On 9 September 2013, Kmart (an American chain of discount stores) aired its first Christmas advert, giving shoppers a mere 106 days to make their Christmas purchases. It starts earlier every year, and it’s not just businesses who ask us to shop. During the recession in the UK, politicians took to the air to encourage people to engage enthusiastically in the Christmas shopping ritual. What would happen to GDP and growth, economists fretted, if people decided not to buy each other Christmas presents?
It’s common to hear complaints of how Christmas has become commercialized, a sad symbol of our capitalist and consumerist dystopia. And, related to this, people often bemoan the waste left behind by the spending spree: plastic toys that are broken and thrown away by January, odd kitchen implements that are never used, replica soccer shirts that need to be replaced by the next season.
For a while, this waste was merely depressing. Increasingly, though, it has been joined to broader concerns about environmentalism and sustainability. Buying plastic contraptions that serve little purpose and will be consigned to landfill is hard to justify not just from a philosophical perspective but from an environmental one too. Can we afford to continue our culture of gift giving as economic impetus? Should we rethink how we approach birthdays, religious festivals, and other celebrations?
Sustainable presents exist, of course; many people have given and received them even before environmental issues came to the fore. But it might be good to think about the options now. As usual, and as the comments of the UK politicians highlighted, we face a conflict between short-term economic interests and the long-term issue of sustainability. We can start the debate by reflecting on what kind of sustainable presents exist.
One German company has adopted this approach, publishing a guidebook entitled “Nachhaltig schenken” (“Giving sustainably”). As they write, “Sustainable gifts stand out from other gifts in a number of ways. The gift-giver has not just thought about what the recipient would take pleasure in; the act of gift-giving also involves reflection about the ecological, economic, and social aspects of how the gift was made and whether it fulfills sustainable requirements or not. … A sustainable gift encourages both gift-giver and recipient to think about how we live and how we might live better.”
The free e-book (in German) contains helpful tips, check lists, interviews with experts and lots of information on giving useful and sustainable presents. German speakers can download a copy here.