Although it is naturally the darkest time of the year, color abounds in the holiday shopping season. Starting with Black Friday (when retailers get out of the red), stores rake in the green with fairy tales of white Christmases in their displays and soundtracks of Blue Christmas pumped through their speakers. Sparkly lights and tinsel dazzle shoppers into purchasing the latest technology, which lights up with flashing LEDs and pulsing blue panels.
It’s a sensory overload, really. Pine-scented everything, an endless parade of sweets, and snuggly pullovers constitute an assault on our senses and appeal to any possible path to get us to join in on the commercial bacchanalia.
Playing Ebeneezer Scrooge among these festivities is not really an option for all but the most curmudgeonly, but whether it is your January credit card bill or a New Year’s morning hangover, there is a price to pay for our indulgences. That late December trip to the transfer station often involves leaning into the tailgate to cram in every last bit of cardboard and wrapping paper that we can get out of our house in one trip.
Shop green. Shop local.
Without forever alienating family members and annoying co-workers, there are ways to make green the defining color of the holidays. Start by doing the things that they won’t even notice: whenever possible, buy local and give your favorite UPS worker a break from the relentless deluge of packages from Amazon. Hudson and Millerton in NY, Great Barrington and Lee in MA (to name a few local towns) all offer quaint, walkable downtowns with more than enough stores to satisfy a range of gift-buying needs. It is true that you will not find everything in the world, but their boutiques and independent retailers offer unique gifts that will stand out among mass-produced, mass-purchased online alternatives.
More is not better
The alternative is going to the biggest marketplace in the world, the internet, where you can find just about anything, only to be overwhelmed by everything. Hours of Cyber Monday searching can spell hours of frustration, and sometimes a smaller number of options makes it easier to make a decision.
One experiment conducted by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper compared the effectiveness of displaying 24 varieties of jam in a grocery store to displaying six. They found that while shoppers may have appreciated the greater variety, they were ten times more likely to actually purchase a jar when they only had to select from among the six choices. In other words, fewer options can save you time and frustration, and in local shops, you’ll find more unique possibilities and items that are sometimes unavailable online.
But here’s the thing: simply purchasing local may or may not be more environmentally-friendly unless you account for the origins of the object you are buying, and that is a complicated calculus. Any item from a foreign country requires the support of a logistics chain to arrive in our area, and that usually means massive container ships, heavy-duty trucks, and air transportation, all of which consume massive amounts of fuel. Still, depending on its port of entry, rail transport may get it here with far less fuel, but then there’s the warehouse storage, local transportation, and the energy required to run the store. With Amazon pledging to reduce its carbon footprint by fifty percent by 2030, maybe that will eventually be greener, but right now, it’s just hard to determine the environmental impact of a purchase on anything but an item-to-item basis.
Get your Red Rider
Take the classic 1938 Red Rider carbine-action two-hundred shot range model air rifle. In addition to the frequently-cited risk of shooting out one’s eye, buying one in 2019 will increase one’s carbon footprint considerably. This all-American gift is manufactured in Rogers, Arkansas, so that helps by cutting out the overseas transport. While rail transport is an option, the time required to move from train to heavy-duty truck would slow distribution, and even WalMart doesn’t make extensive use of rail transport in favor of their more flexible (and proprietary) trucking operation. The good news is that you can still get a Red Rider at Terni’s in Millerton, NY, along with a small selection of high-quality goods from Pendleton – all while joining the legions of customers who have shopped there since it opened a century ago this year. In the words of one online reviewer, “this place is a museum that is a store.”
This is all to say that buying local in the purest sense of the phrase is the best way to minimize the carbon footprint of your holiday shopping. To do that, start from the other direction: consider the kinds of objects that could be made within our region with materials from the area. Farm-produced goods such as maple syrup, honey, and various alcoholic beverages embody that supply chain, although some local operations will supplement their locally-grown ingredients with imports.
Crown Maple Syrup is located in Dover Plains, NY, and sources all of their sap from their 800-acre farm, although some of their more exotic offerings such as Madagascar Vanilla and Sabatino Truffle-infused varietals require some imported ingredients. Kent Falls Brewing and Hillrock Distillery also claim farm-to-table operations, and with some exceptions for certain kinds of hops, peat, and containers, they are pretty much true to their word. Both offer distinctive beverages with minimal environmental impact. Gift baskets that include these kinds of products, supplemented with farm market purchases, make sustainable, high-quality presents.
Buy used or re-purposed
A straightforward approach to trimming your environmental impact is to cut out all of the transportation concerns by buying used or re-purposed gifts. Hudson, Millerton, and Rhinebeck in NY, and Sheffield in MA, all have thriving antique dealers that include everything from high-end mid-century couches to the vintage baseball cards and talking viewmasters I spotted at the Millerton Antique Center. These kinds of purchases necessitate a bit more background knowledge about the recipient’s tastes and style, but you can be assured that no one else will give them the same present. First edition books, framed butterflies, cast iron cookware, and Mickey Mouse relics from the 1960s might be the perfect gift for a certain someone in your life, saving objects from the landfill and the additional fuel and resources consumed by newly-generated replacements.
Then there’s the upcycled/recycled market. Although I’d never given much thought to the difference between the two, Drift, a boutique in Portsmouth, NH, called out to my teenage daughter and her friend when we walked by this fall, and I suddenly found myself surrounded by re-purposed and re-fashioned garments that, to quote a song lyric, “borrowed nostalgia from the unremembered eighties,” and sewed it together with contemporary flare. I can’t say I got it, but two teenage girls know way more about what’s in fashion now, so take their word for it.
I’m not naive, though. December 15 will come around, and you’ll still be stumped about a gift or two, and the internet is Just. So. Easy.
If you must use it, do your best to purchase from a single retailer at the same time to minimize on shipping and packaging. You’ll thank me when it comes to that post-holiday trip to the transfer station.
Lastly, some of us are old enough to forego the ritual of gift-giving altogether, and if your family is of the right mindset and spirit, consider proposing a truly charitable gesture of donating to the favorite charity of an assigned family member or to a mutually-agreeable cause. Everyone will need to give some thought to the charity, and having done this with my family last year, I can attest that we will all remember the gift years later. We pooled our usual gift-buying funds to help a dear friend of the family who had fallen on hard times. It not only made the friend’s year, but it was more meaningful and environmentally-friendly than buying gifts that would ultimately end up in the landfill. Try out the suggestion on a family member or two and see if it takes; it will make everyone’s holiday shopping a happier, greener experience this year.