Black Friday, according to one story, started in the 1950s in Philadelphia, but has since exploded into a global phenomenon extending the whole weekend after Thanksgiving. In 2005, announced that Cyber Monday is one of the biggest e-commerce days of the year,
and since 2011, the US Small Business Administration has cosponsored Small Business Saturday to “celebrate and support small businesses” that might get left out of the frenzy.

You can jostle on Friday for deals in crowded big chain stores, or practice socially-distant “conspicuous non-consumption” by staying home and observing “Buy Nothing Day.” Whatever your plans, here are a few ideas to make your giving a little more sustainable as the shopping season shifts into high gear. Rather than being overwhelmed by consumer choices, we can use sustainability as a filter to focus on giving that brings joy and makes everyone better off.

Dollars do make a difference, even though they are not a perfect measure of sustainability. In general, the more expensive an item is, the more environmental impact it is likely to have. Setting a budget for your holiday shopping is a good idea for your finances and the planet. It’s a sustainable strategy to try the old fashioned notion of making a list of everyone you’re shopping for, getting cash out of the bank, and then heading to your local stores to accomplish your task.

While “overconsumption” is unsustainable, so is “underconsumption.” We all have needs to meet; gifts that meet those needs might be the most appreciated. While some economists argue that cash is the best gift, on the theory that people know best what they really need, a moment’s reflection shows that some needs like friendship and companionship can’t be met with cash.

Taking someone to lunch or dinner, especially at a nice restaurant that serves good food and treats its staff well, works on many levels to sustain healthy relationships and healthy communities.

Dollars don’t always destroy the environment; sometimes your spending can have a positive impact. The idea that capitalism and consumerism is destroying the world is an oversimplification. Many lines of evidence are now showing that rich countries have turned the corner in terms of deforestation, pollution, and other measures of environmental destruction; the richer they become and the more powerful and sophisticated the technology they develop, the better able the average person is to protect rather than destroy ecosystems.


Gifts like organic seeds, composting bins, solar panels, electric bicycles, and the like can be expensive, but really do help people enjoy their lives and have a more positive environmental impact.

Besides the fact that consumption of sustainable goods like bicycles and solar panels can meet human needs in sustainable ways, there is the fact that we can consume sustainable services, too. One way to celebrate “buy nothing” is to buy services instead of “stuff.” For example, instead of buying a physical book, buy an online subscription. Or if the ubiquity of cell phones and the Internet unsettles you, consider giving low-tech services like a meditation or yoga class.

The idea that we must stop consuming is not quite right; instead we can choose wisely the goods and services that we decide to buy and sell. Finally, if your gift needs wrapping, consider using a reusable gift bag, or reusing paper you already have, rather than buying new wrapping paper. That’s a small gesture for sustainability, but it’s the thought that counts.

Fred Horch is principal advisor of Sustainable Practice. To receive expert action guides to help your household and organizations become superbly sustainable, visit SustainablePractice.Life and subscribe to “One Step This Week.”

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