Very best tips for meaningful and green gift giving (mostly for Austin)

The day after Thanksgiving has become known as Black Friday, the day that millions of sale-hungry shoppers begin fervently foraging for deals online and braving the holiday traffic and lines for stuff that their loved ones may, or may not, need or want. It's a consumer feeding frenzy that now starts as early as midnight for some stores. Actually, I heard today that some stores asking their staff to work on Thanksgiving and so the frenzy can start even sooner. Ugh.

In response to Black Friday, there is an annual campaign called Buy Nothing Day. To me, the best aspect of such a declaration, followed up with the action of really buying nothing for the day, is the personal awareness it brings to see how many times a day the urge to purchase something comes up. But it's not like this will impact the bottom line for mega corporations any more than avoiding buying gas for a day from Exxon. If you're going to go buy gas, or gifts the next day or the day after, the potential impact is completely lost. It's not what day you buy stuff on that will make a difference…it's whether or not you buy stuff at all, and if you do, it matters what you buy and from whom who you buy it. The notion of a Buy Nothing Christmas makes more sense for minimizing financial and environmental impacts, but that may not sit well with everyone, especially for those under 12 years old. For those who do plan to purchase there is an active campaign to get you to Shift your Shopping. <

For general reference I encourage you to check out this primer on simple living. I also like to refer people to Center for a New American Dream. >

Many Americans plan to spend around $1000 on Christmas, which just may not be a wise decision. For those looking to get their financial lives in order, I recently discovered the Financial Integrity Program. They offer a set of free tools to help you transform your relationship with money.

When it comes to gift giving, avoid the impulse buying, or at least tame it by knowing your holiday budget – the cap on what you can spend, total, for all gifts and extra holiday expenses like decorations and food and drinks for holiday gatherings.

<< If you follow my tips below, you may find ways to spend drastically less than what you have mentally budgeted while giving more meaningful gifts. >>

So, back to GIFTS

I like to offer people new frameworks for thinking through their choices as well as references and resources to help with the follow-through. So, here is person-centered, eco-friendly gift giving guide:

First, think about each of the people you wish to honor with a gift. Start a list right now (type it or write it on the back of a used sheet of paper) of all the people on your list. >

Now read through the rest of this article to help you brainstorm your ideas of how to match a truly meaningful gift that costs very little to you and/or the planet. It's not the stuff that counts, its the time, thoughtfulness, love, creativity, talent or elbow grease that is most appreciated. Noticing and fulfilling what someone needs and/or would make a difference for them is truly loving. Wandering around a mall with a credit card to max out is not the best way to manage your spending nor end up with the most meaningful gifts.

Experiences and tickets

Dates with loved ones can create memories to last for years to come. As I was growing up, no matter what the holiday, my mom always said that time with us kids was the best gift. For many years my mom and I took turns on our various special days treating each other to a fancy Sunday brunch where we would graze on delicious food for hours of undistracted conversation with each other.

  • Gift certificates to a favorite restaurant and/or movie tickets to the Alamo Drafthouse are sure to be a hit.
  • If you can spring for them, tickets to a play, concert or performance would also create memorable experiences. If you don't want to pick the exact show you can give Now Playing Austin GiftTIX for art, theater, film, dance, and music performances, classes and merchandise. They also include a list of similar programs in other cities for your out-of-town loved ones.
  • Give the kids fun and memories with a day at a theme park or an adventure trip (think camping, hiking, fishing, rock climbing, or more zippy like a Cypress Valley Canopy Tour in the Hill Country. >

Donations and Memberships/Subscriptions

There are countless nonprofit organizations in the midst of their year-end appeals that would be very grateful to get a gift to honor of someone you care about or even do business with.

