Six ways I’ve created a more ethical Christmas

Ethical blogger and writer Rae Ritchie lays out her strategies to be more conscious and less consumerist over the festive period.

Rae Ritchie

I love creating rituals and traditions. If I can use a label to give something a sense of occasion, I will. Where I store the coffee and mugs becomes the Beverage Station. Tackling life admin becomes Power Hour. Now that I've celebrated Pancake Day with the same friend a couple of times, I want to see her on Shrove Tuesday every year.

Yet despite this impulse, I don’t have a huge number of Christmas traditions. My drive to create rituals typically comes from a desire to reduce mental load and make life simpler, not more complicated. Plus my commitment to minimalism and ethical living (two things which, in my mind, are intrinsically connected) provides a useful counterweight to any urge to devise elaborate or demanding plans.

So how do I celebrate the best of the festive season while honouring my values, including simplicity? And how can you apply these lessons to your life?

Make choices

Rather than trying to embrace every single lovely thing you could do for Christmas, make strategic choices about what you and your loved ones value the most.

I’m the only one in my family who likes Christmas pudding so neither I nor my parents bothers buying one. Instead, I make sure I have it for dessert at every meal I go to in December. By 25th, I’ve had enough of the stuff and am relieved that there’s no pressure to devour one that’s been bought specially for me.

Christmas cake, on the other hand, is a non-negotiable. It’s one of the few items I couldn’t imagine Christmas without, so the time and effort spent choosing one feels like a joy not a burden. Let’s not talk about the time I made one and binned three quarters of it on Boxing Day; all I’ll say is my passion for avoiding food waste was no match for realising I’ll never make it onto The Great British Bake-Off.

Does anyone you’re spending Christmas Day with actually care about crackers? No? Then don’t buy them. Focus instead on what does matter to you.

Change your rules

Just because you did or didn’t do something last Christmas, doesn’t mean you can’t do the opposite this year – or next.

I used to love sending Christmas cards. Then I decided they were a waste of resources, so I stopped. After that, I used twixmas week to write letters to people who’d sent me cards via post because we hadn’t been able to meet up. This switched to mailing cards to family and friends that I don’t get to see in December because they live overseas.

In 2020, I’m planning on giving cards to the neighbours I’ve got to know much more since lockdown as it’s a chance to reinforce these new relationships (I’m also hoping to get some back as there are a few names I don’t remember and it’s at the stage where it’s too embarrassing to ask again).

Don’t let a fear of seeming contradictory or contrary stop you making a change or reversing a previous decision. Wants and needs vary over time. An ethical Christmas won’t look the same for every person nor the same every year – and this year especially might warrant some flexibility.

Receive gratefully

The moment you receive a gift is not the time to whip out your soap box.

I’ve been given Quality Street over the years and despite boycotting Nestle, I’ve been diplomatic and simply accepted the present. Maybe I’m wrong, but I value the relationship more than that particular principle.

There are ample opportunities during the year to have conversations about ethical issues and why you do or don’t do something. When someone hands you a gift, that isn’t one of them.

Re-gift graciously

That said, feel totally free to re-gift an item that is unsuitable or wasted on you.

I inevitably receive a bottle of wine at Christmas. Six years sober, I won’t even use it in cooking. This year, I gave it along to a local hospice who cleverly ran an unwanted gifts campaign in January.

There are always good causes in need of donations so pass on a gift given to you in love on in love too.

Have that conversation

Having an awkward conversation with friends and family about present buying might be the best gift you ever give yourself.

About ten years ago, I suggested to my mum that we reduce Christmas presents among the extended family to children only. Luckily for me, she was willing to raise the topic with everyone else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were relieved.

After some discussion among my partner’s family, we moved a few years ago to a Secret Santa among the adults so we all only buy for one other person, who handily provides a few suggestions as to what they’d like.

image: ethical gift wrap knot wrap
An ethical Christmas is about making the holiday season work for you and your values. Fabric wraps are a great way to save paper that would otherwise have been thrown away.

Sometimes you’ll get push back (my mum won’t be convinced that she doesn’t need to buy my partner and I anything). But many will probably be agreeable, especially if you sweeten the suggestion by telling them time together – when possible – is more important instead.

Reduce stuff

Saying you want to give an experience rather than a physical item may be a cliche, but then so is most standard Christmas present fare: socks, chocolates, toiletries, almost anything in a gift pack.

I don’t remember the last time I looked at a gift guide.

For a while I gave money to all the children in my life, figuring that the parents best knew whether some more Lego would be good or if Play-Doh would be better (or even if that money could be squirrelled away for the future).

In another instance of changing my own policies, I’ve since switched to promising experiences that we can enjoy together when the excitement of Christmas has faded. Honestly, the happiness of anticipation is as good as the event itself – for the giver as much as the recipient. Especially if it involves a visit to the ice cream parlour.

Giving an experience, particularly one that you do together, strengthens your relationship with the giftee and allows you to avoid the worst consumerist aspects of the festive season. We don’t have to buy pointless plastic tat or stuff we don’t like or enjoy. We don’t have to stock our cupboards and our fridges with every single foodstuff ever labelled by some marketeer – or even someone with very noble intentions – as Christmassy.

We don’t even have to do something this Christmas just because we did it last Christmas and every one before that.

As with life during the rest of the year, our values can shape our Christmas. This is easier to do when we start with cutting out all the things that we don’t actually care about.

Rae is a freelance writer, editor, researcher and speaker specialising in sustainability and ethical living. Her work has appeared in a range of publications from Coast to Woman’s Weekly and she writes the eco page for Woman&Home.

Her newsletter, Turning the Dial: moving towards a more ethical life, provides timely ideas and inspiration for living more ethically and sustainably. You can sign up on her website.

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