I received my first goat last year. With a $120 pricetag, it was the
most generous of all my wedding shower gifts, but I’m embarrassed to
admit that upon opening I didn’t feel any rush of satisfaction. I don’t
consider myself materialistic, but the giver knew me well and I was
hoping for a massage or some treat I’d never buy for myself.
Now I’ve realized with your first goat- or cow, or water buffalo- it’s
natural to have a delayed sense of satisfaction. For me it didn’t
arrive until I went to the Heifer Project website and learned that my/her gift was supplying a family with several quarts of milk per day
and that because goats are particularly fertile- they can produce two
or three kids per year-, whoever received my goat “can lift themselves
out of poverty by starting small dairies that earn money for food,
health care and education.”
Lofty stuff… to me. But that seemed just the problem, wasn’t it a bit
presumptuous to assume all would share your values and appreciate such
a gesture? I felt sure I couldn’t impose my beliefs on anyone else and
gift so idealistically. That is, until the mosquito nets arrived by
limo and I began to suspect my goat was part of a bigger shift in
Mosquito nets by limo
Two days before my brother’s wedding, a limousine arrived at his
in-law’s home without its multi-millionaire owner: its load was an
ornately-wrapped box which was delivered to him and his fiance by the
chauffeur. When they had finally removed the layers of paper and boxes,
we were all surprised to see just a card. But when they read out loud
that 100 mosquito nets had been donated in their name to help prevent the spread of Malaria among the children of Africa, I knew that the gift of idealism had arrived.
It seems that in 2007 re-gifting your philanthropy is acceptable, if
not expected, at least among some crowds. But I didn’t have access to a
limo, nor did I want to go the route of wrapping my ideals in pricey
and resource-intensive boxes and bows in order to give so abstractly.
Still, I liked the idea.
In fact, the nets and goat had begun to thaw my aversion to the whole
business of gift-giving. I grew up in a family that didn’t view gifts
as obligatory; we swapped hand-me-downs at Christmas and gave homemade
gift certificates for birthdays (backrubs and bedroom cleanings) so I’d
always felt alienated from and annoyed by the nearly requisite swapping
of new stuff during holidays.
But here was another way and if you believe trends come in three (in tv
production, you try to use soundbites from 3 random people on the
street to establish a fad), I got the confirming third sign from my
sister this week.
The end of the re-gift closet
A bit annoyed at being dragged into the gift exchange for my sister’s
new in-laws with whom we’ll be spending Christmas, I emailed her saying
that I was going to give my chosen recipient a flock of chicks
($20 from the Heifer Project. Apparently, chicks can survive on food
scraps and a good hen can lay 200 eggs per year.). I expected her to
convince me to at least add something more festive or more immediately
accessible for the recipient. Instead she wrote back with her full
approval, adding that “last year, one of his brothers’ kids bought me a
goat in Africa, that and some tea.”
If it weren’t for this email, I would never have known we had both
become virtual owners/givers of goats last year. It was our gift’s
light footprint that got me thinking about all of the candles and
creams, belts and baby dresses, slippers and stuffed animals that we’ve
had stored in our re-gift closet for years.
Why was I worried about imposing my ideals or taste on others when that
has become an integral part of the holiday season. A philanthropic
virtual gift is infinitely less presumptuous than a piece of jewelry,
clothing or electronics that you’d never have bought for yourself, but
don’t really know how to recycle properly.
Giving my ideals
After so many years of fighting the consumption surge of the holidays-
the average American spends $800 on gifts and garbage loads increase by
25%-, I now am feeling a runaway enthusiasm for my newfound power to
give my ideals.
I’m inspired to give a tree, or two. I’ve been meaning to contribute to Wangari Maathai‘s and the UN’s billion tree campaign and there are so many places in need: from the Scottish Highlands to fire-ravaged US national forests.
Or for those friends who I think might want to get their hands dirty, I could give them the option to attend a tree planting
through the UK’s National Forest Company, or simply buy them a tree
online via the Arbor Day organization. I checked the Red Delicious, one
of my favorite apples, and it’s only $12 for a 3-4 foot sapling.
Swapping fruitcake for a can of worms
There’s the saying that people gift what they really want for
themselves and now I feel licensed to embrace this. This year I’ve
become obsessed with getting my hands on some composting worms. My husband still adamantly wants to continue his bag composting experiment (a wormless method), but that shouldn’t stop me from giving years of great organic fertilizer to someone else (one woman I interviewed has had her worms for 15 years and swears their compost is the secret to her garden).
Red wigglers and a composter (my brother tells me Can-o-Worms
works great) seem a suitable gift for that family friend who actually
gave us a fruitcake one year. Or if worms are too creepy, I could get
her an automated indoor composter that turns scraps to fertilizer in two weeks.
For the relative who has given me many years worth of useless clothing
items (one year, gloves covered in buttons), perhaps a sewing business
would be the appropriate present. I have friends who started a
microcredit foundation in Honduras and with a $50 gift, I and my
relative could help a woman start her own pedal powered sewing business.
Giving a change in behavior
There really is something powerful about being allowed to choose an
object, or a service, and place it in someone else’s life. I think I
finally understand one aspect of the joy of giving: it’s a chance to
softly push your values on others, or in my case, to green my friends
just a bit.