  • Pick a charity or community initiative that would be meaningful to your recipient and either renew their membership or make a donation on their behalf. Or, you can let your recipient choose which charity to donate your contribution to via TisBest.
  • Microcredit loans are gifts that empower entrepreneurs around the world. Locally-initiated DiscoverHope provides Latin-American women with loans. has a wider reach and when their loans are repaid you get to choose another person to receive a loan. Under a slightly different model you can help protect rainforests by supporting Austin's own Rainforest Partnership. They help locals create economic models and sustaining incomes based on leaving the forests in tact and responsibly managing them.
  • I made reference to kids and gifts earlier, but I want to acknowledge that I've met a bunch of young people who were happy to collect quarters for Unicef at Halloween and ask for working animals (from honey bees to chickens to oxen) for needy families around the world through Heifer International.
  • We recently gave my father-in-law (who loves to fish) a framed poster of Curious George going fishing and donation to an organization that teaches kids to fish. He thought that was great!
  • Sustainable foodies might appreciate a contribution to the Sustainable Food Center to support their many wonderful programs, like Sprouting Healthy Kids. >
  • Do you know someone who enjoys using the hike and bike trail? They might appreciate a gift membership to the Trail Foundation or a commemorative brick at Lou Neff Point.


Think about what your intended recipient likes and needs. What challenges do they have in their life? What gets overlooked in their busy lives? There are many services that seem like a luxury that would be welcome as gifts. In this category you can either choose to provide these services yourself or pay others to do them.

  • Are they stressed out and need a massage or pampering? Certificates for massages and spa treatments are always a treat. 
  • Maybe they don't have time to clean house or prepare home-cooked meals for themselves or an event they are hosting. There are eco-friendly cleaners and numerous prepared food and personal chef services available now.  And for those who can cook… the greatest value of a gift I think I’ve been given was having my father cook all the food for my wedding. That would have cost thousands in catering bills!
  • Do they drive? How about a detailing for their vehicleOil changes or tune ups can help them run more efficiently and extend the life of their vehicles. 
  • Is there a student or business-person in your life who keeps losing data when their computer crashes? You could pay for an online backup service.
  • Rather than purchase new hardware and gadgets, consider purchasing software that will make their existing electronic products more useful; phone apps, premium website memberships or upgrades, anti-virus subscriptions, or other software. Less-than-techie computer users (parents, grandparents, heck most of us) could benefit from a browser upgrade as well as removal of viruses, adware and malware. Your skills, or those of a nerd for hire could make your relative's computer more of a tool and less of an obstacle. While you are at it, take no-longer useful electronics to be recycled at Goodwill/Dell Re-connect, Best Buy, Apple or Little Miss Recycle.
  • Do they have kids? Look no further than babysitting as the gift of freedom and sanity to allow parents to have date night, attend a course or even have a weekend away! 
  • Perhaps they have art or a commemorative poster from an event that they have not gotten framed. Credit with a trustworthy frame shop would be a treat and likely help them check a to-do off their mental checklist.
  • Do they struggle to make ends meet, or are they energy conscious? Chances are they could benefit from an energy efficiency audit and credit toward some upgrades. This could pay returns in utility savings for your recipient for months and years in the future. >
  • Does your loved one have a medical or dental need they have been putting off? Perhaps the gift I have appreciated most was the root canal that my mom paid for to repair my bike-accident injured front tooth – I got my smile back. : D
  • You can give new life to beloved belongings by polishing their jewelry or family silver, or giving their shoes a freshening up. You may be skilled at this yourself or you can drop the shoes and handbags off at the Austin Shoe Hospital. 

If you are not the one to provide these services first look to your neighbors, colleagues and locally-owned businesses to purchase them before perhaps familiar national chains. See below for tips on finding local businesses, here and around the country.

Education and Enrichment

Holidays are a wonderful time to budget some money for classes that will bring joy and enrichment to your recipient's life.

  • How about guitar/voice/piano or other music lessons?
  • Would he or she appreciate time with a golf or tennis pro?
  • Do they like to keep up with green events and news? Let them know they can sign up for free EcoNewsletters from Austin EcoNetwork, Grist,, Environmental Leader and Sierra Club, among others.
  • How about a yoga workshop or foundation series at Yoga Yoga or one of the dozens of fitness studios in Austin. >
  • Have you got a Dancing with the Stars fan or a budding ballerina? Dancing lessons at GoDance or the Butler Community School of Ballet Austin would be great gifts.
  • We love it when grandma pays for a Laguna Gloria art class or KidsActing spring break camp for one of our kids. She even makes pick up and drop off part of the gift so they have a regular "excuse" to get time together. 
  • My mother delights in beading classes at the local bead shop near her house (and gift certificates to help support her hobby). 

