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5 Non-Material Holiday Gift Ideas

5 Non-Material Holiday Gift Ideas

By now you’ve probably seen the headlines warning that the shipping crisis threatens holiday shopping. The combination of workers sick with COVID-19, a lack of shipping containers, labor shortages, and natural disasters caused by climate change is going to make traditional gifts harder to find this holiday season. But those empty shelves may not be the disaster some are making them out to be. Not if you give non-material gifts this year.

Most material goods are terrible for the environment; consider the manufacturing, transport, packaging waste, and ultimate disposal of those goods. But non-material gifts — which can’t be found on the shelves of big-box stores — are often better for the planet and the workers that provide them. Plus, research shows that once our physiological needs like food, shelter, and clothing are met, the way to life satisfaction is through personal growth, relationships, and community involvement — not by giving or receiving more stuff. Add that to the fact that more than 3 in 4 Americans wish the holidays were less materialistic, and there’s no better time to commit to giving non-material gifts this holiday season.

According to Price Waterhouse Cooper, consumers will spend an average of $1,447 on gifts, travel, and entertainment during the 2021 holiday season. Yet, according to research published by the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, 82% of people want to reduce their personal consumption. So instead of spending your holiday budget on things people don’t really need or want, consider these five non-material gift ideas that help create local jobs; foster resilient, equitable communities; and are good for the Earth, too.

1. Give an experiential gift

Some may think of experiential gifts as elaborate or expensive, but an experience doesn’t have to be a big trip or cost a lot of money. Give the gift of a museum membership, a national park pass, cooking or art classes, or plan a special day treating your giftee to a tour of your city. Giving an experiential gift during the pandemic presents some challenges, so look for virtual classes or things you can do outside.

Woman teaching friend how to prepare a dish
Are you a gifted cook? Teach a loved one how to make their favorite dish. Photo: Katerina Holmes, Pexels

2. Gift your skills

Maybe you knit, play an instrument, garden, or cook a mean vegetarian chili. Whatever your skill is, consider sharing it with others as a holiday gift. This can be as simple as cleaning the gutters for an elderly family member. Or it can be as elaborate as gifting your skill as part of a larger experience. For example, you could teach someone how to cook an Indian meal like aloo gobi as traditional music plays in the background, then watch a Bollywood movie while you and your guest eat what you’ve cooked.

3. Give a charitable gift in a loved one’s name

Instead of buying a material good, make a donation to a favorite nonprofit in honor of the person you’re gifting. Personalize your giving by picking something that matters to your giftee. For example, donate to the animal shelter where your mother adopted her beloved dog. If you aren’t sure where to donate, find reputable nonprofits at Charity Navigator.

hand scratching dog's chin
Give a charitable donation to a nonprofit that matters to your giftee, perhaps the local animal shelter where she found her beloved pet. Photo: Madeline Bowen, Unsplash

4. Give the gift of time

One thing people are reluctant to make for themselves is more free time, even though research shows it regularly increases happiness. Give the gift of free time by offering to babysit, walk the dog, clean or organize someone’s house, do yard work.

5. Give a sharable gift

Help promote the solidarity economy through gift-giving this year. Purchase a bike-sharing gift card, a co-working space membership, or a community supported agriculture (CSA) share for friends or family. You’ll be giving more than just a thoughtful gift. By encouraging systems like these that are built around reuse, refill, repair, borrowing, and sharing, you also help create local, equitable jobs.

You and I can’t fix the shipping crisis or build a circular economy on our own; we need local, state, and federal policy to address those issues. But in the meantime, we can play a part in easing pressure on the economy and the planet. One way we can do this is by creating a culture that values meaning more than stuff. And giving non-material gifts. The holidays are a great time to start building the more connected and less wasteful future we want to see.

About the Author

Kelley Dennings has 20 years of experience working in waste prevention and leads the Center for Biological Diversity’s Simplify the Holidays campaign.

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