November 14, 2013

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Get crafty, local and fair trade-y this holiday season

They started early this year. Ten catalogs came in my mail today. They have been arriving in scores since before Halloween. It’s sad to think of all those trees lost to paper.  And Thanksgiving has been lost in the shuffle. 

The Christmas decorations and wares are already out in the stores, plus email, TV and radio ads all to entice us to buy-buy-buy for the holiday season (Chanukah, too). At its bottom line, heavy materialism and over-consumption is anti-environment. Was the Grinch right?  After all, no gifts would be Earth friendly.  

In the past, this column would be written for December, but that would be too late this year to remind folks to make Earth-supportive plans for the holidays. Such plans don’t mean less joy.  It means we recognize our connections to our planet and its value in sustaining all life.  

If you give a gift, you want it to bring joy to the recipient, but that can be done with less damage—or even benefit—to the environment. Bill McKibben has written of the Hundred Dollar Christmas taken up by his church in Vermont. Congregants were encouraged to spend no more than $100 per family for Christmas. It spurred creativity and brought more connectivity to family, community and spirit—not to mention benefitting nature.  

When thinking about purchases, consider the embedded energy resources it took to make the product and the energy cost required to deliver it. Try to avoid items made in China, not because the Chinese made them, but because of the extra transportation fuels needed to come so far plus air and water quality impacts. When you think about that, you will easily turn to local, reusable, or consumable items. Products made from recycled or natural materials are good choices. For the crafty among us, handmade gifts are especially appreciated. The exception to buying locally made products is to purchase fair trade items that benefit the poor in the world as a matter of justice.  

Further, separating wants from needs will help save the Earth. How badly does one need an indoor flameless marshmallow roaster for $69.95, heated outdoor cat bowls ($49.95), or an automatic flameless LED candle ($39.95) from Hammacher Schlemmer?  Can you live without a spinning fork ($15) or an electric cheese grater with stainless steel drums ($39.95)?  

All of these items require energy to operate and fossil fuels to make—probably in China. While these are amusing devices, they cause an unnecessary drain on our natural resources.  If real environmental costs of materials used in creation of these gifts was incorporated into the price, they would be much more expensive.  

It’s easy to reduce the cost of holiday party accouterments. There’s a free centerpiece in a back yard made from leaves, cones, evergreens or nuts. Avoid plastic and paper with reusable or compostable plates and utensils. Wrap gifts in reused or recycled paper or a container as part of the gift. Recycle and compost everything possible. Send e-cards.  Give “green” gifts that keep giving, like LED light bulbs. They use 75-80 percent less energy, last 25 times longer and save on air conditioning costs.  

And amid the holiday rush, let’s not forget Thanksgiving, the most environmentally friendly holiday and worthy of celebration. It reminds us of that truly needed gift from the Earth:  Food! Eat more vegetables, like your mother told you. We can feed more people in the world simply by eating less or no meat. That’s a gift we can all give to one another.  

Sandra Kurtz has been a teacher, the executive director of a nature center, an educational specialist for an energy museum, an environmental community activist, and a board member of several environmental organizations. Visit her website at


November 14, 2013