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Your ultimate guide to an ethical christmas

Between family expectations and the last-minute rush, Christmas can be a hard time to put our ethics into practice. Here we make it simple with our ultimate Christmas guide.

Emma Oddie explores alternative gifts, where to shop if buying new, ethical decoration ideas to give some yule-tide sparkle and more...

Ethical gifting is all about choosing gifts with low impact and making sure that every gift counts in the most important way.  

The perfect place to start is not to buy at all by choosing some great alternative options…

Alternative gifts

Get crafty

Getting fully involved in a good hobby is an excellent way to pass the long nights and raise the spirits. Why not turn your craft into presents? Collect second-hand wool and make socks or scarves, make a scrapbook full of shared memories, make vegan and Fair Trade chocolates or gather some bulbs and plant them in vintage pots. Why not hand-pour beeswax candles into old teacups or pots and infuse them with your own essential oil blend? Simply swap the beeswax for soy flakes for a vegan alternative.

Gift your time

You don’t have to spend money to show you care. Make a promise to help an elderly relative clear out their attic or garden. Volunteer to babysit for stressed-out new parents. Offer to sort out a friend’s paperwork or invite your neighbours over for dinner.

Gift an experience

Now we’re able to visit theatres, attend sports events and enjoy arts and culture again, why not gift an experience that you and a friend can enjoy together. Many of the arts have struggled to keep afloat during lockdown, so show your support by buying tickets for comedy, musical theatre, ballet or opera.

Why not get inventive and plan a trip, design an itinerary and fill it full of fun. Many of us have rekindled our love for the great outdoors so a membership for your local nature reserve could make a great present or why not take a class in foraging and then enjoy making a meal together with your free finds.

Image: christmas gifts

If you do need to buy, buy less

Most often, it’s advertising that makes us feel like we have to spend more and buy more to show our love.

Slim your Christmas list

Instead of automatically buying for the same people, have a frank conversation about whether you should continue to buy gifts for each other. You might find that friends and family are relieved to stop the spending cycle and save a few pennies this year. Suggest that you pop out for a drink together instead and share some genuine Christmas cheer.

Make a list and set a budget

Of course, it’s lovely spending time thinking of and buying the perfect gift and seeing your loved one’s face light up when they receive it. But how many times have you opted for the same toiletry set or chocolates because you just don’t know what to buy the person who has everything? Instead, agree on a spending limit and ask your friends and family to write a list of things they really do need. That way, the smiles really will be genuine on Christmas Day.

Make it secret

If you have a large family or group of friends, why not try Secret Santa this year. Pop everyone’s name in a hat and then pick a name and buy only for that person. Set the spending limit a little higher and buy a special gift for one person rather than lots of little bits for everyone.

Buying pre-loved

Some gifts just get better with age. Rather than buying new gifts, why not explore the treasure troves of the pre-owned, pre-loved and vintage. Vintage clothes and handbags are a great place to start – check out Beyond Retro and Oxfam online for some quirky pieces or have fun exploring the charity shops for a gift that gives twice. Look for local adverts selling second-hand bikes or toys – kids often don’t care if a toy comes in a shiny box and it might mean that you can afford a better quality item second-hand.

Vintage or limited-edition books are also a great choice. Choose a signed favourite for that extra-special someone or find recently released second-hand titles for half the price of new either locally or on some of the recommended online second-hand bookshops.

Consider refurbished

Items such as electronics, phones and laptops are often linked to a whole host of issues, unfair working conditions, pollution and conflict minerals to name just a few. By buying refurbished items you don’t contribute to these issues. Many reconditioned items come in original packaging, complete with warranties and they are often a lot cheaper than brand-new equivalents. Our guide to buying secondhand tech has lots of handy information.

Check out local repair companies too for items like hairdryers, white goods or vacuum cleaners. You might just pick up a bargain.

When you do buy new...

Whenever you buy new, you have a choice to do good: your money helps businesses to grow and prosper, so it’s great to look for ethical ones.

Many unethical businesses, such as Amazon, lure you in with convenience, cheap prices and the promise of almost immediate delivery. Instead, join us in boycotting Amazon this Christmas, and beyond, until it sorts out its huge list of workers’ rights abuses, its unsustainable business practices and its blatant tax avoidance, to name just a few.

Local businesses need our custom more than ever this year, having felt the impact of COVID-19. There are so many small, independent, ethical businesses online offering unique and sustainable items.

Books

Books are a real favourite at Christmas, but the market is in real trouble. Independent bookshops have been struggling for the past decade, notably since Amazon sprung up at the ‘Earth’s biggest bookstore’.

