Links marked with a * are affiliate links.
From the decorations to the food, the music to the gifts…Christmas is definitely a joyous time which most of us look forward to every year.
However, without sounding too much like the Grinch, Christmas also brings a lot of things I don’t like: compulsory consumerism; stress; panic, and a ton of unnecessary waste from all of the trees, decorations, food and unwanted gifts that are thrown away each year.
No matter how hard we might try, it’s impossible to enjoy a celebration or holiday with creating at least some amount of waste. However, we can all probably agree that in today’s era, the waste we create is more than both our planet and our wallets can afford. Christmas, while bringing out the best in people, also happens to bring out the worst: competitiveness, greed and material obsession – both on an individual and a corporate level.
Perhaps you’re not really down with any of that, and honestly neither am I. In a world that values tradition and nostalgia over looking after the environment, it can feel a little overwhelming figuring out how to make a change without seeming like you’re ruining the fun.
A ‘Zero Waste’ Christmas
Luckily, there are plenty of things we can do to feel a little less guilt over this time of year, and reduce how much waste is created.
By thinking carefully about our buying decisions, we can ease the pressure we put on this beautiful planet and enjoy a more mindful, uncluttered Christmas.
If you’re already in the full throes of preparing for Christmas, please don’t presume it’s too late to make sustainable changes. No doubt there will be lots of decisions you’ve yet to make leading up to the big day, and hopefully you’ll be motivated to make more considered choices after reading this guide.
1. Sustainable Christmas Decorations
Christmas decorations are lovely to look at and really help to spark the festive spirit. But there can be a myriad of things wrong with them.
Many of them are made from plastic and other unsustainable materials, meaning they cannot be recycled afterwards and end up in landfill after a few years. Secondly, they are often bought cheaply en masse, which means not only are they not built to last, but it’s likely someone wasn’t paid a fair wage for making them.
There are plenty of ways to still make your house look beautiful without harming the environment.
Pretty much all of our tree decorations were handed down to us from my parents and grandparents. If we happen to need any extras, I’ll look for secondhand ones or go to a sustainable brand (see below).
Ask friends and older relatives if they have any Christmas decorations they’re not using, or that they’d like to get rid of. Alternatively you can look in charity shops to find some beautiful ornaments, or use sites like Shpock and Facebook Marketplace to find perfectly good, hardly used pieces that others no longer want.
All of this applies to Christmas trees too – if you’re in a market for a new one, look for secondhand over buying new. Remember that fake fir trees are made from plastic so often end up in landfill when disposed of. The key to making them as sustainable as possible is to reuse, reuse, reuse! So if you need a new one, choose secondhand; if you’re getting rid of one, look at donating it to Goodwill or Salvation Army (in the UK), or give it away to someone you know.
Alternatively, you might prefer a real tree over a fake one, which can be a more eco-friendly option for some people (more on this below). Sophie Davies from A Considered Life has a fantastic guide on choosing a sustainable Christmas tree.
Make instead of buy
Though this isn’t for everyone, hand-making your own decorations is wonderfully festive way to spend an afternoon. You can make gorgeous wreaths using natural materials foraged from your garden, as well as fashioning your own ornaments from paper, pine cones or salt dough to hang on the tree. If you have kids, get them involved! They’ll especially love getting to add their own special touch to the decorating.
If you’re stuck for inspiration, there are tons of useful guides on Pinterest. The National Trust also has some great ones.
Choose sustainably made, independent suppliers
It’s incredibly tempting to pick up cheap Christmas decorations impulsively from supermarkets and high street stores. You may feel like you’re getting more for your money, but in truth these pieces are likely to break easily and won’t last you more than a Christmas or two.
It’s much more sustainable to purchase decorations that will last. They might initially be more expensive, but they’ll last for years to come and you’ll be able to hand them down to the younger generations. Look for materials such as wood, glass, paper and bamboo, as these can either be recycled or composted at the end of their life.
It’s also worth noting that when you purchase from a small ethical business, you can be surer they’re earning a fair wage for their work. Some lovely brands of eco-friendly decorations are Nkuku and Protect The Planet.
