Tips for a Sustainable Holiday Season

Sustainable Holiday Season

It’s November which means the holiday season is upon us (depending on who you ask). I went to the grocery store over the weekend and somehow it magically had changed from pumpkin-spiced everything to egg nog and peppermint. TBH, I wasn’t mad at it. I’m in the camp that feels ready for a Christmas tree this week but Anel wants us to wait until after Thanksgiving.

Even if the tree isn’t up, I’m now in holiday mode, making my gifting spreadsheet and getting ready to send out holiday cards (yes, I already have them and yes, it might be my greatest accomplishment).

My holiday season sustainability challenge covers a lot of areas so if this feels overwhelming, pick and choose as many of the tips below to follow. Because we’ll all most likely be traveling less if at all this year, I didn’t even add a section for holiday travel.

Tips for a Sustainable Holiday Season


Sustainable Gifting

Re-gift: You might feel guilty giving away something that a loved one thoughtfully picked out for you but if cheesy holiday sweaters aren’t your thing and you have a friend who collects them, it’s a win-win!

Non-product gifts: Experiences are tough this year but there are a lot of great ways to give a gift that isn’t a physical product. Think a subscription to Headspace, gifting a Masterclass, or a year of Netflix. And I’m sure there are a ton of games and apps that kids/teenagers want on their phones and tablets that would make a good gift. I don’t know what they are but I know they exist!

Donations: My mom gives my sister and me a donation to the charity of our choice every Christmas and has for as long as I can remember. I love this so much and started doing it for a few friends who I know will appreciate this type of gift as well. Last year I used the inLieu app for donation gifting. Here are some more app ideas that do similar things.

Eco-friendly gifts: One of my gift guides this year will be focused 100% on sustainable gifts. You can see last year’s here.

Long-lasting gifts: If something isn’t sustainably sourced/made, take into account how long the recipient will use it.

Battery-free toys: I read here that 40% of battery sales occur during the holidays. Most batteries are single-use and become waste in a few months. When I make my toddler and kid gift-guides I’ll be sure to keep this in mind!

Plan your gifting: Make a spreadsheet (you can find my format here) to plan gifts for friends and family instead of panic-purchasing items last minute. When you have it planned out ahead of time, you can order multiple gifts from the same retailer and save on packaging.

Sustainable Cards & Wrapping

Cleaner cards: e-Cards are a great option but if you’re like me and love the tradition of a physical holiday card, you can get cards made from 100% recycled materials. We opted for recycled cards from Minted but Paper Culture and Etsy have great recycled options too. Cards for Causes is a really cool site that sells recycled paper cards with proceeds going to different important causes.

Recycle your wrapping: I save 99.9% of the ribbons and bows I receive on gifts and reuse them when wrapping my own. Paper can be harder to reuse but gift bags are another way to recycle wrapping. If every family wrapped just 3 presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields (source).

Use alternative wrapping paper: Most wrapping paper isn’t recyclable but, like holiday cards, I love the tradition of wrapping presents. Kraft paper is a great recyclable option and the website Wrappily sells 100% recyclable wrapping paper and ribbons. Some people get creative with newspaper or fabric, but kraft paper is my choice here. Sidebar, Anel once wrapped one of my gifts in aluminum foil. I realize he was being lazy at the time but that is technically reusable so another option… although not the cutest one 🙂

Opt for gift totes: Make a cute reusable shopping tote part of your gift and it can also act as a gift bag.

Sustainable Holiday Decorations

Buy a real tree: Unfortunately, we already failed at this one. We bought an artificial tree a few years ago because Boots was eating the needles and it was becoming a problem, but “A 2009 study took into consideration the greenhouse gas emissions, resource usage, fertilizers, pesticides, and human health impacts that go into growing a Christmas tree versus creating a fake one. What they found is that the same artificial tree would have to be reused every year for more than 20 years to be more sustainable than buying a fresh-cut Christmas tree once a year.” (source)

Let’s hope we use ours for 20+ years!

Use LED lights: Use energy-saving LED lights on your tree and for outdoor decorations. LED lights both consume less energy and last longer. Bonus tip: Set your lights on a timer so you never forget to shut them off overnight.

Recycle old holiday lights: I didn’t know this was possible until last year but there are a few ways you can recycle old strings of lights that no longer work.  Check them out here.

