When exactly was the moment that the holidays became synonymous with buying stuff? I do not know, but it seems that we’ve long passed the gifting tipping point and the melding of consumption and Christmas is complete.
Forgetting for a moment that Jesus was kinda against the whole money and materialism thing, this automatic linking of a family holiday to buying things raises some other, secular concerns. Is this a custom that we should perhaps reconsider, or at the minimum, begin to question?
On a personal level, we are thoroughly inundated. By perfectly engineered ads, by the anxieties of obligatory holiday shopping, by the associations of love with the material, and the subsequent unhealthy senses of value that grow from such unnatural connections. Holiday pressures put the body through a variety of stresses, and there is now a range of research showing that it is experiences, and not things, that provide deeper and long-lasting feelings of happiness.
And what, besides bulging bellies and credit cards, are we left with after the holidays? Apparently an enormous amount of waste.
According to this piece by Quartz, the first week of January sees US consumers returning approximately $30 billion in gifts to retailers each year. There is such an influx of unused product that UPS has nicknamed January 5th as “National Returns Day”. Reports from Optoro, a retail-return specialist, show that only 50% of these millions of gifts actually make it back to the shelves. The rest goes through a cycle of shipping and re-shipping to various wholesalers around the world, racking up huge amounts of extra carbon waste during transit, and inevitably ending up in landfills in huge numbers as shipping costs make further sales attempts financially untenable.
And this is in addition to the other environmental impacts of our holiday consumption – the food waste, the mountains of paper and plastic packaging – all for a gifting tradition we feel more obligated than glad to perform. A look at this piece from the Guardian showing the spray-painted nightmare known as “China’s Christmas Village” shows us where about 60% of the world’s holiday decorations are made. The flowing rivers of red-dyed waste and toxic tinsel this place must produce boggles the mind and should help curb our too-easy holiday spending.
Some people are resisting these unreasonable levels of holiday spending, taking family budgets and the risks of spoiling their children into consideration. But even these enlightened folks speak only in terms of tempering the rush, of getting spending under $100 per child. These brave souls risking social shame and the ire of a frothing ad-infused child still feel as if some material thing must be given.
With the consumption frenzy and hangover still fresh in our minds, and New Year’s and its resolutions around the corner, perhaps this is a good time to ask: What did we focus on? How was our time and money spent?
If the holiday season has left you feeling like you want to do more, to do something different, below are some alternatives that could help.
KIVA, a micro-financing site, allows you to loan small amounts to specific people in need. You choose who gets the loan and they get the money through a local bank, allowing them to buy a piece of equipment or start a small business. The loan eventually gets paid back and you can cash it out or loan it again. This is revolving financial support rather than one-time charity giving that helps sustainable development and empowers locals in need, and I have personally been giving my little sister a KIVA holiday gift for the last 3 years.
OXFAM does a great job of offering gift options that let us satisfy our need to “buy” while doing some good. Browsing their site shows you where your money goes and what people in need really look like.
This list from Oprah.com gives us a whole bunch of affordable charity-shopping options starting as low as $5.
Here’s to a happy and healthier 2018.