If you want to make gift certificates for any of the above services or experiences but aren't that handy with desktop publishing, try these free Microsoft Office templates or these customizable holiday gIft certificates. Of course it will get there faster (and save some paper) by emailing it. If you do print, use recycled-content paper, then fold it in thirds and seal it with a sticker or wax seal. To further push the envelope, don't use one. This tri-fold can double as a self-folding mailer for those who your won't be seeing in person this holiday season.

STUFFStory of Stuff

OK, if you've made it this far and haven't figured out a great gift everyone on your list, or you still think that a THING is the best gift, you still have several good options that can help you give something that is valuable while minimizing the environmental impact of the1 gift. Before proceeding, however, please take 20 minutes to watch the Story of Stuff, if you have not already. >

Here are some great categories of gifts with some specific ideas of what to look for:

Keep history alive

  • Pass along a family heirloom or collection or piece of art or furniture that would bring joy to a family member or friend. Be sure to share the story of the object(s) so the recipient appreciates the context and gets to know a little more about you.
  • Framed pictures of your family and kids will be the most precious gift for many grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles and more. The wood in most frames comes from unsustainably-harvested forests around the world, but more and more you can find a few frames that are made of recycled materials or have claims of being from responsibly-managed sources. This is a category where I think the more customers ask for the good stuff and let retailers know that the other is unacceptable, the more we can shift this industry.
  • Assemble a photo album or scrapbook for your kids or family to show off their growing up experiences.

Homemade/DIY gifts

Gifts made by your own hands can be the sweetest of all. The gift that “hooked” me on my now-husband Scott was a hand-made ornamental table that he built for me with a music box mounted on it. It played “Here Comes the Sun” which ended up being the theme of our wedding.

From pottery and woodworking to bath salts to cookies and canned preserves, items made by you will carry extra value. You can share your talents by teaching others, or by giving them the product of your creativity and labor. With support, kids can also create wonderful personalized homemade gifts for each family member. I treasure every crafty gift that my precious little cousin made for me over the years and they always make me think of her when I see them. Off the top of my head I still have and use a laminated place mat that she colored for me, a snow globe with a picture of her sweet 6-year-old face, pens she wrapped with flower tape to bind silk flowers to the tops in a small flowerpot filled with beans to display the "bouquet", and an ornately glitter-adorned storage box which I use to store some of my jewelry. 

Making a gift may still cost you money for supplies, but with few exceptions it will be drastically less than paying someone else to make it for you. Cooking a gourmet meal, or series of meals for your loved one(s) could cost a fair amount, but it will still be less than eating out at a nice restaurant. 

Living Gifts

  • Winter is tree-planting season and a safe time of year to prune as well. You can probably find a free sapling from TreeFolks or purchase a new tree at a local nursery to plant in your recipient's home. Raised bed gardensOr if they have a lot of trees already you can offer to provide some TLC for their drought-stressed trees using these tips from TreeFolks or pay for an arborist to care for their existing trees.
  • How about a garden for someone you know who hasn't been able to get the project started but wants to garden? You can offer your assistance or hire someone else to install like Resolution Gardens. >
  • Even if you don't want to take on an entire garden, a few ready-to-plant native landscaping items would probably be welcome. See this online Grow Green plant guide for pictures of trees, shrubs/perennials, and ground cover, including their flowers. Folks at our local nurseries, like Natural Gardener can help you with all the pointers you will need to be successful.


It's hard to go wrong with food or food certificates.

Original Art

While everyone has their own taste, if you know someone pretty well you can probably find a some music or art that would be pleasing.

Buying Stuff

There are many factors to consider when looking at the entire life cycle of a product. Where did the materials come from? Is it made of renewable materials? Does it contain and toxic chemicals? Is it durable? Where did the product come from? Was it made in a place where the workers received fair wages? Does it require energy or batteries to operate? How is it packaged? Can it be recycled or composted? 

