Sustainable gift ideas

Some people dread Christmas shopping – buying stuff for the sake of giving something. I don’t; in fact I see it as an opportunity to support ethical and/or sustainable businesses.

One Christmas I shuffled along in a crowd, desperately searching for compatible gifts. Under the pressure, my heart was beating 10 times faster than the PA’s Drummer Boy and it was dark outside but here I was inside under lights and loud decorations. Ugh!!!

It was Christmas Eve and while I succeeded in buying the presents I needed to, it was hardly fun and I swore I would never do it again.

Now I keep a running Christmas list on my phone – starting as early as September – so I don’t get stuck again. I pick up hints from conversations and gradually add to the list. It helps me buy things that friends and family actually need or would like.

I love practical gifts – for adults at least. Gruen says that makes me a ‘paternalistic’ gift giver. You can’t go wrong if you give things you know someone is going to use or need.

Take toilet paper. Everyone uses it and Who Gives a Crap (a subscription service for toilet paper made from bamboo and sugarcane and donates 50% of proceeds to building toilets in developing countries) has some great Christmas themed bulk toilet rolls this year! But if you’re buying a box of it you’d need to be sure the recipient would appreciate it.

Here’s some other sustainable gift ideas gleaned from friends, family and colleagues.

Kids – think experiences

One of my colleagues went online and bought tickets to kids’ shows at the Victorian Arts Centre for her two young girls. Perfect!

My son has been nagging to go to a nearby amusement park, so I might put entry and ride tickets into an envelope under the tree.

I’ve also bought some smaller paper-based presents for him and other kids – playing cards, puzzles, joke books and board games. I avoid plastic toys at all costs – they don’t just crack and break, they never break down in the environment once kids grow out of them and rarely can they facilitate fun interactions and repeated use like games can.

Father/brother – think organic cotton

There’s still a place for socks and jocks in my family.

My parents are the sort who have everything they want so they could be considered difficult to buy for but Dad still gets around in holey singlets and boxer shorts. Blessed Earth or Bhumi Organic have the perfect replacements. Blessed Earth always delivers quickly and it usually has sales on so you can be sure to pick up a bargain (such as $3 organic socks!).

There are a stack of other ideas for guys (and girls) in our Father’s Day ethical gift ideas story.

Mother/sister – think ethical fashion or pampering

A voucher to some ethical fashion retailers is guaranteed to please.

There are lots to chose from – ALAS (sleepwear), Betty Browne (street wear), Surrender (gym) all have gorgeous clothes from organic cotton or other sustainable sources.

A friend phones her sister-in-law’s hairdresser and pays her next appointment in advance. You could do the same for other treatments like massages.

If you like to give skin and hair care there are lots of companies to choose from. Some Australian brands that we love and trust because they bend over backwards to formulate truly natural and organic products are Vanessa Megan (based in Sydney and it has a really wide range, including alcohol free perfumes), Jasmin Organics and zk’in organics.

The person you didn’t expect a gift from

Neighbours can be surprising.

How awkward is it when they turn up with a present on Christmas morning and you have nothing in return?!

If this is likely to happen to you make sure you have organic chocolates on hand. There are stacks of options available from local organic or health shops – better still if you’re near an amazing Pana Chocolate shop in Melbourne or Sydney.

Organic wine is another winner. You can usually pick up some of the more common certified organic wines such as Temple Bruer, Yulumba or Angove at a bottle shop.

Recycled gifts 

These are perfect for babies and toddlers who can’t tell old from new. Of course the parents might be able to, but I’m planning on letting my friend know that I’ve wrapped up a hand-me-down beautiful, large 3+ jigsaw puzzle for his son.

Charity buying

It’s worthwhile browsing online shops from charities such as the Wilderness Society, Oxfam, World Vision and Amnesty International. But keep in mind that even though profits go to a good cause you can still end up buying ‘stuff’ that could be thrown to the back of someone’s cupboard.

Wrapped up 

Buying wrapping paper is a bit irky – particularly the shiny stuff that has taken a lot of energy to produce. Buy Eco Green has beautiful recycled wrapping paper, satchels, gift boxes, cards and tags.

And yes, I’m one of those who silently begs people to open presents carefully so I can squirrel away the wrapping to use 12 months later. Presents wrapped from years of Christmases make the most colourful display under the tree!

Don’t leave home without it

Download some apps that will guide your shopping choices towards a sustainable gift that supports good companies.

Good on you, Ethical Shopper and Cruelty Free are really helpful.

That way if you do end up wandering aimlessly through a busy department store overwhelmed and numb you have somewhere to turn to for help with your decisions.

Happy Christmas sustainable shoppers!


Editor’s note – Sustainable Shopper isn’t paid to mention products, nor are we gifted products. This allows us to be genuine and impartial so that we can do what we do because we love and believe in it.


Kathy Cogo is the founder and editor of Sustainable Shopper. A journalist of 15 years, she's been a senior reporter with the ABC and has managed communications and media for a range of not for profit organisations including Australia's largest organic certifying group, Australian Certified Organic.

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