Tomorrow, today

Gift guide for a sustainable festive season

by | Nov 30, 2018

We’ve got to be honest with you – this may be the first gifting guide that doesn’t encourage you to buy anything  – at least not as a first, second, third or even fourth resort. So if you’ve just come looking for our pick of this festive season’s best stocking stuffers and present goodies, scroll down to the last section.

But first, let’s talk about stuff and how we probably don’t need any more of it. Many of you will be familiar with minimalism and decluttering, as it’s trended in and out of fashion over the past few decades, the most recent iteration being with the KonMari method which swept the globe a few years back (“does your stuff spark joy?”). But, these movements can often focus on existing clutter or our own consumption patterns (fairly, since we do have control here) but less so on how we consume for others.

Most of us, if not everyone, enjoys receiving gifts, but when was the last time you tried to dictate how you receive them? Do you still make a Christmas list? Maybe you pledged your birthday to charity? Ever made a gift registry? How about dropping hints to your significant other? Do you just ask for cash or vouchers? (Or booze?) Perhaps you buy yourself gifts? Even the most conscientious consumers may struggle to uphold their values and hard-fought sustainable homes or wardrobes in the face of a well-meaning aunt or a clueless spouse.

Similarly, when gift-giving yourself, have you ever done a last minute frantic shop or delved the depths of your present drawer for a an often unsuitable item (usually a re-gifted piece if my experience is anything to go by)? Settled for a lesser thing that you know may not be the best reflection of your love, friendship or tolerance but that you give since you feel obliged to?

The returns queues after the festive season are perhaps the strongest indicators that the best intentions don’t always bear out in practice. I’m sure I’m not alone in having convincingly swooned and preened over gifts, knowing full well that they’ll soon be relegated to the back of a cupboard, be re-gifted, or taken to a customer services department.

Yet we persist, feeling obliged to hand over and receive tangible representations of our affection in a never-ending cycle of stuff. This is obviously highly unsustainable, as more and more materials are used to make more and more products, without any real gratification or satisfaction and sheer over-saturation increasingly devalues what we do use and love. Without descending into a criticism of capitalism or commercialism (as you’ve likely heard it before), we’re breaking the habit and suggesting some more sustainable alternatives for you to make smart gifting choices this festive season.

In descending order of decluttering….

Don’t gift at all 

For the brave and extremely persuasive: If you can get the buy-in from your loved ones, try going without presents this festive season. Warning: we cannot be held responsible for crying children or strained Christmas lunches – we will admit these habits may be hard to unlearn.

Don’t gift directly

Many charities offer “Gift Donations” where you can make a donation in someone else’s name and give a bit back in the process. Some will even issue a certificate or card with the details of the donation, to give you something to hand over on the day. This way, your gift does good in the world and you can feel good in the knowledge that the festive spirit extends a bit further. We’ve offered some recommendations at the bottom of this article. 


Rather than giving someone another ‘thing’, why not gift them an experience that they can use. Cooking classes, yoga lessons, a paragliding trip, massage voucher, festival tickets – the options are endless and it can also be a gift that keeps on giving. If you’re particularly talented or well-connected, you could even trade exchange with friends to save money. See here below for some ideas.


As a keen baker and crafter, I was a pro at the DIY gift throughout my skint student days. Saving money and giving a homemade, heartfelt special treat? Double bonus! Think homemade jams, biscuits or bath salts (separately), a bunch of flowers from your garden, or even a personal drawing or poem. And there’s nothing wrong with an old-school mixtape (although maybe in the form of a Spotify playlist in 2018). Check out Pinterest (but beware the rabbit hole) for some easy DIY gift ideas.


If you must shop, go second-hand. Books, clothes, accessories, knick knacks, kitchenware… Milnerton Market can be a Christmas Fare with the right mindset. Think creatively: a second hand picture frame plus a beautiful postcard could become a fresh new artwork. Tacky ceramic cats plus a coat of spray paint plus an air plant could be millennial kitsch chic.


Finally, if you must buy new – buy consciously. Shop local, shop sustainable, shop mindfully (do you definitely know that your sister-in-law will love the decorative plates you’ve picked? Would a voucher maybe be a safer bet?). See below for some ideas (earrings modelled here in the picture here are from Pichulik). 

Family gifting alternatives

Another way to make your gifting more sustainable is to reduce the number of gifts in your family, friend or work group. Try introduce a Secret Santa or White Elephant system, which can be fun. By reducing the sheer number of gifts to be bought, this can also mean you can afford to spend a bit more on a single gift, which can make for a better quality or more suitable present. All you need to do is assign each person to buy a present for another person anonymously within a group. Often, a maximum and minimum price range is set. In this way, everyone gets one gift, hopefully something they will love. 

But what about the children?

We know that trying to convince an 8 year old that she or he should be satisfied on Christmas morning with a Tree Planted in their Name may be impossible, and that children may be more emotional and volatile than adults in wanting the “It” toy and wanting it now. In order to not raise the next generation on instant gratification and mindless consumerism, here are some options to give consciously to kids this year:

  • The Four Gift concept has gained popularity on Facebook and Pinterest lately and usually revolves around ‘balanced’ and limited gifting that satisfies both kids and parents. Versions include: “Something they want, something they need, something they’ll wear, something they’ll read” or “Something cool, Something for school, Something they’ll wear, Something they’ll share”
  • I’m going to give books a special mention here, because I think a lot of the world’s troubles could be fixed with more reading and literacy. I’m particularly fond of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (there’s also a follow-up, a version for boys, a mixed gender one, and an interactive journal). Children’s books are often affordable, easy to get second-hand and don’t clutter up a bedroom like forgotten toys can. And if you don’t know the child’s reading level or preferences, a book voucher can be a great empowering tool for a young child to choose their own.
  • If the child is too young for object permanence or self-awareness, don’t fool yourself: you’re buying a gift for the parent’s benefit. Ask them what they’d like or need for the child or go ahead and buy that tree in their name, the two-year old won’t know the difference anyway.

A note on wrapping

As a rule of thumb, if it’s shiny and glittery, it’s likely not recyclable. While it’s easy to magpie on cute wrapping and giant bows, it ultimately just makes for more colourful landfills. Skip the wrapping this year and rather go for upcycled options (newspaper, colourful scarves, random fabric, scrap paper, that “too good to throw away but we’re not really using it” wrapping paper from your birthday three years ago) or get creative with a recyclable option. You can get big rolls of uncoated brown or white butchers paper for cheap from packaging or art supply stores – then you (or any kids you have around) can get creative with potato stamps, handwriting or water colours, dig into that cupboard of ribbons and strings that we all seem to have, then throw on some fresh or dried flowers or a small keepsake. Voila! As with Julie Andrews, “brown paper packages tied up with string” can indeed be “a few of [your] favourite things!”


Indirect or Charity Giving:

These gifts have dual benefits – by purchasing them, you do good for the earth, community, children or animals and mean one fewer gift of stuff making its way into the world! Well done!


Buying New

  • Spaza Store products are beautiful and empower women through a home industry production model:
  • Fabricate (Cape Town) offers an incredible selection of locally made jewellery, homeware and gifting:
  • The Watershed at the V&A Waterfront (Cape Town) is a good place to pick up a variety of products (but steer clear of the fast fashion in the main mall.)
  • Gauteng shoppers should check out KAMERS/Makers Irene, Pretoria (4-9 December) to score from their incredible offerings of clothing, homeware, jewellery, food and gifts:
  • Also check out Faithful to Nature and other SA online department stores for their offerings:
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