17 sustainable ways to be festive

I am more excited about Christmas and New Years this year than I have been in a while. I am home in Australia for the festive season, and it’s just so wonderful to be able to spend time in the great outdoors with family and friends at this time of year! If your social media and news feeds are anything like mine, you have probably been reading sustainable gift guides for about a month already. But I love a good listicle, so here are some more thoughts on sustainable ways to be festive (to be honest, these are all things that you could do at any time of the year too!).

Because I am a massive sustainability nerd, I have come up with one festive action related to each of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). (Need an introduction to the SDGs? Check out this post.)

Feel free to take on as many or as few as you like. There can be a lot of competing priorities and things to do at this time of year, so this is certainly not a list of extra things to do (in fact, it might give you a good excuse to duck out of some expectations). I hope you have as much fun reading and trying out some of these things as I did putting the list together. Whatever you are getting festive about, I hope you have a wonderful time!

1. Volunteer to make a meal

Volunteer at a soup kitchen (or similar) to help make a festive meal for those that might not otherwise get one. Turns out this is an increasingly popular way to spend Christmas, two years ago in Cardiff I contacted about four charities that support homeless people to see if I could volunteer, but they all said they had enough help. But don’t let that put you off exploring options in your area, if they don’t need volunteers, you can always ask how else you can support.

2. Buy local, seasonal, fairly traded food

Buy local, seasonal and fairly traded food for your own meal. Yes, it might be a little more expensive, but this is also a time of year when we tend to waste even more food than usual. Food waste is responsible for 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so reducing it is one way we can all help combat the climate crisis. So buy less but better. (Being in Australia this year I’m particularly excited about this one, Christmas just isn’t the same without cherries!) 

3. Go for a walk

One of my favourite parts about Christmas in Australia is being able to get outside and enjoy nature. The days are nice and long and the weather is (usually) not unbearably hot yet. There’s nothing better than digesting pavlova and ice cream pudding while going for a post-lunch wander with the family. Of course, in the Northern Hemisphere going for a walk requires a bit more determination, but a walk around Bute Park is still lovely in the freezing cold.

4. Donate to a charity that supports education for girls

In the last few years since I have been living overseas, my family has developed a giving tradition which I enjoy far more than buying or receiving gifts. Instead of spending money on presents that we probably don’t need, everyone puts that money in a charity bucket at Christmas lunch. The person that wins a game gets to decide which charity the money will go to. If it is me, I would like to donate the money to a charity that supports education for girls, which is not only important in its own right, but is one of the most effective actions to reverse global warming (according to Project Drawdown). 

5. Share the load

Statistically women do more housework than men, and at this time of year there can be a lot of extra things to think about and do. Consider not only who is doing tasks like cooking, cleaning, shopping, hosting, but also who has the mental load of making sure everything gets done. Then think about what you can do to share the load more fairly.

6. Use water wisely

I’ll admit that I’ve become a bit of a water wally after two years living in rainy Wales. But in Australia the festive season coincides with the start of the hottest, driest time of year. Since being home, habits like shorter showers and reusing water have been front of mind again. Even if you aren’t in a country where water scarcity is a problem, using water still has an impact through the energy and greenhouse gas emissions associated with treating and transporting it to your house. A simple change like washing vegetables and dishes in a sink of water rather than leaving the tap running can make a big difference a at a time of year filled with festive meals.

7. Switch to a renewable energy supplier

I love a Christmas light display as much as the next person, and luckily these days most lights are energy efficient LEDs. Even so, putting your lights on a timer will mean that they aren’t using energy when there is no one around to see them. And to make a lasting change, switch to a renewable electricity supplier to minimise the greenhouse gas emissions associated with your twinkly lights. Make sure to choose one that results in additional renewable electricity being added to the grid. (For those in the UK, Which? has published a really clear investigation. For any Australian readers, check out the Green Electricity Guide before just checking the GreenPower box with your current supplier, GreenPower is better than nothing but it still isn’t perfect – read more on that here.)

