This piece is equal parts confession and hot take. Here's the crux of my soapbox (tl;dr) : giving someone a gift that is anything less than perfect for them is inherently unsustainable. That's a lot of pressure, but I'll give you some helpful hints by the end. Promise!
Gift buying/giving is a subject that holds a somewhat uncomfortable place in my life. I have a fairly strong aversion to receiving gifts. There are very few things in the world that I want, and when I want something, I want a very specific version of it. To be precise, it's not that I hate being gifted exactly what I want, it is just incredibly rare that someone manages to get that for me. So it's the anticipation of receiving things I won't use that I struggle with.
Ironically, I deeply enjoy finding the perfect gift for someone I love, but mostly I love stumbling upon said gift. I don’t like the contrived motivators that holidays and birthdays are. I find that that often produces sub-par gifts, unless you’re someone who spends the 11 months and 29 days between those occasions with a constant eye out for all your favorite people. I'm not that person.
Working in retail means that I talk about gifts with people more often than the average person, and I've noticed an interesting trend. With some regularity, a person will walk into Ware on a gift mission. They will proceed to pick out a product or two and proclaim that the giftee "already has something just like this," before putting the product back on the shelf. To which I challenge, "sounds like that's the perfect gift for them, then. You know they'll love it." I maintain that we (in the US) have established a culture around gift-giving wherein we often try to broaden someone's horizons by giving gifts that are similar to something they would like, but different (often in a way that makes the gift more along the lines of something we would like to receive). In the end, gift recipients everywhere are left with a collection of things that they almost like, and many of us are left wanting our friend to like their gifts as much as we do. Knowing a gift is perfectly in line with what someone already has is a good indicator that it will be both appreciated and used.
A HUGE component of sustainability in both products and lifestyle considerations is functionality. If it doesn't work, and work well, you'll be looking for another product to either fully take its place or fill in the gaps where it doesn't work quite right. One example that often comes to mind are the 3 or 4 different gadgets that exist for the very specific steps involved in peeling and de-pitting an avocado. If you have a sharp knife and google, you can do all of that in less time, with fewer utensils to clean, and with fewer pieces of plastic brought into the world just to make toast and guacamole.
We can lump durability and timelessness in with this rule. If something only works for brief period of time, that means we'll be looking to replace it more often than would be necessary with a product that doesn't break (or can easily be fixed) and never grows unattractive in your eyes.
As a side note, sentimentality is a function, but one that is incredibly subjective. You much know your audience to play this card.
So, to help provide a solution to the rather inconvenient conundrum I've presented, I've put together a gift guide in the literal sense of the term - some general themes and categories to help guide you or inspire you in your quest for the perfect gift.
Sustainable Gift Guidance
- Draw names: The fewer gifts given, the lest waste needed for wrapping. But this also allows for each participant to really put their energy into doing one gift well, minimizing the chances that they'll give a bunch of gifts that aren't quite right, but were easy enough to find in time.
- Consumables: Food and drinks are a great way to give a gift that will be consumed no matter what. With edible/potable products, you can know the category (friend loves coffee) and contribute to their knowledge of the field (a local roaster) and know that even if it's not their favorite ever, it will be consumed and enjoyed. In the event that they don't like it at all, they can often feed it to a friend or neighbor or use it when people who would like it come over (considering COVID, keep it shelf stable or freezable). It's the least wasteful gift to get wrong. When you're in a city like Asheville, it's a fun way to show off the independent food scene we have here. For full disclosure, this is what my family is doing this year. We draw names for a big gift (with a $50 limit) and then fill each others' stocking with one smaller gift ($20 limit) for each of the 6 of us. This year the big gift theme is stocking our bars, so we'll be hunting down fun niche alcoholic beverages or mixers to present. [Roberts', skip to the next number if you want your stocking to be a surprise.] I'll be rounding up some fun local treats like Postre caramels and teas from Heilbron Herbs. If you know your friends/family's drink and food preferences (which seems likely), this is a rather straightforward option.
- Complete sets or backups: Do you know that your person is working their way toward a full set of bowls or mugs from a specific potter? You can support a craftsperson while helping them toward their goal! Similarly, if you know a specific product that they love and what to take some financial pressure off them, buy them a year's supply! This is the kind of thing you could get very specific guidance on from the giftee's significant other or closest friends, if you're left wondering. May I recommend dish washing blocks and dish brush with a replacement head or two? Or a refillable bottle of liquid dish soap and a gift card to let them come in and refill when they need to. Which brings me to my next point..
- Meaningful gift cards: Can we get over the stigma around gift cards? Not only are they a great way to support businesses when you have the means, but not the need for anything specific, they make for a gift that will always be useful. And it's illegal for them to expire, so I mean always. If you know of a brand your giftee loves or one that has values they support, you have your answer. Letting someone pick their own gift is the best way to know they'll love it. And they'll love that you made it possible. You can always present the gift card with a hand written note describing why you chose that one or attach it to
- Events and activities: This is a hard one in the context of COVID-19, but can be taken with the long-view and purchased as gift cards from music venues, theatres, and the like. For your friends who are really bumming about their lack of exposure to live music lately, this is either a great way to keep the hope alive (and support the struggling music industry) or remind them that they're stuck at home for the foreseeable future.
*Bonus tip* How you wrap your gift is also important! Nearly all gift wrapping paper as we know it is not recyclable. Tape and ribbon definitely aren't. At Ware, we use recyclable (and recycled) butcher paper or kraft boxes and ribbon that is made from old silk saris. In the store, we top our holiday gifts with a dried orange slice ornament because it's festive and readily biodegradable. However, you can avoid even this amount of relatively responsible waste and wrap your gift in a bandana or scarf - this is called furoshiki, and the internet has tons of great tutorials for getting creative with it. Like this one...
If you don't know a person well enough to make the kinds of decisions needed to give them a gift they will actually use, you should probably question why you feel compelled to give them anything at all. There are plenty of valid reasons to still be gifting folks you don't know well (distant family exchanges, etc.), but even then, ask around for information. One less useless gift is one less thing in the trash (or recycling of thrift store).