Stop Shopping for the Holidays

Margaret Gainer and Elena Bilheimer

With November upon us, we are in the thick of the holiday season with all its joy, merriment, celebration and incessant attempts from corporations to entice us to buy the shiniest, newest products and packaging available. The day after Thanksgiving, called Black Friday, is one of the busiest shopping days of the year, known for its massive discounts as well as the hysteria and physical violence these markdowns can sometimes elicit. Amidst the frenzied marketing and relentless reminders of sales, it can be easy to be convinced to buy things we don’t actually need for ourselves or others. 

This behavior is damaging for a multitude of reasons, as the consumption and production of these materials has enormous environmental and social impacts. While many people are preoccupied with the waste generated once an item is used and thrown away, the negative impact of the creation side of the equation is just as, if not more so, damaging to people and the environment. Pollution and the depletion of natural resources during the material production process, unfair labor practices, overproduction, packaging waste, and the carbon emissions from transporting goods are just a few of the many issues associated with what some have called our “hyper discount culture”. 

In order to mitigate some of these concerns, the concepts of Green Friday  or Buy Nothing Day have been proposed, with the intention being to spend the day resisting overconsumption and instead appreciating the earth and your loved ones. As part of Green Friday, some companies use the money they earn from the day’s sales to fund environmental causes (which can be viewed as greenwashing), while the initiative of Buy Nothing Day encourages people to boycott buying anything at all and instead participate in a variety of anti-consumerist and philanthropic activities.  

The idea of resisting consumerism as a form of protest is widespread and increasingly relevant. Communities like The Church of Stop Shopping, which include the Stop Shopping Choir led by performance artist Reverend Billy (whose real name is Bill Talen), advocate against “consumerism, militarism and capitalism’s attack on nature.”  Talen has been crusading against consumerism for over 20 years and is renowned for his dramatic and colorful demonstrations; past examples include attempting to exorcise a cash register in the Disney Store on Times Square and defacing billboards with paint guns. 

Through singing and performing, Talen and the Church of Stop Shopping’s activism demonstrates how resisting consumption doesn’t always have to be restrictive or punitive, and can instead be a joyful celebration of all that we already have and are fighting for. Although it is inevitable that we all need to buy new things at some point or another, buying less and buying better are two small ways we can survive the toxic shopping industrial complex.

Figuring out ways to resist the deeply encoded belief of capitalism that physical items can be directly equated with love is especially difficult during a time of the year where the exchange of presents is common. While we are inspired during this season to express our gratitude to friends and loved ones with gifts, let’s make it our goal to enjoy the season without supporting the petrochemical industry’s pollution and proliferation of single use plastics. If you follow the Zero Waste hierarchy of waste prevention first, materials reuse second, and recycling or composting third, you are well on your way to achieving a Zero Waste holiday season. 

Below are some practical examples of how you can enjoy the holiday spirit without contributing to the rampant consumerism that destroys wildlife habitats, extracts natural resources, pollutes air, water, and soil, and causes extreme weather brought by climate change.

Get Creative

  • Prioritize experiences over buying new things for yourself or the people in your life. Taking a friend out for a movie, putting together a picnic with a loved one, hosting a dinner party, or going to see a band or show you and a family member both like are all great alternative activities or gifts for this holiday season. 
  • Getting a subscription to a cooking website, online magazine, or an artist’s newsletter also allows you to give or receive something very personal, tangible and engaging.
  • Gifting items you already own and have loved is another option. This is especially applicable for things that aren’t heavily used and are in good condition, like books you’ve already read, decorations, art, seeds, plants from your garden, or jewelry you never wear. 
  • Making things for yourself and others is another excellent way to show your appreciation (brownies or handmade soap are always crowd pleasers). You can also take something like an old white sheet and naturally dye it using food scraps to create something that feels revitalized and beautiful.
  • Organizing a clothing or furniture swap — we have heard of friends switching sofas just to keep things interesting — can be another excellent way to scratch the itch of wanting something new and different without having to consume anything. 
  • Before making the choice to buy something new you think you need for yourself or someone in your life, check to make sure there aren’t other places you could find or borrow it from. Is that cookbook you have been wanting to try out available at the library? Can that material be found at a reuse center (like the Zero Waste Humboldt ReUse Center which will be opening soon)? Is it necessary for both you and your neighbor to have a juice press or would it make more sense for you to go in on one together?
  • If you absolutely feel you need to get something new, buying local is always the best choice for the community and earth. Choose long-lasting items that are durable and will continue to bring joy for many years to come. Being intentional and thoughtful about getting something that will last through the ages usually makes the purchase more meaningful for yourself or whoever you are giving it to.

Deck the Halls

  • Decorate your home with prunings of the varied green colors in all the trees, shrubs, bushes and vines in your yard, fields and forests around you. These natural garlands, wreaths and trimmings smell great and are attractive as table centerpieces, around windows and doorways, and atop the piano.
  • Decorating a tree can be fun and rewarding when you bring intention to the process by making ornaments that are not costly and do no harm to the environment. Start with a live tree that you plant at the end of the holiday season. Planting a tree at the beginning of the New Year is a great tradition. Make non-plastic/non-toxic ornaments that are symbolic of special times with loved ones. Hang origami, photos, and mementos that you make together.
  • Glitter is microplastic. If you are used to using it on dining tables, windowsills, or other surfaces and holiday party decorations, replace it with sprinkles of red, green, and yellow by using a hole punch on leaves.

Zero-Waste Wrapping

  • Try Furoshiki, the Japanese art of gift-wrapping with cloth. Wrap your gift in a colorful cloth napkin, tea cloth, hand towel, scarf, pillowcase, new cotton baby diaper or cloth bag. Your clever washable/reusable wrapping is also part of the gift. The fabric fits around boxes of all shapes and you tie with a knot or extra ribbon.
  • While often not reusable, making your own wrapping paper can be a beautiful expression of your art. Painting on paper or making wood block or vegetable block stamp prints is attractive and a great way to involve kids.
  • Using last year’s wrapping and old EcoNews issues is easy and can create a fun competition to see how many years you can reuse them.