Eco-friendly gifts: A guide to shopping smartly and sustainably

30 October 2020 | Aimee Tweedale

Winter is traditionally the busiest time of year for shopping. With Black Friday and Christmas just around the corner, you may be planning to splurge. But you might also be wondering if there’s an environmentally-friendly way to get your retail therapy.

how to buy more sustainable

The tradition of annual Black Friday sales began in America in the 1950s1. In recent years, it’s attracted resistance from organisations like Greenpeace and Make Friday Green Again – a collective of 300 fashion brands – who say that we should boycott the annual bargains for environmental reasons2.

It’s not hard to see why. At the peak of sales, there could be as many as 82,000 delivery vans on roads, with one leaving an Amazon fulfilment centre every 93 seconds3.

This year, more of us will likely be doing our seasonal shopping online than ever before. According to IMRG, since Covid-19, online sales have already seen growth rates of 40-50%4

As we head into one of the busiest periods ever for online shopping, here are some ideas for the perfect gifts with smaller carbon footprints.

Buy pre-loved gifts

There’s still a bit of a taboo about giving second-hand gifts, but there doesn’t have to be. ‘Pre-loved’ doesn’t necessarily mean old and worn! And giving vintage, unique presents can be even more meaningful than picking up a shiny new item that’s identical to thousands of others. 

Perhaps your loved-one has a retro sense of style, with an eye for shirts from the 1950s. Or, if they’re a bookworm, they might cherish a vintage edition from their favourite author. 

Charity shops on your local high street can be treasure troves for eco-friendly gifts – but if you can’t get out of the house this winter, you could also try eBay, Depop, Vinted, and Oxfam’s online emporium.

To find out more about why it's a good idea to buy second-hand clothes in particular, read our guide to the environmental impact of fast fashion.

switch to ovo black friday offer

Get something sustainably made

If you can’t find the perfect gift second-hand, the next best thing is to buy something new – ideally that’s plastic-free and sustainably made. 

  • For clothing, look for items made from naturally-derived fibres like linen, hemp, and Tencel
  • Outdoor adventurers will love gifts from Patagonia, the activewear brand that uses renewable energy and recycled fabrics to create their clothes. 
  • These popular homely rugs from the National Trust are also made from the recycled end cuts of yarn.
  • Bamboo – in its raw, unprocessed form – is also great in things like homewares. 
  • And if you’re looking for toys, there are tons of wooden options, to avoid all that carbon-guzzling plastic. 

For more choices, check out online shops like Wearth London, Know The Origin and the Ethical Superstore.

Incidentally, check out our blog to help you find the perfect eco-friendly Christmas tree. From renting a tree to creative alternatives, we've got some clever options for a greener Christmas.

Don’t rush

These days, you can make a purchase on your smartphone in seconds. While it’s convenient, our online shopping habits are fuelling a culture of buying objects only to return them. 

 The sad fact is that 20% of items bought online and then returned end up languishing in landfill, because they can’t be resold5. Avoid adding to this problem by only making purchases you’re pretty sure about. 

Often, sellers will try to trick you into making fast decisions, using the scarcity principle. This is when a shop says something like ‘while stocks last’, or ‘offer ends soon’! Don’t be hurried – if you want to be sustainable, it’s important to make the best, most informed choice, not the quickest. 

Take your time and do your research. It’s always the more environmentally-friendly choice to invest in something that will last for a long time, rather than something that will end up in the bin before long.

Get crafty, and make a gift yourself 

eco friendly gifts guide

If you want to opt out of shopping altogether, and save yourself some cash in the process, there’s nothing better than making a gift yourself. Perhaps you’re a talented baker, and you could whip up a tray of brownies – or maybe you could write your loved-one a meaningful letter that they’ll cherish forever. 

If you’re feeling more adventurous, there are plenty of tutorials online on how to make even more impressive gifts! You could try your hand at making beeswax candles, scented soap, a terrarium, or a chunky knitted blanket. You’ve nothing to lose! And even if your creations end up looking a little wonky, your family and friends will love that you went to all that effort for them.

