A guide to navigating the holidays sustainably

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The holiday season, with traditions rooted in gift giving and big meals, can be a challenge for those looking to consume responsibly, keeping sustainability in mind. Associate Professor Nicole Mead, an expert in consumer behaviour, shares a few tips on how to navigate the season sustainably.

Mead, who is also an expert in sustainable consumption, offers these suggestions for finding ways to shop – whether for gifts or food – with sustainability in mind throughout the holidays.

Research who and where you are buying from

Nicole Mead
Nicole Mead

As sustainable consumption has grown as a priority across the world, resources have become available to provide transparency about which companies are prioritizing sustainability, too.

“Even five years ago, it was hard to know what the provenance was of what you were purchasing,” says Mead. “There’s increasingly consumer-friendly ways to identifying companies that are more sustainable than others.”

Going into holiday season, she encourages searching Google and scanning company-provided QR codes linking to sustainability transparency, among other options, to better understand the sustainability practices of companies you want to buy from. She also points to resources that have done some of the work already.

“There’s a lot of other companies that are doing independent work to make the supply chain a lot more transparent to consumers,” says Mead. For example, she points to B Corp, a non-profit organization that provides businesses with a certification indicating high sustainability standards, as one of many resources now widely available to be help make informed sustainable consumption decisions this holiday.

Consider buying better quality

Inflation has proven a financial challenge for many this year, with hard-earned dollars not going as far as they used to. When considering gifts, that can lead to consider more frugal options. “As we feel the pressure on our bank accounts, there’s perhaps a tendency sometimes to buy cheaper things,” says Mead. She suggests reconsidering.  

“In terms of sustainability, there’s really good evidence that buying higher price or better quality goods is really important for the environment,” she says. “Maybe up front there is a higher ticket price, but you’ll probably save time and money down the road, because what you buy will actually last longer.”

Shop locally

“If you’re going to be planning a holiday gathering – if you’re going to be cooking food – consider local markets, where farmers are selling their products,” says Mead. Beyond the benefits of supporting one’s local community, shopping locally supports sustainability since the shipping and transportation of goods can be a huge source of carbon emissions. Buying locally – not just food, but even handmade goods as gifts – helps people consume more sustainably during the holidays.

Explore alternative modes of giving

There are more ways to shop than through big-name online or box-store retailers. Sustainability options exist that go beyond material goods. Experiences – which can include museum memberships, donations, group outings and more – can be gifted, which consume fewer resources, making them an option that is not only better for the planet but can be good for the soul. “There’s research that suggests that experiences can be actually better for your happiness. You’re going to enjoy them more over time, in part because they can help us connect to other people,” says Mead.

Another means of giving that can minimize resource consumption is repairing and regifting something loved ones already appreciate. “A lot of times we have things around the house that we love that need a little bit of extra attention or to be repaired. We just don’t really get around to actually doing it, but we really would like to use those things again,” says Mead. Someone fixing and regifting something can be a sustainable and appreciated mode of giving.  

By following these tips, it’s possible to join a movement that rights the future through increasingly easier and more rewarding ways of being sustainable. “It’s no longer this environment of ‘I need to sacrifice in order to be sustainable.’ Now it’s ‘I can be sustainable and really enjoy what I’m consuming.’ That’s the way forward for our world,” says Mead.