How to Make the Holidays Sustainable

November 26, 2022  •   7 min read


It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or so they say… While warm family gatherings, hot cocoa and a crackling fire is something many of us look forward to, what isn’t wonderful is the immense amount of waste that this holiday period generates. From tinsel to shiny wrapping paper, from Christmas trees to product returns, in many ways, the holiday season is far from merry and bright.


Here are some ideas on how you can make this year’s season of celebration intentional and more mindful. Instead of dipping into the gross indulgence consumerism has made this season into, nudging our habits into new ways of being that are people and planet friendly will lay a strong foundation in creating meaningful and impactful change.



How to Make the Holidays Sustainable:


You might also like: Our List of Holiday Gift Guides

1. Gift Wrap

Did you know that the annual trash from gift wrap and gift bags totals around 4 million tons in the US alone? We often don’t consider the impact wrapping paper and bags has on the environment, but when we multiply the few gifts we give each year by the millions of others following suit, the piles of waste begin to loom ever larger.


Did you know that if all Canadians wrapped just three gifts in reused paper or reused gift bags, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 hockey rinks?


Lastly, did you know that glitter is plastic? Glitter is made from tiny pieces of plastic, which when thrown away, enter into our waterways and landfills, too small to be captured by filtration systems. These microscopic pieces of plastic negatively impact marine and wildlife, our water and soil, plant matter, and eventually, us.


What can you do?

  • Skipping the glittery wrapping paper and embellishments this year will greatly lessen your impact. Get creative and try a quietly elegant look with Kraft paper and dried orange slices, or artful paper that is coloured with vegetable dyes (you can make your own!)



  • Use fabric! A traditional Japanese wrapping practice that is becoming more well-known and used in North America – Furoshiki (fabric wrapping) was developed out of a sense of waste consciousness and caring for the environment. Fabric, instead of paper, is used to package things for transport or gift giving. The fabric can be any pattern or colour, but should be square (equal measures on all sides) and large enough to entirely cover the object. Add a festive touch to your wrap with some greenery foraged from nature – some sprigs of evergreens like spruce, cypress, cedar and firs, rosemary, or dusty miller are all beautiful options. The best part? Your recipient can use the cloth after, making your gift wrap serve a purpose greater than a single-use. Watch this video to see how it’s done.


  • You can purchase pre-made fabric gift bags from a brand like Ever Present Gifting. Designed to last a lifetime, these bags can be reused for generations, greatly reducing your waste, environmental footprint, and reliance on store-bought wrapping every year.



2. Decorations

Instead of filling your home with plastic, glittery decorations likely made in a less-than-ethical factory overseas (the BPA alone is enough to make us shudder), consider resurrecting the old-school adornment-making practices of times past. I’m a huge fan of the quiet beauty that homemade and wooden decorations exude – a nod to the lovely snow dusted villages in Bavaria.


What can you do?

Check out these fun suggestions for homemade decorations. If time is tight, shops like June Home Supply, Heirloom Art Co, and even Ikea (for a more easily accessible option) have sustainable ornaments for low-waste holiday décor.


3. Cards

Above we mentioned that most glitter is plastic, and how these tiny pieces of micro-plastic end up literally everywhere in our environment. Instead of going for shimmering store-bought cards, do things differently this year! Try making your own cards, going with a smaller card-maker who hand-makes their cards sustainably, or opting for a gift that is both an e-card and an environmental donation. You can also make your gift tags from last year’s cards.


4. Hanukkah

For those of the Jewish faith, there are some ways in which you can make your Hanukkah celebrations more earth-friendly as well. We love beeswax candle sticks – they smell fantastic, are much better for our health, emit the most wonderous, bright light that glows at the same spectrum of light as the sun, and support our dwindling bee populations.


Did you know: Beeswax is the only known fuel that actually cleans the air of dust, odours, molds, viruses and environmental toxins by emitting negative ions when burned?


For a festive yet natural menorah, check out Honey Candles, Bees Wax Works or Barletta Beeswax for sustainable Hanukkah beeswax candle sticks, or these traditional Japanese rice bran wax candles that are unscented and burn cleanly.


For gift giving and more décor ideas, check out Heirloom Art Co’s Hanukkah collection, as well as these beautiful handcrafted wooden Hebrew blocks.


5. Advent Calendars

Advent calendars are a super fun way to count down the days in December, but they can also be quite problematic as many contain quite a bit of plastic, not to mention chocolate that’s likely unethically produced. A reusable advent calendar that’s made of natural materials is not only more earth-supportive, it also finds its way into your family’s box of holiday traditions, getting passed down from generation to generation in a way that is truly special. We love these keepsake advent calendars from Go Gently Nation, Heirloom Art Co and Jourès.


6. Trees

The debate over which trees are more environmentally sound – real or plastic – continues to perplex those in the sustainability world year after year. While there is no clear answer, here’s a bit of information that might help you make your decision.


Artificial trees have a carbon footprint that is equivalent to around 40kg of greenhouse gas emissions. You would need to reuse your tree for at least 10 years to keep its environmental footprint lower than that of a real tree. Since the main material in artificial trees is plastic (that too, PVC which is one of the worst types of plastics that pollutes across its entire lifespan, from production to end of life), the end-of-life contribution to the global plastic problem is something to consider. We won’t even get into the ethics of how these trees are made, and what the factory conditions are like for the workers who make them. Since oil-based plastic is the main material in artificial trees, they are unrecyclable, meaning they likely end up in landfill, where they release more greenhouse gases and pollute ecosystems by leaching dangerous chemicals. Once you are done with your tree (if reusing until the end of your days is not an option), the most viable disposable methods would be to re-home your tree – donating it, re-selling it, or giving it away to loved ones. You could also try repurposing it by cutting it into smaller branches for home décor – garlands and wreaths for the outdoors perhaps?


