The True Burden Of Gifts

The True Burden Of Gifts

You may be wondering why I’m talking gifts right now, when one of the largest gifting seasons is in December. Well, summer is the perfect time to plant the seeds of anti-consumerism in the mind gardens of friends and family. We tend to be outside more, valuing nature and experiences over physical items. The warm, fuzzy feelings of the holidays have faded and the new season’s marketing has yet to be unveiled. Even the most fervent gift givers likely haven’t intensified their holiday shopping yet.

Now is the time to broach difficult and often emotion-laden topics, and set expectations for the coming holiday season. The last thing you want is to try having meaningful conversations about gifts at the beginning of December.

Gifts Are Actually The Worst

I am the Grinch, the Grinch is me.

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? That’s what it’s always been about. Gifts, gifts… gifts, gifts, gifts, gifts, gifts. You wanna know what happens to your gifts? They all come to me. In your garbage. You see what I’m saying? In your garbage. I could hang myself with all the bad Christmas neckties I found at the dump. And the avarice… The avarice never ends! “I want golf clubs. I want diamonds. I want a pony so I can ride it twice, get bored and sell it to make glue.” Look, I don’t wanna make waves, but this whole Christmas season is stupid, stupid, stupid!

Don’t get me wrong. There are few joys greater than cozying up with a mug of hot cocoa in your pyjamas and watching holiday movies with the people you love the most. Or in our case, taking a few traditional shots of Patron and then doing those other things.

My concern is with the social and environmental impact of our love of buying stuff in this modern consumerist timeline. We expend staggering amounts of thought, effort, and resources on gifts every year, with surprisingly few benefits.

We’re Overwhelmed By Stuff

There are 300,000 items in the average American home – yet 1 in 10 still rent offsite storage. Women, who tend to do most of the holiday purchasing, will spend eight years of their lives shopping. Excessive consumption is eroding our space and time, and we don’t have much to show for it. We’re stressed, overwhelmed by clutter, and less happy.

Incredible Amounts Of Money Are Wasted

Did you know that billions of dollars are wasted on unwanted gifts every year? There’s actually a term for this in economics: the deadweight loss of Christmas, or the gap between how much a gift giver spends and how much the recipient values the gift. Waldfogel’s research found that 1/10 to 1/3 of the value was lost in holiday gift giving.

I shudder to think about how much each person has spent on gifts that languish at the back of their acquaintances closets. Even if we know each other well, our presents can miss the mark. Between an inspired gift idea and the date it’s opened, so many outcomes are possible – they may have purchased it for themselves, someone else could have had the same inspired idea, or their tastes might have changed. Even if we try to circumvent this by swapping gift cards, $1 billion in balances go unredeemed every year.

Not to mention that we’re often spending money we haven’t even earned yet. As shoppers head into a new holiday season, some are still carrying debt from the previous year!

Gift Guilt Is Real

Guilt isn’t an emotion we commonly associate with the holidays, but as soon as you start looking you’ll realize it is everywhere.

Do you worry that the value of a gift you’ve given won’t compare to one you’ve received?

Do you panic when you receive an unexpected gift and immediately feel pressure to reciprocate?

Do you hold onto things for fear that a loved one might visit and not see your gift lovingly displayed?

Christmas guilt is rampant, and much of it is centered around the exchange of physical items. WTF, friends. Most wonderful time of year, indeed.

Working Conditions Are Still Awful

I think if more of us saw the sweatshops where our glittery baubles and festive stockings were made, we’d be slightly less cheerful about snagging them for half price at the end of season sales.

It just kind of highlighted for me that these people are spending their whole lives making stuff that have no relevance for them in a language they don’t even understand. And then it’s shipped to the other side of the world, where we use it for a week and then probably throw it away. – Gemma Lord

Workers are often labouring long hours, for low wages, and in dangerous conditions.

