Growing up in rural Argentina, our family hardly ever went shopping. My father had been raised in the same solid brick house where my six siblings and I grew up. The land around it was forested with eucalyptus, willow and poplar. To the east, wheat and sunflower fields bloomed in the spring. From our open bedroom windows, we could hear the rustle of the grasses on warm August nights and by late summer the grain would be harvested and stored in silos until the market price was good.

There was a fruit orchard, a vegetable garden, large stables with milking cows, sheep, chickens, ducks and goats. This was the prefect setting for a back-to-the-land existence: bread, butter, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, sausage, meat cuts, eggs – almost everything we ate was grown on our land and prepared in our kitchen.

Many of the outfits we wore were made at home. Though we had plenty to go around, most of it wasn’t store-bought. Since we didn’t watch TV we were not exposed to consumerist culture. I don’t recall having material temptations, or wanting to go shopping – not even to buy gifts during the holiday season. Every gift we gave was handmade. It never occurred to us that anyone would prefer something bought at a store. Our parents certainly didn’t: To the contrary, they encouraged us kids to scavenge for bits of fabric, yarn scraps, sticks, stones and feathers that would be reinvented into presents. Mud would turn into figurines that would sit on shelves until they crumbled and were swept off sometime in July. It was a simple, rich way of life.

One generation later, my own three children have a very different childhood experience, with ready access to stores, the internet and money. They are constantly bombarded with ads and all the temptations that come with them. In their world, shopping is a social activity that’s entertaining, and store-bought gifts are vehicles for showing love and appreciation. Even though my husband and I have expressed our preference for gifts made by them, the outside pressure is just too great: December has been prime time for shopping – for them and for us.

As Christmas approaches, I’m reminded of the many times my husband and I dutifully bought the gifts our kids selected. We didn’t pay attention to the fact that many of those objects barely got used. Or that they were manufactured by low-paid workers in factories powered by coal-fired plants, transported across oceans in polluting ships and trucks, and packaged in many layers of wrap, paper and cardboard that ended up in the trash. We just got caught up in the consumer frenzy. Yet as reports of natural disasters caused by climate change scream at us, I can’t help but wonder: Is what we do at home during holiday season what everyone else is doing? What is the true cost of this mindless shopping?

We know that human activity is the main cause of climate change, and that if we continue down the path we’re on we’ll see a 3+C temperature rise by 2100. In this scenario, fires will ravage the West, floods will inundate Europe, droughts will devastate Australia, storms will decimate coastal areas and millions of acres of farmland will be rendered unusable. Will we let this happen while we happily shop away?


Given all that, this year our family will try to give more sustainably, making handmade gifts, baking, sharing experiences – and limiting the number of presents we buy. To help us in our swim against the tide of consumerist culture, our friends offered up these thoughts, which I’d like to share:

1. Buying a few, durable gifts lessens the amount of trash that ends up in the landfill.

2. Choosing toys made of sustainably sourced wood or fabric instead of plastic is kinder to the environment.

3. Avoiding toys with batteries reduces the amount of toxic waste that can contaminate water bodies and drinking-water supplies, and kill animals and wildlife.

4. Gift cards to restaurants, local attractions and museums don’t deplete the Earth’s resources. Tickets to shows, concerts and sports events; gym memberships; massages at the local spa and other experiences have less of an impact on the environment.

5. Personal services can be a wonderful way to show appreciation during the holidays: Gifting “coupons” for child care, lawn care, cooking, tech help, household chores, dog walks, pet sitting, etc., is a meaningful way to show love without adding to greenhouse gas emissions.


6. Handmade gifts are unique and don’t deplete finite natural resources.

7. Homemade foods are personal, easy on the planet and will likely not go to waste. Bakery items are a popular choice, but dried fruits, pickled veggies, jams and jellies, homemade jerky, smoked meats, custom teas and pies are examples of other edible gifts that can be made at home and enjoyed by all.

8. Vintage and antique stores are full of lovely gifts that tell a story and deserve a second, third or fourth life. Accompanied by a heartfelt note, thrift store purchases can be more meaningful than new objects arriving in Amazon boxes.

9. For socially conscious friends, giving the gift of a charitable donation to their favorite charity is a great option. So is the gift of social services,  such as volunteering on their behalf at the local animal shelter).

If we rethink the consumer gifting culture, perhaps we will come to the point where receiving the gift of a monthly pie will be more memorable than a store-bought shirt, and a concert for two will be more special than another pair of shoes. And while we don’t all have to go back to raising our own food or to gifting mud figurines to stop climate change, incorporating sustainable gifting will get us one step closer to saving our beautiful planet.

Valy Steverlynck is co-chairperson of the Freeport Sustainability Advisory Board.

Comments are not available on this story.