Real trees are of course, biodegradable and compostable, returning to the earth safely and naturally (as long as pesticides aren’t used). These types of Christmas trees have a much lower carbon footprint, smell absolutely incredible, and bring in a festive touch that is hard to replace. Despite this though, they do come with their concerns where soil erosion and wildlife are concerned. Christmas tree farms can displace biodiverse natural ecosystems, confusing animals and birds who use the growing trees as homes, only to have them cut down after seven to ten years. There is also some debate around whether trees absorb more carbon than they release in their first 20 years of life (since holiday trees are cut down in their teenage years, they don’t reach their ultimate carbon absorbing old -growth potential that is environmentally-beneficial). Your best option here would be to visit a sustainable, local Christmas tree farm that hasn’t used harsh pesticides in the growing process, or alternatively, getting a potted tree, a practice that is gaining in popularity.


When it comes to real tree disposal, you can re-plant your potted tree in your garden to enjoy for years to come, helping to give back by providing a new home for wildlife. You can also keep your potted plant outside, bringing it back inside for the following year’s festive season. If you bought a cut tree, some options include composting your tree (check to see if your city collects them for compost), chopping up the tree to use for firewood, or taking it to a facility that turns trees into chippings for parks / garden mulch.


If neither a fake nor real tree feel like good options for you, you can get creative and make your own! Cut out a tree from old cardboard, make one from reclaimed or naturally-fallen foraged branches, or use lights and boughs to outline a tree on the wall. You can also shop for a second-hand artificial tree and give it a new lease on life.


7. Product Returns

The holiday season is, undoubtedly, one of the most consumption-heavy times of the year. With gift giving season looming, and sale days like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Boxing Day aplenty, indulging in the purchasing frenzy can be hard to ignore. While this can be a really great time to find products at more accessible price points, we do have to consider what returning those products looks like for the environment.


Did you know that 90% of products returned during the period between American Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are trashed?


Products bought between these dates don’t get resold, and it is estimated that around $100 billion worth of product is expected to be returned between these dates alone. In a competitive market, lenient return policies get brands further than ever before, enticing shoppers to buy with the guarantee that they can send their unloved gifts back. Policies like free shipping and easy returns makes it a game changer, especially for online shopping. But what is the environmental cost of this? Outside of the insane 15 million metric tons of carbon that is emitted every year due to returned merchandise, what actually happens to the products?


Optoro has found that most big brands can’t re-sell the returned items, and a pathetic 10% of product is actually resold. The remaining $90 billion worth of product goes to…landfills! The trashed product is the equivalent of around 5,600 fully loaded Boeing 747s. Big brands do this because it’s actually cheaper for them to trash their returned product than re-sell it. It costs a lot of money to have someone check each item to make sure it’s in re-sell condition (has it been tampered with / is it used / is it up to code?). When it comes to clothing, each piece has to be re-ironed and re-packed which takes a lot of time, and for big brands, it just isn’t worth it.


What can you do?

  • Be very specific with people about what you want for Christmas (sending them a gift guide with starred favourites is always an option). It can feel cringey or tactless to be so open about asking for what you want, but sending someone a curated list is a lovely way to ensure you end up with something you actually like, while also maintaining an element of surprise!


  • Opt for a gift card if you’d like clothing, or be really accurate with your sizing (wrong sizes are the top cause of clothing returns)


  • Gift consumable items – since most people often don’t need more things, gifting a consumable item eliminates the risk of another landfilled product, while allowing you to indulge your loved one. A beautiful hand cream that your recipient might never buy themselves, a speciality maple syrup, candles, food items – there are many wonderful consumable gifts you can give that will be just as appreciated!


  • Gift experiences – go minimalist this year, by choosing an experiential gift over a material one. Workshops, language classes, gym memberships, meditation subscriptions, dining experiences, museum memberships – the list is endless! Check out 5 Thoughtful Experiences as Gifts for more ideas.


  • Shop at small businesses – they make sure to re-sell their product, as trashing isn’t something they can afford to do. Small businesses also usually have far better values in place, treating their product with the same love and respect as when they first sold it.


8. Shop Small and Support Local

Speaking of shopping at small businesses, we’re huge advocates for continuing to support your local shops and makers. When we support small businesses, we’re actively reinvesting into our local economies, which in turn, helps all of us thrive. Spreading the wealth more evenly goes so much further in creating self-sustaining and healthy communities, instead of lining the overflowing coffers of the billionaires of the world. Challenge yourself to support your independent shops, local makers, and small businesses this holiday season!


9. Give Back

To really help support your local community, think about giving back in a meaningful way to those who might be struggling this year. We love the idea of stocking a community fridge, as there are so many families living in food deserts within our cities. Stocking a fridge is an easy, impactful way to ensure others can partake in the festive season, while ensuring food sovereignty for all. Here’s a list of community fridges in different cities in North America. Donating to Indigenous organizations, or a cause that speaks to your heart is also a wonderful way to extend the giving spirit of the season.


This indulgent and giving season shouldn’t come with the wastefulness that it promotes. Try some of these tips as you plan out your holiday season and see where you can make changes that are impactful and meaningful!

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