This year was rife with chatter about cap and trade, the climate conference in Copenhagen and reducing our carbon footprints. You didn’t have to be Al Gore’s closest ace to realize that going green(er) had evolved into a national discussion. “Eco” this, “Organic” that. Even the corporations behind our favorite brands wanted us to be clear that they were in on the act as they added purportedly greener options to their product lines. From dishwashing liquid to cars, more environmentally friendly choices became ubiquitous. The proliferation of green also meant more competitively priced items as the realm of eco-commerce transformed itself from marginal to mainstream. With the good also came the rather suspect practice of greenwashing. Unscrupulous companies wishing to exploit consumers’ genuine concern for the state of the environment increasingly slapped enviro-lingo on their products and made claims that I’ll generously characterize as a tad disingenuous. It continued to be our charge to be informed consumers by reading the labels and investigating the claims. The idea of going green was ever more appealing in the aftermath of the credit crisis as the idea of living lavishly and irresponsibly fell starkly out of fashion. Scaling back and shopping with a conscious just seemed to make sense.
If you are anywhere near like me, you took a five-minute break from your yearlong slog and realized in horror that Christmas is nigh. As the years go by, it gets increasingly difficult to come up with blockbuster gift-giving ideas. But the realm of gasp-inducing goodies is as infinite as our imaginations. While some may rely on the benevolence of the Great Bearded One, I prefer to take matters into my own hands. Let’s face it, there’s nothing more gratifying than watching a loved one’s face light up as they frantically tear their way through gilded paper and ribbon to a truly memorable gift. Hugs, smiles and proclamations of our thoughtfulness, notwithstanding, giving feels good because it’s an expression of our appreciation for those who matter to us the most. So it was during one of those so-called light-bulb moments that the following occurred to me: why not bestow upon my friends and family presents that demonstrate both appreciation for the recipient and the planet? Et voilà(!), a gem of an idea was born.
So sit back with a cup of warm cocoa and inhale deeply. I have come to lighten your load by sharing my guide to thoughtful environmentally conscious gifts that hit all points between luxe and low budget. Enjoy.
1. Razzle Dazzle. Who doesn’t like jewelry? Seriously. Is there anybody out there? I doubt it. Which is why you will seldom go wrong by giving a tasteful bauble. The operative word, of course, being tasteful. We’ve heard plenty in years’ past about blood diamonds, the trade of which deservedly garnered plenty of outrage. Disgust with the atrocities linked to the production and sale of these gems lowered their luster and generated a growing market for conflict-free diamonds. A similar shift is occurring when it comes to more environmentally sustainable jewelry. The mining process often has devastating impacts on the environment and consequently on the people who happen to live near the mines. Using recycled metals to create fine jewelry is becoming a popular response to the call for a sustainable way to enjoy these wonderful trinkets. Try this cuff made by Saundra Messinger at Takashimaya. It’s made in NYC of recycled silver. Carmina Campus makes affordable and original handmade jewelry that is also made from recycled materials. Here’s one of my favorites. Brilliant Earth offers a variety of stunning precious metal trinkets that are made of 100% recycled silver, gold and platinum. The diamonds are mined in Canada so you can rest assured that they are conflict-free. While there are plenty of brilliant pieces to chose from, this silver leaf pendant is embellished with an ethically sourced emerald and at $90 will fall nicely within your budget. You can also feel good knowing that Brilliant Earth donates 5% of its profits to assist communities that are negatively affected by the jewelry trade.
2. Just Throw it in the Bag. A beautiful bag is a sight to behold. Original design, function and fine details are some of the hallmarks of a stunner. I liken finding a bag to finding true love, somewhat indescribable, but you know it’s the real thing when confronted with it. With designers like Stella McCartney demonstrating a commitment to working with materials that have a gentler impact on the environment, your diva’s swagger need not be compromised. This faux-leather clutch (will definitely have your favorite hot girl singing your praises. If you want to give glam without the glam price tag, try lesser-known Italian bag-maker Momaboma. The purses are made from recycled materials like vintage magazines and vinyl records but do not skimp on originality and style. Here’s one that caught my eye.
3. Light ‘Em Up. No matter the mood, candles can be a subtle but sophisticated addition to any décor. Candles are also pretty inexpensive which makes them a high impact gift that will have a low impact on your wallet. I love the soy wax candles made by Dallas-based Jimmy Belasco. My favorite scent is Blackberry/Currant but there are a host of fragrances to choose from that are sure to make that special person on your list smile. The wax is made of soybeans and vegetable oil. In fact, the formulation is so pure that Jimmy claims to have fried chicken with an unscented version of the mixture! Please don’t try that at home. But the point is well taken; these candles are made with good stuff. Did I mention that these soy wax candles are biodegradable? Once the candle has been fully enjoyed, the glass holder can be washed with hot water and re-used time and time again. If you’re still not convinced, try this on for size: Jimmy will donate $5 from every online candle purchase to a charity of your choice listed on his website. The charities range from Oprah’s Angel Network to the WWF and the Red Cross. How cool is that? Nomine also offers a wide variety of soy wax candles at a slightly higher price point but they happen to come in convenient travel sizes for the international jetsetter in your life.