Skip the tinsel: Growing up, we used to string popcorn and cranberries and hang them on the tree in place of tinsel. That is a job I’m not interested in but candy canes that you can eat throughout the season, mini stuffed animals (Amalia put one on the tree last year and I thought it was so cute), cookie cutters, and other reusable items can fill in the holes between ornaments.

Cleaner Food

Eat & serve less meat: Anel and I have cut down on our meat intake by at least 60% if not more since this challenge and we feel great because of it. I’ll be sharing some great vegetarian holiday recipes in the coming weeks. If you serve turkey for Thanksgiving, consider having vegetarian-only sides!

Buy local: When safe and possible, shop for holiday meals at farmer’s markets and stores that serve local meat, fish, eggs, and produce.

Menu plan: Plan out meals so that you have enough for leftovers that you’ll actually eat… not enough leftovers that they’ll go to waste.

Freeze leftovers: If you do have too many leftovers to eat, freeze them for a later date! In normal years, I would also add to share them with neighbors and friends but that doesn’t feel very COVID-friendly.

Ditch the paper plates: Serve meals with real dinnerwear and if you really need to, get compostable or recyclable one-time use plates.

More resources for a sustainable holiday season

Sustainable Holiday Greening Guide (Vanderbilt)
Cheat Sheet for a Sustainable Holiday Season (US Green Building Council)

Let me know if you have other ideas and I’ll add them to this list! Here’s to a safe and sustainable holiday season.

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  1. Jennifer Record said:

    I love every single thing in this post!!! thank you for the reminders and the inspiration.. I, too, give mainly experiences as gifts, and donations. For my god children, I have been giving a monetary donation twice a year (Christmas and their birthdays) to local charities near them..when they are older, I will take them to the organization so they can see it firsthand.

    11.2.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      I love that idea so much. My mom always did that for us and while I didn’t fully appreciate it as a kid, I do now. Keep at it!

      11.8.20 · Reply
  2. Britta said:

    In our home Santa’s gifts are not wrapped and taken out of the packaging! Saves the paper and the kids ask less questions 🙂

    11.2.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      We do the same! Love it.

      11.8.20 · Reply
  3. Libby said:

    I always love your sustainability posts, Julia! I am going to try extra hard to make some good swaps for the holidays this year, and I am also getting my family members water bottles this year to go off of another one of your sustainability challenges, hah!

    11.2.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      Great gift! Thanks for your continued support, Libby xx

      11.8.20 · Reply
  4. Christa Yung said:

    My husband gets me the big Stendig calendar each year, and we save all of the used months and reuse the paper for wrapping gifts! I’m a graphic designer so the fun, bold type in either white or black is fun to decorate with! Great tips and thanks for continuing to advocate!!

    11.2.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      I had to Google that 🙂 but genius idea, so smart!

      11.8.20 · Reply
  5. L said:

    In your IG stories you mentioned your frustration with receiving criticism about not living a 100% sustainable lifestyle, but still offering tips on how to improve. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment and approach that when we all do what we can (albeit sometimes just a little bit at a time) it can make a big difference. If we let perfect be the enemy of good, no one will do anything. Thank you for making sustainability a judgment-free topic that people can approach bit by bit.

    11.2.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      100% agree. Thank you for putting that so well.

      11.8.20 · Reply
  6. Kathi said:

    I think it is great that you think even about little changes that anyone can do. And yes it isn’t always about making big swappings! So I do like your suggestions for a more sustainable holiday season.
    For the grift wrapping: You could also wrap gifts in pretty kitchen towels.
    And in Germany you can rent a tree, a real Christmas tree in a pot which is replanted after the holidays.

    And also congratulations on your baby!! I am expecting my first also in April and I am super excited!

    11.3.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      The tree rental idea is amazing! I’ve never seen that here but I’m sure it must exist somewhere.

      Congrats on your baby!

      11.8.20 · Reply
  7. Maitland said:

    I love these ideas! I always buy a fresh Christmas tree because I love the smell (seriously, I just sit there huffing the tree haha)! But more importantly, here in New Orleans, you can put out your tree on a specific date for pickup and it will be reused as a retention wall in the wetlands! So in addition to all of the benefits for the environment, they go to protect us as well! I’ve just always thought this is the coolest thing.

    11.17.20 · Reply