Items that help people live greene

This could be a very long list, but here a few good ideas to get you started.

  • Reusable travel mugs and water bottles <
  • A great small gift/stocking stuffer is a small set of travel silverware. You can find them at outdoor/camping stores. I used to give a set to everyone I worked with and they were a hit. Countless plastic throwaway utensils have been avoided.
  • LED and/or compact fluorescent light bulbs. Everybody wants to swap out when they get around to it. Replacement strands of LED Christmas lights are a great way to lower their decoration footprint.
  • A set of everyday or nice cloth napkins
  • A quality retractable clothesline and/or drying rack
  • Tea balls or special teapots that allow users to choose loose-leaf tea and save on the individual packaging
  • An under-sink water filter and the help to install it – THIS ALONE can save thousands of dollars and bottles of water over the coming years
  • A set of rechargeable batteries with a charging station and a battery tester
  • An indoor or outdoor composting setup
  • Eco-friendly soaps and lotions such as local favorites So.A.P. and A Wild Soap Bar 
  • Organic skin care products and fragrances like the local W3ll People that has the awesome tagline “Hippie tested, Diva approved.”

Keep things in circulation

Buying just about anything used accomplishes at least six things at once – 1) You keep something that has already been manufactured in circulation 2) You avert stimulating the demand cycle for more new objects to be produced 3) unless you are buying rare collectables, you save money 4) You are helping establish a secondary market for items which values durable goods to be made and purchased in the first place 5) You are helping a store or household clear up space they can use for something else now 6) you are putting money back into the local economy without requiring any more materials to be extracted, processed, manufactured, shipped, marketed, etc.

Luckily there are A LOT of places to get great used/pre-owned items, and sometimes they are even free!

Stores with pre-owned goods have many names – Thrift Stores, vintage stores, re-sale boutiques, charity thrifts, consignment shops, whatever you want to call them, they have a constantly circulating collection of items from china to accessories, bedding and clothing, to books that were once deemed valuable enough to purchase by someone else. Some of the "big name" general thrifts include Goodwill Industries, Salvation Army and Savers. I've also heard rave reviews about Thrift Town, though I've not yet been there.

You would be amazed and the wide variety of specialty used stores we have here in Austin. Off the top of my head I can think of baby clothes (including some with designer and boutique brands only), baby furniture, household furniture, office furniture, sporting goods, kids toys, women's fashion clothes and accessories, wedding dresses, men's fashion clothes and accessories, computers and other electronics, jewelry, home decor, cars, and I'm sure thare are many others.

Online you also have the endless treasure troves of Craigslist (including the Craigslist Free section), and FreeCycle. Sign up for the Freecycle listserv appropriate to your geographic area and enter a world of rapid material flow. Any time you want to get rid of something and frequently when you want to locate something you can post an Offer or Wanted post and usually get rapid responses. Read their guidlines so you know how to follow the rules.

Retail Gift Certificates

With a gift certificate to a good store – at least your recipient will get exactly what they want, which means it will be less likely to be returned, re-gifted, recycled or just thrown away. See this interesting article about how people pay more for gifts than what they are worth to the recipients. So what might be considered a good store? I’ll cover that next.

Where to shop

Honestly, my favorite place to shop is at charity silent auctions. I get to see great goods offered by local businesses, usually get at least a small discount off of straight retail, and all the money goes to my beloved charity! The Save Our Springs silent auction is one of the best in town and being on December 9th, it is just in time for the holidays. But you probably are looking for some guidance on stores, so here it is…


The very best choices are both Green and Local businesses (that feature local products), but sometimes you have to go with one or the other.

Buying local

By now you have probably heard the studies cited that demonstrate how money spent at a local business circulates in the local economy 3.5 more times than dollars spent at big chain stores, which creates greater community health and prosperity. 

Note: There is buying from locally-owned businesses, and then there is buying locally-made products. You can walk into a locally-owned shop like Toy Joy but fill your bag with goods made in China. Conversely, you can walk into a Costco or Whole Foods, or other large chain store and purchase locally-made beers, garments and gift cards.