4. Think Outside of the Box. I am a big fan of buying experience gifts for friends and family. Past gifts have included spa services and an indoor rock-climbing lesson. The fabulous thing about experience gifts is that they are totally customizable to the recipient’s tastes and interests and will score points on the enviro-conscious tip. As a close friend and confidant, there’s no way you won’t be privy to what your best pal is into. New woman on the scene that your homeboy wants to impress? Cooking lessons or a wine appreciation class might be right up his alley. Your sister wants to tap into her inner artist? Painting classes at the community college seem like a good idea to me. You can tool around the Internet to find the perfect experience gift or you can simply venture to www.cloud9living.com. It’s a one-stop shop for a variety of experience gifts that will appeal to the fearless and timid alike. The handy search tool allows you to narrow results based on region, category of experience and price. My girlfriend used this site to buy her then fiancé/now husband ninja lessons. I don’t think he has taken any of those lessons to date but as they say, it’s the thought that counts. The takeaway for you: don’t follow my girl’s cue and go all the way out there when it comes to experience gifts. Staying within the realm of the recipient’s known interests should keep you from being met with the wrong kind of raised eyebrow. For less than $150, I was able to find a bevy of low impact activities such as private DJ lessons, bike tours, a white water rafting package, guided hikes in the scenic Poconos or Catskills and much, much more.
5. Grub Green. I’m not a foodie by any stretch of the imagination but there’s a good chance that somebody on your holiday list is. The benefits of eating organic and/or locally grown food are pretty plain. With just a touch of effort, we can help support local farmers, avoid disgusting pesticides and reduce our carbon footprint by consuming food that travels a shorter distance to get to our tables. Sounds like a tasty proposition to me. But dining out presents a whole new set of challenges. We rarely know where the ingredients comprising our meal come from and depending on where we live in the country, the likelihood of organic or locally grown produce making their way onto the plate, are slim to none. There are several organizations that bestow green certifications upon eateries based on compliance with a series of green-friendly criteria. The Green Restaurant Association offers a nation-wide guide to green dining that can help you pinpoint restaurants in your neck of the woods. You’ll find yourself firmly planted in a friend’s good graces when you treat them to a delectable green meal.
6. Nectar of the Gods. Nothing goes better with a well-prepared meal than a complimentary glass of wine. Organic wines may get a bad rap for less than stellar taste but with enhanced regional diversity, the likelihood of finding a satisfying grape can only go up. The wine connoisseur on your list will have no choice but to say “Merci!” when you present them with a membership to The Organic Wine Company’s monthly organic wine club. For about $50 a month, your dear heart will receive three different wines each month made from organically grown grapes. Definitely my kind of special delivery. If a monthly membership doesn’t appeal to the commitment-phobe in you, try perusing your local wine shops for organic offerings.
7. Go Go Gadget. Totally clueless when it comes to tickling your tech-geek’s fancy. No sweat. I’ve got you covered on this front too. Your gadget hawk will be upgraded to bonafied enviro-techie status when you surprise him or her with the clever Samsung Reclaim. The phone gets top marks for eco-friendliness because 40% of its casing is made from a biodegradable plastic material derived from corn. Features include a QWERTY keyboard, 2.0 megapixel camera and web surfing capabilities at 3G speeds.
A tech-geek without a computer is like the desert without sand. Add a little Zen to their online experience with the very distinct but very fly, bamboo keyboard and mouse from USB.Brando.Com, which is a member of tech-haven, Brando Workshop.
8. Kiddie Korner. The little monsters on your list can get in on the green act too. Treat baby’s sensitive skin to bamboo onesies from Small Plum. The adorable bodysuits are hypoallergenic and made with non-toxic natural dies. Bigger kids can increase their environmental awareness with fun and engaging eco-toys. The Power House is aimed at children aged 12 and up. The kit is pricey at about $150 but well below the cost of an X-Box 360 or PlayStation 3. With 70 experiments and 20 building projects focused on environmental sustainability and alternative energy sources, you’ll have a budding scientist on your hands in no time. PlanToys is a good source for kid-friendly green gadgets. I particularly like this design-savvy scooter. My only question is do they make these for adults?
9. On the Move. So the recession hasn’t stopped your stride. Bless your heart (and loan me a couple of bills). Fortunately for someone on your list, your finances are so tight you can afford to make a massive splash with an eco-vacation. Eco-tourism is definitely starting to make in-roads as mainstream travel websites like Expedia.com give you the tools to plan a lower impact vacation. If money is not object, go for the gusto and search for luxury eco-friendly hotels and resorts in some of the most dazzling locales on www.kiwicollection.com and then come find me at the Lake Manyara Tree Lodge–if only in my dreams. Of course, flying halfway around the world to get some sun and surf may not be the most environmentally-friendly thing to do. Which is why you can exercise your own brand of eco-tourism by encouraging your loved ones to become better acquainted with their very own surroundings. Make a gift of a weekend bicycle trip or rejuvenating hike close to home.
10. The Gift that Keeps on Giving. This year has been financially challenging for many of us. We witnessed the on-going devastation of the economy and were forced to stake stock of the credit crisis’ impact on our individual lives. We trimmed the fat and found, to our surprise (and relief), that we could still make do. For that we remain truly thankful. Throughout this period, we couldn’t help but think about those less fortunate. Those who were already living on the bare minimum and for whom scaling back simply was not an option. We also thought about the charitable organizations that are strapped in the best of times, but scrambled this year to make do on slashed budgets. We gave when we could but wanted to do more. This Christmas, why not give the ultimate gift of a charitable donation in your loved one’s name. There are plenty of deserving organizations too numerous to name both in your community and abroad that would make excellent use of the funds. Sadie Nash and Urban Assembly are particularly dear to my heart but there is a universe of organizations, many of which will have an explicit or implicit eco-friendly focus, that speak to every interest, concern, or belief you could possibly think of.
Femi Austin is a NYC-based corporate attorney. She lives in Harlem with her mischievous dog, Nello and is passionate about finding ways to live a greener healthier existence.