Use LED/solar lights
Choose LED fairy lights over the less-eco incandescent ones. Not only are LED lights brighter than incandescents, they’re also more energy efficient, making them cheaper and better for the environment.
Solar fairy lights can also be purchased for your garden and if you’d like to save even more money, put them on a timer.
Choose a sustainable Christmas tree
A real Christmas tree might not be for everyone – you may not have the space, or you might have pets etc. But if you are able to, choosing a real tree is a much more sustainable option than a fake one.
Fake trees require a lot of energy to make – it’s estimated you’d need to use it for 20 years for it to be greener. As I mentioned earlier, they also cannot be recycled, so all of them end up in landfills eventually.
Though real fir trees take a long time to grow, they are a carbon sinkhole for the years they spend in the ground. As long as you buy from a sustainable plantation and as locally as possible, you can be sure your real tree has used fewer resources. You can use bctga.co.uk or growninbritain.org to check the sustainability of growers in your area.
After Christmas, real fir trees can easily be recycled and made into new things (PLEASE do not dump them!). Your local area will likely have a charity pick-up service where they’ll collect your old tree for free and ensure it is disposed of responsibly. Google services in your area or visit Recyclenow.com and enter your postcode.
Additionally, you can even rent a true ‘zero waste’ Christmas tree from Love A Christmas Tree – a family farm in Leicestershire. Simply order your tree for as little as £20; they’ll deliver it for Christmas and then take it away in January and replant it, meaning no waste is created!
Ditch the disposable tableware
All of these practices go for other decor too, such as your tableware. Avoid the disposable cutlery and go for beautiful tablecloths, table runners and napkins that you can use again and again. Linen, bamboo and organic cotton are all great sustainable materials.
Try reusable crackers
Crackers I believe are another huge source of waste at Christmas. Great for the kids yes, but they create a lot of mess when pulled, which only goes in the bin (along with the cheap plastic toys that came with them).
Why not try your own reusable crackers this year? Not only are they made from sustainable materials, they can also be reused every year and you can have fun filling them with your own choice of gift.
2. Sustainable Christmas Gifts
There’s so much pressure this time of year to spend a lot of money on impressive gifts. Not knowing what to buy someone and then falling back on a ridiculously overpriced present is a trap so many of us fall into. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Experiences over gifts
Experiences are the ultimate sustainable gift. All they require is a bit of printed paper to say what the gift is, and they’ll offer the recipient memories to last a lifetime. Think concerts, gigs, theatre shows and exhibitions, as well as less common experiences such as a hot air balloon ride or a star-gazing evening.
You could even treat someone to an amazing class or course to learn a new skill.
Buying what they actually want
In the typical British way, we can often feel very awkward about asking others what they would like, or indeed tell others what to buy for us. I agree to an extent that it sort of ruins the whole magic of Christmas, or at least our idea of what we feel Christmas should be.
However, these days I’m all for gifts being used and appreciated rather than discarded or wasted. Surely it’s better to buy something useful that the recipient really needs, instead of taking a punt on something you’re not sure about?
Christian and I each keep an Amazon wishlist, as do some of our family members. These things are a goldmine for gift ideas that will be genuinely loved. However you don’t have to rely on Amazon. Around October/November, ask your loved ones to share wishlists of things they need. You can then apply your own creativity to ensure it’s something they’ll adore.
Sustainably-made versions of gifts
The most common types of gifts (clothing, accessories, perfume, toiletries etc) tend to have a huge impact on the environment. From fast fashion high street stores to non-animal friendly materials and cosmetics loaded with toxins, it’s sometimes painful to think about the ethics behind our most common buying choices.
This year, I’m making a conscious effort to buy people gifts that are neither harmful or wasteful to the environment. This may seem overwhelming at first if you’re new to the idea of shopping sustainably, but the good news is there are plenty of resources to help you.