  • In Austin you can check out the handy directories of GoLocal Austin, Austin Independent Business Alliance,  and of course, the Austin EcoNetwork's EcoDirectory. AIBA has helped brand several local IBIZ Districts/Indie Biz zones around Austin such as East End and Lo-Burn.
  • In an interesting twist, American Express has thrown its weight behind a campaign to support small businesses and is sponsoring Small Business Saturday, the day after Black Friday. They offer free tools to help promote small businesses that are also AmEx merchants.

Out-of-town local

If you are out of town while shopping or you are shopping for someone outside of Austin, the temptation to go to a familiar national chain may be great, but there are some super resources to help you locate the cool local businesses. You can arrange for one of the above-mentioned services or gift certificates to come from a business that is local to some of your far-away friends and relatives.

  • You can refer them to the BALLE network (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) that is promoting a Shift your Shopping campaign and the American Independent Business Alliance.
  • For green, and in some cases local businesses, check out the companies listed in the National Green Pages, published by Green America. Note: these are also useful if you want to help your friends and family in other cities figure out how to find the local goods.

Online Shopping and Shipping

With events like Cyber Monday (yet another manufactured excuse to shop), every year more people are turning to online shopping, which invariably means making choices about shipping. Air and overland truck travel have the biggest eco-impacts. The total pollution impact of shipping is greatest from trucks due to their sheer volume, but per package, transporting things by plane is DRAMATICALLY more fuel and carbon intensive than other methods. Trains and boats are the most eco-friendly way to go, and even those have some impacts too. So if you must ship, plan ahead! Start shopping soon. Unless you are truly down to the wire, choose the slower methods of shipping. I repeat, avoid overnight shipping, if at all possible. For the odd object or so that might not show up on time you can always make a card with a picture of the item printed out and let them know that it's arriving shortly, via a slightly more eco-friendly mode of transportation. 

Shipping also requires additional packaging, which involves more material and energy to make and later recycle (hopefully). Really, if you can pull off one of the above-suggested certificate-oriented gifts, and/or weave a stop at a local shop into your daily errands over the next month, it will be better on so many levels.

Mall Caution

If for some reason you find yourself in a mall, remember to stick to your budget and resist impulse buys for items that are anything less than worthy of putting your name on and meaningful for the recipient.


Remember the goal is to give a gift, not give disposible wrapping that will be thrown away. Here are some ways to avoid tossing rolls worth of semi-reyclable wrapping paper.

  • For very large items consider a simple bow on top or hiding it around a corner or under a sheet for a dramatic reveal.
  • Purchase or make reusable fabric gift bags or totes. We received a giant santa-style bag years ago, and love the tradition of using it each year.
  • Purchase sturdy paper gift bags that can be used several times – preferably made with recycled paper.
  • Wrap gifts in newspaper, old maps, old calendars, and other paper with interesting print and images.
  • If you must buy rolls of wrapping paper, look for 100% PCW recycled content or tree-free papers
  • Use raffia or yarn to tie up gifts.
  • Decorate the tops of your gifts with objects from nature like pine cones, mistletoe, or colorful fall leaves
  • Also, if you are a diligent scavenger, like I am, and you have at least moderately cooperative family members who resist shredding the paper when pulling it off, you can salvage a bunch of wrapping paper for future re-wrapping.

In summary

Set a budget and invest some time in putting together thoughtful gifts that will be appreciated, treasured and remembered. There are very few reasons to jump into the melee of the mass-consumer holiday shopping and many reasons not to. Set some goals for yourself now to frame how you will approach your gift-giving.

Some options for commitments you can tinker with might be:

  • 100% locally-owned shops
  • 75% from green businesses
  • 100% services, experiences and certificates
  • At least half homemade gifts
  • Finding used things that are terrific and "right" for each recipient
  • No shipping
  • No overnight or 2-day shipping

Choose commitments and gifts that feel right for you and enjoy a happy holiday season with your friends and relatives!


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