For the friend that buys huge boxes of plastic cutlery to use for
backyard barbecues, I am considering a gift of bioplastic-ware (I just shot a video with the biocompostables distributor World Centric who make non-GMO cornstarch cutlery that biodegrades in a backyard compost pile).
For the relatives who still are using bleaches and phlalate-based cleaners, I could make a green cleaning goodie basket
stocked with Mrs Meyers lavender laundry detergent and her
lemon-verbena all-purpose cleaner, along with Caldrea’s green tea
patchouli dish soap liquid, Ecover laundry bleach alternatives (either
their percarbonate powder or their hydrogen peroxide liquid) and a
Drainbo enzyme-based drain cleaner.
Buying a share in a bike or a car
For my friend here in Barcelona who constantly complains she needs to
lose weight yet she constantly drives or takes taxis in this very
un-car-friendly city, I may buy her a membership to the new Bicing bike-sharing service (Also in other cities like Paris, London, Vienna and soon in Montreal and Washington DC).
For my friend in Seattle who drives everywhere in her SUV because she
wants to have the option for adventure travel, I could buy her a carsharing membership so she can downsize her car and simply carshare a 4-wheel-drive if she really needs one.
Giving solar without breaking the bank
For my videographer colleagues, who often dispose of at least two 9
volt batteries every shoot day (one for the wireless audio transmitter
and the other for the receiver), I’ve discovered solar battery
chargers. It’s $24.95 for a solar pocket charger without the rechargeable 9 volts.
For a more universally-applicable gift of solar- especially for tech-obsessed friends-, there are solar tote bags, backpacks and messenger bags that allow you to charge ipods, cellphones and cameras in just a few hours of sun.
Fuzzi Bunz and Climate change funds
For my pregnant relatives, perhaps I’ll pick up a few Fuzzi Bunz or any
of the adorable fleece, hemp, wool or organic cotton diapers (covers
and inserts) that are making it so much easier and more stylish to
choose cloth over plastic. (Not to mention chemical-free: as my friend
Stephanie (who I shot with her pocket diapers in this video)
argues if she can avoid it, she’d rather not put that Super Absorbent
Polymer (SAP) gel used in disposable diapers on her children’s bottoms.
For the friend who can’t save, I’d love to get her a few shares of one
of the new climate change funds from Deutsche Bank, F&C, HSBC,
Schroders, and Virgin Money or a small investment in any green fund.
Clothes that pollute a bit less
For any of my clotheshorse friends, the holidays are an opportunity to
help them begin a more sustainable wardrobe. As the girls at Envi
showed me this summer, organic cotton is just the beginning
of a wide range of more eco-friendly fabrics like soy and Tencel. They
recommend butt-flattering organic cotton Del Forte jeans, Panda Snack
bamboo t-shirts and fermented corn starch tops from Moral Fervor. To
try to add a bit of recycled clothing into the mix, the girls suggest shoes made with reused fibers like Terra Plana Pumps or recycled plastic shoes from Melissa.
There are even options for my sportier friends. For nearly 15 years,
Patagonia has been using recycled plastics like soda bottles and shower
curtains to make their fleece. Tim Rhone from one of their New York
City stores showed me- for a video– some of their newer recycled stuff like Capilene long underwear and hemp-poly blend jeans.
Rather than subtly hinting at change with my presents, I could simply
give my friends my worldview in written or video form. Of those that
we’ve recommended and reviewed for faircompanes are dvds like An Inconvenient Truth, The Corporation, Who Killed the Electric Car? or China Blue or books like Cradle to Cradle, In Praise of Slowness, Let My People Go Surfing, No Logo or The Future of Life.
But with these more tangible gifts, I’m starting to slide into
uncomfortable territory. These books, dvds and clothes- even if a bit
more eco-friendly in topic or fabrication- are still resource intensive
and far from the culture of swap meet that surrounds gift-giving in my
For a moment this week, I considered buying the BBC’s Planet Earth
series (aired on Discovery in the US) for my mother in-law, but knowing
her son has a copy of the 5 discs, it just didn’t seem right to buy yet
another for the family.
“When I’m done I will pass it down”
I wish I could simply give secondhand presents to friends like we do in
our family. But I’m afraid it would be seen as a sign of cheapness,
when in reality it usually takes more effort to find, or part with, a
well-loved item. Searching for a used copy of Planet Earth, or a nicely
worn pair of Levis, is much more time-consuming than simply buying them
new, but somehow this is not recognized in the market for giving.
I am hopeful that this will change as we get more comfortable with the
value in used items. Those at Patagonia have already started to build
this philosophy into their kids clothing. On a small label inside my
daughter’s fleece baby jacket are the words: “This garment belongs to
me! And when I’m done I will pass it down.” On the back they leave
three empty boxes to write the current owner’s name: one says “me” and
the other two just have question marks.
Next winter when my daughter has outgrown her jacket, perhaps she will
give it as a Christmas gift. With a tag like that, it’s only natural.
Now someone just needs to create a label like that for adult clothes
and cds, books, etc. They just would need more name boxes.