The Environment Is Suffering

I had a bit of a moment last Christmas when I watched a young child tear into gift after gift, filling a box with wrapping destined for the landfill and piling plastic toy on top of plastic toy. She had it down to a science: acknowledge gift giver, tear open, dispose of packaging, pile gift, say thank you, repeat. It broke my heart in entirely new ways that this is what we’re teaching the next generation, and it reminded me of similar childhood experiences of my own.

Producing new items is often resource-heavy and environmentally destructive, not to mention the accompanying wrapping paper, packaging, and cards. Figures from Britain showed 227,000 miles of wrapping paper thrown out in a season – enough to reach almost to the moon.

Donations Are Losing Their Lustre

Donating tends to give us an emotional boost, and so we perpetuate the cycle of building up purchases and then purging them in marathon declutter sessions. As soon as we drop an item in a donation bin we simultaneously shed responsibility for the final destination of it and feel satisfied that we’ve done something good for someone who needs it.

Increasingly though, people don’t need or even want our donations. There is a glut of mass produced, often low quality, items on the market. The sheer quantity of second-hand clothing imports has devastated local industries in Africa. Donations are still valuable and appreciated in many cases, but we need to be careful about letting that absolve us of responsibility for our purchases.

Why We Need To Be More Materialistic

The problem isn’t that we value items too much; it’s that we’ve stopped valuing them at all. We need to treasure our possessions again – not to the extent that we idolize them, but so that we consider their entire life cycle. We’ve turned everything disposable, and so we dispose of everything.

When making a purchase, in addition to determining whether that item is needed or wanted, we should consider:

  • finances
  • ethics
  • sustainability
  • storage
  • disposal

This sounds like a lot to think about, and it is, but making small gradual changes in our purchasing decisions can add up to a significant impact.

I’m In! But What About Everyone Else?

I think most people hate our current gift giving practices, but hesitate to say anything about it. It’s possible that we’re just trapped in a cycle of unhappy politeness. In fact, a recent survey found that nearly 70% of Americans would skip exchanging gifts if family and friends agreed, and 60% would focus on time with each other instead. If most of us want that, let’s make it happen!

Here are some ways that you can try to decrease the negative impact of your gift giving:

  • Ultimately, mutual respect is key. Understand that you may have competing values – some people show love by giving gifts and that’s valid. Don’t belittle someone for their consumption. At the very least, that’s a promise that they’ll be defensive and will never change. Start conversations early, and focus on new directions rather than assigning blame.
  • Identify what you and your loved ones really want. Gifts are rarely about the item itself. They represent love, thoughtfulness, familiarity, and effort. Find ways that you can show someone that you care for them without giving them a physical item. Find ways that your loved ones can show that they care for you.
  • Emphasize the value of consumables. If you absolutely have to exchange tangible items, it’s better to receive something that you can use up. It won’t take space in your home, you don’t need to keep and display it for future visits, and it’s easily regiftable. Bonus points for low or zero waste packaging!
  • Buy local. Support artisans in your community whenever you can. Purchasing products made in your area stimulates the local economy, helps keep your neighbours employed, and promotes a sense of community. Also, it’s somewhat easier to track the life cycle of the product to make sure it’s sustainably and ethically produced according to national standards.
  • Focus on progress over perfection. You’re not going to change ingrained habits overnight. Choose one thing to implement this year and make it a new tradition. There are so many interesting ways that you can incorporate sustainable practices into your holiday season: implement a monetary cap on gifts, challenge everyone to use only reusable gift wrap, have a cookie exchange, switch to a secret gift swap rather than buying gifts for everyone, take a family trip in lieu of gifts.

Gifts are an emotional subject for a lot of people, and can be interwoven with personal identity. I don’t have anything against the spirit of gift giving, but my hope is that we can continue our traditions in a way that causes less damage to our mental and financial health, other humans, and the environment.

Have more ideas on how to give gifts in a way that aligns with your values? Let me know!

