Postconsumerist gift giving
Consumption is embedded in our culture. Our relationships with other people are cemented by the exchanging of gifts and social events often revolve around giving things to each other. New homes, new children, new relationships; all must be marked by the buying of things. To come empty handed to celebrate a birthday or even just to visit a friend is rude. It upsets social norms and expectations and we risk being seen as odd or, worse, mean.
This is a big problem for someone who is trying to consume less. I love to receive gifts and to give them but I hate to buy things because I feel that have to. It feels wrong because I know it’s damaging our planet and its people in so many ways.
When my son was born we received so many beautiful clothes for him. More than it was possible for him to wear before he outgrew them, despite his many outfit changes! Raw materials, such as cotton, were used to produce each tiny outfit. Water and pesticides and human labour went into producing that cotton. It was then processed and dyed using and polluting water. Each little outfit was packaged in plastic and paper (more raw materials and labour and pollution) and shipped across the world, burning fuel. My friends spent their hard earned money on those clothes and sometimes shipped them again to get them to us. And after all that sometimes we didn’t even use them before he had grown too big for them. What a tragic waste.
I am so grateful for all the wonderful gifts I receive but the kind of consumption that we are involved in is not sustainable. In Sweden, consumption has increased by 63% in the last 20 years. We can’t go on like this but how do we change the norms around buying gifts?
Buying less for ourselves is one thing but how do we reduce what we buy for others without upsetting the social norms around gift giving, without offending our friends and without just seeming mean or unkind?
Here are some ideas that I have come across so far in my year of non-consumption. Please add your own ideas in the comments. I would love more inspiration!
This is the most generous of gifts in my opinion. Not only do you give something that can be treasured (or eaten) but you also show your friend that they are worthy of you spending your valuable time on them. My clever Mum makes the most beautiful patchwork cushions and throws for her nearest and dearest. While you don't need to be a needlework genius like my Mum to give handmade gifts, you probably do need to have some basic skills! My attempts at baking gifts for my Swedish friends have sometimes been less than successful and have done nothing for the reputation of english cooking abroad!!! However, most of us are good at something and this can be an opportunity to get better at something. If you can't sew or bake, maybe you can give plants or vegetables that you have grown in your garden. Jam or preserved fruit from your trees. Decorations that you have made. The internet is full of ideas. And if it goes really badly, you can always pretend the kids made it!!!
Give an experience
If you really can’t make anything worthy of your friends, what about giving your time in another way? Invite them to dinner or a show, an afternoon at a museum or lunch out at a favourite café. My girlfriends and I never have enough time together so we typically celebrate our birthdays by treating each other to dinner out. It’s the best gift I could ever wish for!
If you feel your experiential gift is too ephemeral, writing your own gift card and boxing it can make it feel more tangible. I promised to take my friend’s daughter to a kids movie for her birthday this year and printed a programme and a gift certificate so she had something to unwrap.
Donate a gift
The perfect gift for the person who has everything. Why not celebrate them by giving a gift to someone who doesn't have so much? Make a donation to a charity that is close to their heart or that is linked to the event you are celebrating. Celebrate a new baby by donating to Save the Children. Mark the birthday of a football fan by donating sports equipment to a school in need. I was thrilled when friends celebrated my son's first birthday by giving baby products to refugee families. Many charities offer packages and gift certificates that you can print and wrap.
Give pre-loved gifts
This can be tricky. Not everyone appreciates pre-loved or vintage things but, if you have a friend who does then spending time searching out the perfect pre loved item can really show how much you care. Regifting something lovely that you have received but know you can’t use is also an option. See my earlier post for some tips on the etiquette of regifting.
What else can we do?
We also need to let each other know that it’s okay to celebrate without giving things. This can feel awkward but here's my latest attempt, sent out with invitations to my son's third birthday party. What do you think? How would you feel about receiving a request like this? Let me know in the comments.