8. Support local business

Buying local supports businesses and people in your area. Even if you eschew buying presents this year, there are still ways to support local businesses when buying food for your festive meals. Produce at the local greengrocer or farmers market is usually the same price or cheaper than a supermarket, plus it is likely fresher and comes without excess packaging. Food from a bulk store like Ripple is also mostly cheaper than big supermarket chains as well. On that note, Ripple is an excellent example of what happens when the community gets behind a local entrepreneur, they have just opened a second huge store next door!

9. Get around in a sustainable way

It is a time of year for going lots of places – barbecues (in Australia, at least!), end of year parties, Christmas lunch, New Year’s celebrations. Before you jump in your car or a taxi, consider more sustainable travel options. I’m so excited to try Pedal Me next time I am in London, it is a pedal-powered passenger (and cargo) service! Public transport might need more planning than usual due to altered services, but is still a good option. And as a bonus, Victoria has free public transport on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Ride-sharing apps now offer carpool options in more and more cities. And if you have to drive a long way to visit people, consider renting an electric vehicle, although you’ll want to make sure you recharge it with renewable electricity.

10. Buy from ethical businesses

If you are going to buy things, buy from companies that pay tax and treat people fairly. To service the rising market of conscious consumers that are seeking to align their purchases with their values, it seems like there has been an explosion of platforms recently that curate ethical goods. If you are not sure where to start, check out Good On You, Done Good or Buy Me Once (or one of the many others that keep popping up). You might want to steer clear of behemoth corporations that somehow manage to avoid paying local taxes. Related to number 8, I have found that many local businesses tend to sell ethically-made items, so it is a win-win!

11. Connect with your community

There are so many community events happening at this time of year, with carols events, Christmas markets and community group celebrations (I particularly enjoyed the Secret Squirrel Santa hosted by Green Squirrel last year, and was sad to miss it this time around). Take some time to connect with what is going on in your community and also think about welcoming new people. If you know anyone who is spending the festive season away from their own family, think about inviting them to your celebrations – from my own experience it makes a huge difference! 

12. Regift without worry

There is nothing worse that receiving some useless plastic tat as a Secret Santa present, so I am super excited to see a rising trend of ‘second-hand only’ rules for gift-giving. Charity shops are full of absolute gems if you send a little time to look, so if you are going to give physical gifts this year, opt for second hand. (They are also an awesome place to find Christmas jumpers.)

13. Consider a staycation

I feel a bit hypocritical advocating for this one when I flew to the other side of the world to spend Christmas with my family this year. I think we are all aware by now of the environmental impacts of flying, so consider a staycation or train trip instead (this post has links to a bunch of resources that will help with planning a train adventure). And, if like me you have opted to fly somewhere, offsetting the emissions is better than ignoring the problem altogether.

14. Opt for plastic-free festivities

The festive season can bring with it a mountain of plastic waste, but it doesn’t have to be that way! When I was a kid we used to make our own Christmas crackers, filled with much more exciting things than plastic trinkets. Avoid shiny wrapping paper that can’t be recycled by wrapping presents in reused newspaper or reusing gift bags. If you’re anything like me and can’t stand to throw out any food container that makes it’s way into your house, then this is a good time to use them for leftovers (and send leftover food home with people without worrying about getting your good containers back or using plastic film!).

15. Choose a greener tree

Growing Christmas trees and transporting them around just so they can be used for a few weeks and thrown away is not the best use of land and resources. Last year, in search of a more sustainable tree option, my work commissioned a local charity to make our Christmas tree out of reclaimed timber. This year, my mum has been equally creative and made a tree from fallen gum tree branches. In the past I have been lazier and decorated one of our larger houseplants, less hassle and just as festive!

16. Be kind and tolerant

Extended gatherings of family and friends mean that we might all come in contact with people who don’t necessarily share our own world views. Take this as your reminder to be kind and tolerant this festive season. (But if you do happen to find yourself in a challenging conversation about climate change with a belligerent family member, here are some tips.)

17. Come together

Finally, use this time to relax and spend time with family, friends and community. Perhaps spend some time volunteering. I know that I’ll also be using this time to reflect on 2019 and dreaming up ideas for how I want to contribute to making the world a better place next year.

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