12 thoughts on “The True Burden Of Gifts”

  • The “cycle of unhappy politeness” concept is spot on. I’m fortunate in that the adults in my family are fine with no material gifts. But I’ve been on the kid birthday party circuit a lot recently, and the gift-giving mentality is well-ingrained. We had no-gift parties and most people still brought gifts. Even my kids have an expectation that we have to provide goodie bags, which are generally filled with the worst sort of junk or junk food. I’ve been trying to encourage experience gifts as they get older (going on special activity with a few friends), Progress, not perfection, will be my goal!

    • Progress over perfection is so important! Especially with all of the advertising and media that glorifies consumption and gifting, it’s become deeply ingrained.

  • Shout it out!

    I’ve been anti gift for a while now. Me and my spouse don’t really exchange gifts. I might save something I know he needed or would like for Christmas just because.

    But now that we have a child, whoa boy. I’ve had to put my foot down with relatives. We don’t want gifts. If you want to send something, send money. We want to be thoughtful with what we do buy, as well intention as family gifts are.

    We’re still going a little overboard with the gifts for Christmas, in my opinion (but not by normal standards). It’s an ongoing effort.

    I like the point about MORE materialism. It’s true, people don’t value what they have. Having a somewhat hoarding nature myself (my husband too), this isn’t as big of a problem for us. But where it does become a problem is, when something comes in at our house, it often doesn’t leave. So we need to be really thoughtful about what we are allowing in.

    Love it!

    • I can’t even imagine all of the stuff that is given when you have kids! Just from what I’ve seen with friends and family it seems overwhelming. I try to give books or consumables instead, so it’s a bit more manageable. At a recent baby shower I gave the mom a cheque and that got the side eye from a lot of people.. but I feel like new parents can always use money!

  • I’m also very anti-gift – and think it’s sad that we have devolved into this sort of culture where your value is determined by gifts.

    Love the post!

    • It is really sad. I read a story once about grandparents who brought a gift every time they saw their grandchildren. The children started to look forward to receiving gifts rather than spending time with their family. Not the kind of relationships I want to build!

  • My love language is gifts, but for me it’s the thought behind it more than anything. I’ve stopped sending people cards in the mails because they likely get thrown away after being read once, but I will send some friends postcards from my travels because I know they’ll appreciate them.

    When Christmas/Hanukah and birthdays rolls around, I have a select few peole who I give gifts to. Sometimes it’s a artsy pin I’ve found or a giftcard to a store I know that person is saving up to get a big purchase from. I have become a shop small person recently in my gift giving because it feels more intentional and meaningful.

    All that said, I don’t think people should feel obligated to give gifts. To me, that takes away from the specialness of the experience.

    • The thought in gift giving is so important. Sometimes I just write notes instead, or take someone out for dinner or to an event. Obligatory gift giving definitely feels like more of a chore than a celebration most of the time.

  • I got an Easter gift from one of my aunts a few months ago and I have no idea what prompted her to send the particular item because as soon as I opened the box it went straight into the box I keep in my room of things I’m gradually decluttering. It makes me feel horribly guilty every time I see it in there but there’s no way I’m keeping it because I don’t need or even want it.

    I started giving consumables in earnest last year and I’m absolutely going to keep at it!

    • Oh no! I’ve had those moments too where a gift is so off base it gets donated right away. Consumables are amazing!

  • There’s a subset of family that we simply cannot get out of a gift exchange with but the one saving grave is they do wish lists, so we aren’t stuck with the junk of yesteryear. PiC was still selling off some of that unwanted crap from 15 years ago when we moved last year! So I am incredibly specific about what I want (I go for things that are as practical as possible, I’m having a giggle over the gifts I’m going to list this year), and specifically say NO TOYS for JB. We’ll accept books and clothes for zir but ze gets tons of secondhand toys from my auntie who saves them from the bin at the daycare she works at so we are happy to accept those and give them a second life.

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