As I’m vegan, my main priority is to avoid buying anything made with an animal’s skin (including wool and leather), or that was tested on animals. Secondly, I’d like to avoid fast fashion retailers or unsustainable materials, and instead choose more eco-friendly brands.
For example, if your recipient would really like a new pair of gloves, why not choose some made from vegan wool or suede, which feels incredibly similar to the real thing? There are tons of ethical, eco-friendly clothing brands online you can choose from, as well as brands that create perfumes and other beauty products that are vegan, cruelty-free and come in sustainable packaging. The creators are out there making amazing things your loved ones will love. You just have to find them!
No gifts at all
If you genuinely don’t need anything, request that others don’t buy you gifts (or donate to charity on your behalf instead). Gift vouchers are also a great option, as you can spend them later when something does take your fancy.
3. Eco-Friendly Gift-Wrapping
Wrapping paper…where do I start?! It’s estimated that over 227,000 miles of wrapping paper is used at Christmas, much of which is not recycled. It’s about time we began to consider the ways in which we wrap our gifts and find more eco-friendly solutions.
As a general rule, avoid wrapping paper that has glitter, ribbon or sequins on it, as it won’t be able to be recycled. Another good test is the ‘scrunch test’. Simply scrunch a piece of wrapping paper up in your hand – if it stays scrunched up, it’s recyclable; if it unfolds of its own accord, it’s likely not.
Here are some of my favourite sustainable Christmas wrapping ideas.
Recycled wrapping paper & gift tags
As you guys know, I’m a big fan of Re-Wrapped – a supplier of recyclable wrapping paper I use every year. With an array of gorgeous patterns and designs, their paper is made from completely recycled materials, using eco-friendly vegetable inks with a lovely matte feel. They also do matching gift tags too.
Sustainable Christmas cards
This year I’ve decided to forego greetings cards altogether to cut down on waste. However I appreciate many people still like to send them.
As with wrapping paper, avoid cards with any glitter or other plastic materials and go for eco-friendly ones made from sustainable paper and inks. You may find that local artists and organisations are offering recyclable Christmas cards, so this is a great way to support independent suppliers.
Look for cards with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) mark, as this guarantees the paper has been produced sustainably and ethically. The Woodland Trust shop is a great place to pick up a pack, the proceeds from which also support Britain’s woodlands.
I also love the idea of these plantable greetings cards from Wildflower Papers. Their brilliant range of seed packet cards that the recipient can sow in the spring are a fabulous alternative to cards you would otherwise throw away. Not On The High Street’s illustrated cards embedded with carrot seeds are similar and a wonderfully charming eco-friendly option.
Recycle or compost your cards in January, or turn them into decorations for next year.
Plastic-free tape & twine
Life Before Plastik have a complete gifting range on their website, where you can buy plastic-free tape, gift wrap and beautiful cotton twine. The company was kind enough to gift me some of their tape, twine and a gift tag for this blog post, and I must say it feels so cool to know all my gift wrapping will be fully recyclable this year!
If you need any extra gifting help, LBP also have some wonderful eco-gift giving ideas too.
Use what you have
Plain brown paper or even newspaper that you have lying around can make stylish and unusual gift-wrapping options. Finish them off with some eco-friendly twine or recycled ribbon or bobbles.
Adding natural accessories such as a sprig of rosemary, a cinnamon stick, Christmas tree clippings or wild flowers is also a great sustainable option and will look fabulous against your simple wrapping.
Similarly, gift bags can often be stored away and re-used many times, giving you an effortless gift wrap solution come Christmas. I keep a stash of gift bags given to me so that I always have a selection to choose from.
Furoshiki cloth/knot wraps
Furoshiki are a type of Japanese wrapping cloth, traditionally used to carry clothes, gifts or food. However, they’ve since become a popular way to wrap gifts, coming in lots of different colours and patterns and able to be used again and again.
Wellness Mama explains how you can do a furoshiki wrap using whatever you have – from handkerchiefs to bed sheets to napkins.
