The four kinds of zero waste gifts

Giving and gifting as a zero waster (or to your zero waster) can make holidays, birthdays, and special events a bit more stressful than they may have been in the past. You may dread opening a gift from a well-meaning loved one who purchased you something with dirty manufacturing processes and exploitative labor. You may not understand why your loved one would rather you purchase them one item that seems too expensive than a similar less expensive item, plus a myriad of other gifts.

Consumables I gifted last year with thrifted holiday tins filled with chocolates and candies

Consumables I gifted last year with thrifted holiday tins filled with chocolates and candies

My experience living minimally (and generally anti-nick-knack) has been good even around the holidays. Being clear with those closest to you about what you do or do not want can help avoid many issues. If you’re struggling to gift the eco-conscious or zero waster in your life, ask them what their main priorities are when making purchases for themselves, such as quality, origin, material, labor standards, etc. Bear in mind that gifts can take many shapes and forms; what most adults want most from their loved ones are not (believe it or not) novelty tee-shirts, mugs, or scented lotion. Most of us value time well-spent over the above.

Zero waste gift giving can be broken down into four categories: experience gifts, consumables, necessities, and the beautiful & useful. Staying within these parameters can help keep gift-giving in line with our values and lighter on the earth.

Experience gifts

Experience gifts, if you’re new to them, are giving experiences. Concert tickets, movie passes, a weekend away, or going to see your favorite team play. These gifts might involve spending time together and are immaterial. Experience gifts can be a way to make future plans with your friends and family and reduce consumption of unnecessary (and at times, unwanted) material goods. Not forgetting the young people in our lives, a pass or ticket to a local science center or kid’s museum doesn’t support the import of poorly made, breakable, plastic toys and can help make treasured memories together.


Anything you can consume is a consumable; wine, chocolate, specialty coffees, a bar of soap from a local maker, flowers, etc. Consumable gifts serve a purpose and are a chance to treat someone to a product they would not usually try or splurge for. Consumable gifts don’t linger on forever like an acrylic sweater we only wear twice. These gifts are perfect for host gifts as well and unlike many material things, can be sourced locally made; for those products that simply can’t, check out certifications like Fair Trade or the Rain Forest Alliance.


Maybe it’s just me, but these are the gifts I love best. Perhaps your spouse needs a watch repaired, or the last of the nice wine glasses broke at Thanksgiving, or the napkins at your sister’s house were sooner mistaken as rags than napkins. For those closest to us, noticing they need something and being able to provide it is both meaningful and useful. While children aren’t ever thrilled receiving underwear for Christmas, as adults we can see the importance and appreciate the small needs in our lives and feel grateful those needs are met. Necessities vary person to person and some people might not tell you they need something or ask for these as gifts, so keep your eye out.

The useful & the beautiful

The last, and largest category of zero waste gifts is what I would call the useful and the beautiful. They say to keep nothing in your home that is neither beautiful nor useful. Perhaps I am clutter-phobic, but many homes seem to feel a little overfull after the holidays. No gift givers aim to fill your home with things, so if there are not experiences, consumables, or necessities to gift someone, use these two criteria to pick a gift.

Zero waste gifts I received last Christmas: package free coffee, cloth wrapped bath bombs, locally made lotion bars, a used book, and reusable Coffee Sock coffee filters

Zero waste gifts I received last Christmas: package free coffee, cloth wrapped bath bombs, locally made lotion bars, a used book, and reusable Coffee Sock coffee filters

Useful: Does it serve a purpose? Will it be helpful to the person?

Beautiful: Is it beautiful when not in use? Will it simply beautify their space?

I’m inclined to say that useful comes first; ideally, whatever you give is not only useful, but regularly used; it’s not much of a stretch to arrive at the conclusion that useful things are a better use of our limited resources than ornamental things. And if it’s not useful at all, it ought to be beautiful and in line with the tastes of whomever you give it to. Bringing joy is, of course, useful and I consider something that may regularly make someone happy as useful, such as an image to hang on the wall to remind them of a happy memory or loved one.

Similarly, for a child, a toy can be very useful if it is durable enough to endure a lot of play and is age appropriate. While I can’t speak from a parent’s perspective, I can speak from a nanny, 2x au pair, 3x-host-family-with-children-guest, and previous daycare employee’s perspective that an entire basket of toys a child isn’t very interested in is not equal in value to a single toy they want and use.

Giving gifts shouldn’t be a stressful ordeal of struggling to amass quantity, with hits and misses because you don’t know what the target is in the first place. We can give gifts that are lighter on the planet, predominantly by giving less and giving better, and we can give gifts that are more meaningful by giving more thoughtfully. Gifts are not an obligation. If nothing within these categories suits the gift receiver and you struggle to know what else to give, be present rather than give one.