Give the gift of a zero waste lifestyle

Help remind any less eco-friendly relatives of their own everyday environmental impact by giving them useful, reusable items. 

A stylish water bottle, a tote bag, or a bamboo cutlery and toothbrush set could encourage them to break their habits and go plastic-free. Beauty lovers might appreciate the gift of reusable make-up wipes. And the Zero Waste Cookbook is a great gift for any cooks in your life, being full of tips on how to make your food go further. 

Or give a donation instead

Perhaps friends or family members would appreciate a donation to a charity of their choice, rather than a gift this year.

This is a win-win. The charity gets some support, you both get to feel good, and there’s little-to-no carbon footprint. Some charities even offer the option to give a little something with your donation, like these great gift cards from Oxfam.

For the climate-conscious gift recipient, why not support our tree-planting partners at the Woodland Trust? You can dedicate a tree or some woodland to your loved one, and in the process help offset carbon emissions. And if your relative has green fingers, they might even appreciate a tree they can plant in the garden themselves.

Support the National Trust with OVO’s Green Friday

Instead of splurging on things you don’t need this Black Friday, switch to a fixed plan with OVO Energy between 25 and 30 November 2020, and we’ll send you a free £50 gift card for the National Trust, to say thanks.

Valid for National Trust shops, memberships, and holidays, the card could help you plan your sustainable Christmas shopping, or a wholesome day out. What are you waiting for? Switch to OVO today.

Shop locally if you can

Local high streets have been struggling this year, and it’s been especially tough for small, independent businesses. By shopping in your own town or city, you’ll be providing much-needed support to your community. 

There are some impressive stats to back that up. Research shows that for every £1 you spend in a small-to-medium business, 63p stays in the local economy (compared to 40p if you spend with a bigger corporation)6.

Shopping locally is also more sustainable. That’s because the item you’re buying has been on a shorter journey, which means lower carbon emissions. 

There’s also the added benefit of your gift standing out from the crowd. Something you pick up at a local boutique is likely to impress much more than the usual mass-produced gifts many of us are often given. 

If you buy online, don’t leave it to the last minute 

When it comes to buying gifts, we can all be guilty of having an occasional last-minute panic! But it’s a great idea to plan your online shopping ahead, to help lessen the environmental impact of your deliveries.

It’s shocking to learn that in 2018, Amazon had a carbon footprint almost the same size as Denmark’s.7 And logistics company UPS say that the rise in e-commerce has led to "more miles, fuel, and emissions per delivery”8. Changing our own habits can play a vital role in getting these figures down. 

If you have to do your shopping online, lighten the carbon footprint of your orders by grouping them into one delivery, and avoid the temptation of super-speedy next-day shipping. Fast shipping often means more reliance on aircraft – so it’s best to avoid next day delivery options if you want to be truly eco-friendly!

And finally: think about packaging

Did you know that packaging accounts for around 40% of plastic in the UK? And on average, we throw away 2.4 million tonnes of the stuff every year9. That’s roughly the equivalent weight of roughly 960,000 great white sharks10!

Online shopping means more packaging. That’s because sellers want items to stay pristine as they’re delivered to your door. So to avoid unnecessary waste, it’s best to shop in person whenever possible.

When it comes to wrapping presents, there are lots of environmentally-friendly options. Try reusing old Christmas and birthday cards by cutting out pieces and using them as gift tags, and repurposing old gift bags you’ve been given yourself. 

If you’re buying new, look for recyclable materials, and try to avoid wrapping paper with glitter, foil, or even more unnecessary plastic. Better still, go for recycled wrapping paper, like these wholesome options from the RSPB.

Find out more about how we’re backing renewables to help save the planet, and switch to OVO today. 

For more tips on how to have an eco-friendly Christmas, check out our festive blog. 

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