However, clever campaigns like ‘Books are my Bag’ are helping to keep many independents afloat and this type of rebel alliance is helping to save shops from Amazon’s cruel reign. Check out Bookshop.org – a bookseller that sends the full profits of your order to your local bookseller of choice, or order direct from Lighthouse, a radical stockist in Edinburgh that is queer-owned and women-led. Our guide to bookshops has a link to find other radical and independent bookshops, many of which do online orders and delivery.

Buying second-hand from best buy World of Books or other recommended online bookshops such as Better World Books and Biblio or switching to digital versions such as from Ebooks.com are great options, saving money and trees.

Check out our full guide on booksellers for other online shops. And, most importantly, avoid Amazon and its popular brands AbeBooks, Audible and Book Depository.

bookshop

Perfume and aftershave

Perfumes make great gifts and there’s nothing better than taking time to test fragrances and choose the perfect one, but they are not without their issues. Perfumers are legally allowed to keep their ingredients list a secret which means that they might contain hidden animal ingredients or toxic chemicals, such as parabens.

The great news is that there are loads of vegan and cruelty-free brands out there, using natural, non-toxic fragrances – see our guide to perfumes and aftershaves to select the best scoring brands. We recommend Dolma, Flaya, Neal’s Yard Remedies and Kings aftershave, all of which offer vegan products that are not tested on animals and are palm oil-free.

Ethical and vegan clothes

As slow fashion continues to grow, championing fair working conditions and embracing sustainable fabrics, more ethical and sustainable brands emerge.

We recommend over 20 brands as best buys in our updated shopping guide for ethical clothes shops - that's lots of choice to suit different styles and budgets!

Why not take some time to read around the ethical problems that exist in the fashion industry and understand the carbon cost and sustainability issues around many of the most popular materials. And did you know fair trade labels can apply to textiles, not just tea and other food items? Read our quick guide to fair trade fashion and recommended brands. 

pile of folded jumpers

Chocolate

Choose sweet treats that are full of fair trade and deforestation-free ingredients this Christmas.

Our Best Buys go above and beyond to deliver guilt-free pleasure - check out Divine, Pacari, Beyond Good, MIA, Fairafric and Chocolat Madagascar, and read about the issues in our guide to ethical chocolate. If you are looking to avoid palm oil this Christmas, see our list of palm oil-free chocolates.  

Presents for pets

Of course, we don’t want to leave out our furry friends at Christmas. For our feline friends, whether you opt for vegetarian feeds or not, you can still buy cat food from an ethical brand. For our doggy companions, there is a wide range of vegan and organic brands to choose from.

Cat and dog toys make great presents too, try to choose sustainable materials, such as recycled rubber, cardboard or sustainably sourced or reclaimed wood, and avoid the more common plastic models. Fabric leads, rope toys and 'indestructible' chew toys, such as root chews, also make great gifts and, if you’re feeling crafty, why not sew a toy or crochet a pet bed for the added personal touch.

Self-care packages

Ethical and reusable products sometimes come with a higher price tag, although this can be misleading when they are often formulated to last longer. However, gifting ethical toiletries can be the perfect way to introduce a friend to their benefits.

Why not create a carefully selected box of self-care treats, giving your loved ones the chance to try some novel ethical alternatives, including a shampoo bar, handmade soap, leave-in conditioner, biodegradable floss, a couple of Lush products or some solid toothpaste tabs? You could even buy the ingredients for a make-your-own style gift, such as a DIY deodorant.

Oil, soap and other ingredients

Hampers

Creating your own hamper can be loads of fun. Grab an old basket, stuff it with shredded newspaper and fill it full of handmade treats, such as mince pies, chutneys or fudge. Alternatively, try some ethical shop-bought items, such as palm-oil-free biscuits, Fair Trade tea or organic honey or vegan alternative.

Electronics

If you’re looking for high-value electronics items, make sure your money fuels good things. Look for Fairphone in our mobile phone guide, Apple iPad or Asus Zenpad in our guide to tablets or the VeryPC Thinbook in our guide to laptops.  

The Fairphone 3+ is the latest model of mobile phone released earlier this year.

Bikes

Bikes are a great environmentally friendly gift if you have a bit more money to splurge. Try to find a well-built second-hand bike or, if you’re looking for new, try to support local bike shops and buy a steel-based, ethical brand. Check out Pashley in our guide to ethical bikes.

You might also want to think about an electric bike - these can be great ways of managing a regular ride or shopping trip that would be a bit too far on a push bike.

Places to Buy

There are lots of ethical online retailers such as Wearth, Ethical Shop and Veo.world. Ethical Consumer subscribers qualify for a discount at the Ethical Shop. Sign in and visit the My account area for the discount code. 

