Years ago, a friend's mother knew I was an ocean lover, so she got me a special gift: a beautiful pair of earrings made from coral. At the time, I couldn't bring myself to explain to her that that was like giving the gift of ivory to someone who adores elephants. I felt torn between gratitude and guilt.
Gift-givers have the best intentions. But around the holidays, you may find yourself receiving well-meant gifts that don't align with your sustainable lifestyle. Maybe you've chosen to go completely zero-waste, or have vowed to cut out single-use plastics. Are there certain harmful ingredients you avoid? Do you strictly buy local?
Whatever the case, you may find yourself teetering between gratitude for the giver, and guilt over breaking your own rules for how to live a sustainable life. So how do you honor your gift-giver and your own eco-conscious values at the same time?
Christine from Snapshots of Simplicity gave us great advice last year when we asked her how she handles gifts that don't follow her zero-waste rules. She makes a point to try to let people know ahead of time which types of gifts are okay. But if it's not possible to plant that seed early, she takes it case by case.
"Some individuals are more than willing to understand, but for those that may be more sensitive, I will usually accept their invitation or gift and make it an effort to appreciate their kind-heartedness," she says. "While waste generation is an important issue, I try my best to put my relationships with others above my zero-waste lifestyle." Christine Liu, Snapshots of Simplicity (Buy her new book)
Kathryn at Going Zero Waste takes a similar approach; putting kindness and appreciation first.
She also suggests taking responsibility throughout the year for communicating your desires (and boundaries) to the people in your life, and repeating it 'til it sticks.
"Friends and family aren't going to magically remember how you feel about gifts because you mentioned something about not liking plastic one time," she says. "It's something that needs mentioning and reminding." Kathryn Kellogg, Going Zero Waste (Follow her on Instagram)
Joshua and Ryan at The Minimalists have three things in particular they like to ask for: experiences, love, and time. These aren't just the types of gifts they want to receive; it's exactly what they give to others, as well.
"I now give gifts of experiences, charitable donations, or, if I give material goods, I give consumables, such as a bottle of wine or a bag of coffee from a local roaster," Joshua says. "It must be something someone can use, or, if it’s an experience, it’s a memory that can be shared."
Requesting charity donations instead of material items is a great way to honor the gift-giver, too. After all, they have a desire to give, and asking for donations still indulges that desire. It's a win-win: they still get to give, and you don't have to stray far from your good sustainable habits.
"The next time someone asks you what you want for Christmas," Joshua says, "consider responding, 'Your presence is the best present you can give me.'" Joshua Fields Millburn, The Minimalists (Listen to their Podcast)
Even if it's not something you would buy for yourself, we all deal with a little sentimental attachment to gifts when the giver is someone we love so much—and often it's related to guilt.
Kathryn identifies a few common reasons for this, such as "I don't want the person who gave it to me to think I'm ungrateful," "I spent a lot of money on it," "someone else spent a lot of money on it," "what if...," and "I don't want them to be upset."
But this post is all about honoring the gift-giver and yourself. In order to do the latter, you may need to find a way to remove any sentimental value you may have attached to the gift. Kathryn suggests the KonMari method: "You acknowledge your things, like a going-away party. You say thank you, you think about the nice times you had, and then you say goodbye," she says.
The Minimalists agree, saying "it’s okay to toss the stuff if it’s not adding value to your life. Donate it, sell it, recycle it. Let go of it so you can focus on what’s important in your life. Most people won’t even notice, especially the people who care about you," says Joshua. "It is support—not gift-giving—that is the hallmark of love."