a wide range of people, but I think they work especially well for families with grown children. Typically, once everyone in the family is of age to fend for themselves, finding “things” to gift each other becomes difficult. Experiences on the other hand are something we never age out of.

Whether it’s concert tickets, money toward a plane ticket, paying for a cooking class, or a rock climbing class, or anything else your recipient might be interested in, you’re gifting them a memory rather than a thing. They’ll be able to take that experience with them and remember it for (hopefully) a lifetime, rather than throwing it to the back of their closet after a few months.

5. Four-gifts-only rule

The amount of gifts you should give can often be ambiguous. Setting a four-gift limit and assigning categories can enable you to shop more intentionally. For instance, I’ve heard of people gifting something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read. This helps narrow down the scope of what you’re looking for and can make shopping feel like a fun scavenger hunt rather than resulting in that decision paralysis I mentioned earlier.

Related: Here Are 7 Ways to Make Your Gift Wrapping More Planet-Friendly

6. DIY gift exchange

DIY gift exchanges can be fun for friends, neighbors, or even co-workers. The best part is that people can interpret “DIY” as they see fit. It could mean sharing a baked good, gifting a handmade scarf, or sharing a gift made from thrifted, upcycled materials. Ultimately, a DIY gift exchange helps you avoid making more generic purchases from your local big box store, and instead prompts you to create something unique, thoughtful, and typically low-waste.

7. Charitable gift exchange

Instead of gifting items to each other, consider donating to charitable organizations instead. You could even do this exchange Secret Santa style, by opting to donate a specified amount to an organization that your recipient is passionate about. You could still make it a fun game by making each person guess which organization was donated to on their behalf by exchanging letters that include hints.

8. Adopt-a-Family

It’s important to remember that not every kid will wake up to a pile of presents under the Christmas tree this year. Help a family in need through an Adopt-a-Family program. You can research local options, often offered through Salvation Army, local churches, or other organizations. The goal of most of these programs is to provide families with the support they need to have a holiday celebration. This typically includes purchasing gifts or providing grocery gift cards for a holiday meal.

This could be a nice tradition to start with your family to remind everyone of the importance of giving and gratitude during the holiday season. It doesn’t necessarily mean you forgo gifts within your own family, but it’s a nice way to spread the love. Plus, if you have little ones you can get the whole family involved by having the kids help pick out the presents.

If you enjoyed reading about these sustainable Christmas gift exchange ideas and are craving more sustainable living tips, then sign up for The Eco Edit! You’ll be joining hundreds of other pro-planet enthusiasts who are passionate about bettering the world through small, sustainable steps

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