Also look out for our 'Places to Buy' sections on the right hand column at the top of each of our guides.

Christmas gifts wrapped in plain paper

Wrapping your gift 

We’ve got just one more thing to say about gifts before we wrap up this section and that’s how to wrap them up.

Wrapping paper is a recycling nightmare. Many of the shiny foil options contain plastic (and yes, glitter is almost always plastic); even the cheaper, thinner paper versions are hard to recycle. Look instead for recycled and recyclable paper, and if you’re buying rolls of paper, make sure they come without the plastic wrapping. Opt for paper-based sticky tape too so that all the wrapping can go straight in the recycling after the big day.

Why not ditch the wrapping paper altogether and wrap presents in old newspapers or magazines? It will still make for a colourful scene under the tree and make for an interesting talking point over lunch.

If you’re feeling adventurous, why not try Furoshiki, the Japanese art of wrapping presents in reusable cloths or scarves. A stylish knot wrap is way more thoughtful than a present wrapped up in something that you can't keep.

Christmas isn’t just about the gifts

This is something that we are told from a young age. Christmas means something different to each of us and many of us spend weeks getting the house decorated ready for the big day, not to mention the food. So much food. Of course, we can bring our ethical values into every element of Christmas.

All of the fun with none of the glitter

It’s hard to make it through your local garden centre or supermarket at Christmas without being blinded by the dazzling lights and glitter. As fun as it is to marvel at the bright displays, resist buying a whole new set of decorations this Christmas.

So many decorations are made from cheap mass-produced materials and are covered in shiny microplastic-containing glitter. You probably have a whole attic full of decorations and, if you don’t, you can be sure someone nearby is looking to clear some out. Make do with what you have and ask around if you need to stock up.

Your tree might not look like a page out of a designer home magazine, but remembering old, treasured childhood decorations and handmade baubles makes a slightly mismatched tree all the more charming.

If you have build up far too many decorations, consider donating the ones which are in good condition to charity shops.

Image: gingerbread men

Spreading Christmas cheer

Christmas cards are a mainstay of the festive season and although many people chose not to send cards in recent years to cut down on waste, it seems they made a bit of a comeback in 2020 due to the isolation caused by the pandemic.

With the hope that we will get to spend Christmas with our loved ones this year, sending e-cards or calling or visiting friends and family can be a welcome alternative to Christmas cards. Pledging to give saved money to your favourite charity is a great way to do good without the waste.

Why not use the money to give the gift of clean water through Unicef or even feed a child for a year with a Mary’s Meals gift card. Letting people know where you are sending your money, by email or through social media, gives much needed free advertisement for the charity – perhaps your idea will catch on and prompt others to do the same.

If you’re looking to send cards make sure you opt for recycled and recyclable cards without the plastic wrapping. If you’re buying charity cards, buy direct (rather than from a supermarket) so as much profit as possible goes to your chosen cause.

Moving on to the tree…

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the tree. So, is it more ethical to buy a new, fresh tree each year, or go for a reusable plastic one?

There isn’t a simple answer to this question.

If you already have a plastic tree, then you should keep using it for as long as you can and when you no longer need it, try to sell it or give it away to stop it from going to landfill.

If you need a new tree, resist buying plastic. These trees are made from non-renewable fossil fuels and carry a massive carbon footprint – according to The Guardian, a 6.5-foot artificial tree carries a carbon footprint of around 40kg, more twice the footprint of a real tree that ends its life in landfill and 10 times as much as a real tree that is burnt. Unless, of course, you can buy a second-hand plastic tree.

Many people can’t resist the look and smell of a real tree. However, disposing of a real tree can have environmental issues too. In landfill, Christmas trees decompose to release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. If you are disposing of your tree, look for local schemes that take them for chipping and use them in parks and gardens. Even better, why not buy a potted Christmas tree, take it inside for the festivities and pop it in your garden to grow for the rest of the year.

Doing this is likely to generate a negative carbon footprint - great news for you and the environment. 

If you buy a real tree, make sure you buy local and from a sustainable grower, many of these growers will plant more trees than they fell and by keeping the transport mileage down, you reduce the carbon footprint even further.

If you want to break with tradition, consider making a crafty tree from driftwood and other items - a search online for ideas will spark your imagination.

And finally…

Whatever you do, enjoy yourself this Christmas. One of the most meaningful things you can do is to look out for those people who might be on their own and spread genuine love and happiness by ensuring everyone is involved. It’s also a great opportunity to show your friends and family that everyone can make a difference, by taking small steps to make this Christmas an ethical and sustainable one.

xmas gift sub ecra

The perfect ethical Christmas gift

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