Amazon gift options
If you do happen to be ordering gifts from Amazon, then selecting the ‘This is a gift’ option is a good shout. Amazon will place your item in an appropriately sized coloured drawstring bag. The bags actually look very pretty and make great speedy gift wrap options that can be used again later.
I know that in reality, cloth bags require more energy to make than paper. But so long as you or your recipient intend to re-use the bag, I think it can be a good solution. I have a few of mine from past Christmases that I’ll certainly be reusing this year.
4. Reducing Food Waste
Most of us can agree that the food enjoyed at Christmas is some of the best we eat all year! Unfortunately however, so much of it is thrown away, which is often down to poor planning, overbuying, and improper storage of food.
Whether you’re hosting guests this Christmas or visiting others, keep food waste in mind by following these tips.
Plan, plan and plan
As the article linked above explains, most food waste at Christmas is due to buying way too much food and trying to give everyone their favourite dishes.
If you’re hosting this year, putting together a proper plan of dishes to be made and when will really help you out. It’s also good to have a few ideas in mind as to how you’ll use up the leftover food afterwards.
If you’re visiting loved ones, take a few food-safe containers with you and offer to take home any leftovers if you can. Your host will likely appreciate it and then you’ve got lunch for the next couple of days!
Proper storage of food
Proper storage of food (cooked and uncooked) is essential for cutting down on waste. Keep your fridge organised (separate shelves for foods that need to be eaten first) and use labels to mark when things need to be consumed by.
Your freezer is obviously your best friend when it comes to saving food. Start eating up food in your freezer now to make room for any festive leftovers.
Glass and stainless steel boxes tend to be the safest for storing food. These stainless steel boxes with fully recyclable lids are perfect for taking leftover foods away from restaurants, parties or gatherings. You can also keep food fresh with these reusable silicone food wraps*. They are cheap, easy to use and more eco-friendly than single-use cling film.
Cooking from scratch
Time can be tight at Christmas and not everyone has the time to cook everything they need from scratch. But cooking as much as you can in your kitchen will save massively on unnecessary packaging, as well as working out cheaper and healthier.
Opt for loose whole fruit and veg over pre-chopped, and look up easy recipes you can make with just a few simple ingredients. Of course there are some things you may not be able to replicate (M&S Plant Kitchen festive roast, anyone?). But as long as you keep the basics simple and make as much as you can in your kitchen, you can still enjoy a few treats from the frozen aisle.
Keep animals off your plate
Most of us should now know that animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions globally. This is one of the reasons (along with ethics) that I choose to leave both animals and their byproducts off my plate all year round.
Now, I’m not expecting many people to go full-blown vegan right before the big day (though if you did, I’m sure not going to stop you!). However, the more plants you can consume this Christmas and the fewer animal products you put into your shopping trolley, the lower your impact on the planet will be.
Donating unwanted food
Any non-perishable foods can be donated to your local food bank after Christmas. There’s also a great mobile app called Olio where you can give away both perishable and non-perishable foods (so long as they are unopened) to people in your local area. I love this because it helps others save money on food and also avoids waste.
Compost any food waste!
Composting is one of the simplest and yet most effective way to beat food waste.
Food and drink thrown in the bin gets sent to landfill and becomes compacted, which prevents it from biodegrading naturally. The result is the release of methane gas, which can be easily be mitigated by chucking leftovers into a compost heap or bin instead.
You can read more about composting over in my Low Waste Kitchen Guide. If you don’t have a compost bin or don’t have the room, ask a friend or neighbour if you can use theirs, or use your local area’s food waste bin service.
Keeping your waste to a minimum at Christmas can often feel like an uphill battle. In a world obsessed with single-use plastic and momentary pleasures, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and like everything is working against you.
You might make mistakes – I know I’m continuously making them! But don’t give up. This new way of living comes with a learning curve and doing something is always better than doing nothing.
I believe that with a bit of knowledge, awareness and perseverance, all of us can enjoy a slow Christmas, filled with the things we love and none of it at anybody else’s expense.
What do you guys think? Will you be embracing any of these sustainable tips this year? What things are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint and waste this Christmas? Let me know in the comment section below!