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Sustainable gifts for everyone on your list

8 ways to ensure your holiday celebrations are ethical and eco-friendly.

December 2, 2019

By Mark Cox

Buying holiday gifts used to be so easy.

Once upon a time, you’d pick up a plastic toy without a second thought. Was it nonrecyclable or made with cheap labor? Who knew? Had it been covered in wasteful packaging or flown halfway around the world? Frankly, who cared?

Fortunately, times have changed. Today’s shoppers are generally more clued in about eco-issues and actively looking for responsible ways to celebrate the holidays. Younger people, in particular (perhaps aware that they might need the planet longer than older gift-buyers), seem resolute in demanding sustainable goods and services.

“It may have been a slow-burn process, but each of the past five generations has been slowly gravitating toward an increased awareness of sustainability,” says Darrin Duber-Smith, professor of marketing at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “And then everything just kind of clicked with the Millennials, in part because they were actually taught about this stuff.”

So for conscientious shoppers of all ages, here’s a selection of fun ideas for sustainable holiday gifts and experiences. Hopefully, the only footprint you’ll leave this year will be in the snow.

RELATED: 7 tips for safe holiday online shopping

Gift a great experience

Want a special present that checks all the key sustainability boxes? Treat someone to a theatre trip or sports event, or maybe give them a gift card for the price of a nice meal. Such experiential gifts are growing in popularity, and no wonder – the ease and ubiquity of online booking means there’s little hassle and little waste. “Modern shoppers recognize that services are fundamentally greener than goods, and they like that,” says Duber-Smith. “Basically, buying dinner for someone means not having to worry about toxic raw materials, carbon footprints or exploitative work practices in repressive regimes.”

RELATED: 9 cool Colorado holiday gifts

Find skin care that really cares

It’s hard to find a mainstream skin-care company these days that doesn’t tout its products as “natural and organic.” But as Denver company Fig + Yarrow knows, there’s a world of difference between making vacuous claims and putting in the hard work. This organic apothecary handcrafts tempting products – body butters, face creams and bath salts – entirely from sustainable and natural ingredients, so there’s no nasty runoff into the water source when you use them. As owner Brandy Monique puts it: “I’m dedicated to making sure the supply chain doesn’t come at the cost of someone else, whether it’s a human, the environment or the animals.”

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Buy a nonplastic toy

Admit it: All those plastic toys were fun. And Denver-based EcoMountain gets a special mention here because it offers a cool collection of sustainable kids toys. Looking for 100% organic-cotton cuddly toys, fun dinosaurs made from sustainably harvested wood or a dumptruck made from sugarcane and corn-cob bio-plastic? Look no further. The selection, including several Eco Product Award winners, is exciting and ethical – which of course is the point. “It’s important for eco-conscious companies to spell out exactly how their products meet sustainability criteria,” Duber-Smith says, “because consumers increasingly want to see the small print.”

RELATED: Yule love these 6 Christmas flicks

Celebrate the great (pre-loved) outdoors

“Companies that show a real, measurable commitment to sustainability are pretty rare,” Duber-Smith says. “Most just greenwash without doing anything, so you need to weed through the B.S.” However, outdoors giant REI has backed up its big words with actions. The retailer created an online marketplace – already used by 300,000 people – so customers can buy and sell used items and is also expanding its gear-rental program at many stores – both altruistic moves that could hit their own sales. Not to be outdone, rival company Patagonia has launched a pop-up store on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall that exclusively sells used clothing. If you’re looking for an active-themed gift, these pre-loved options might be a good choice.

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2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 rolled up into one masterpiece. Unique and handmade from repurposed materials, the ReCrafted collection is in limited supply. And once it's gone you'll have to find it used. Only available @patagoniaboulder in our #WornWear pop-up shop and on

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RELATED: 5 great ways to explore Colorado

Make a donation

Perhaps the ultimate act in the art of sustainable gifting, donating money on someone’s behalf to a cause they feel passionately about is a beautiful gesture that involves zero waste. And for Gen Z and Millennials, especially, it also has the added bonus of being able to control exactly how much you spend. Duber-Smith says Millennials make 40% less income than their counterparts in Gen X, which can make life tough during gift-buying season. “Many younger people simply don’t have the cash to spend on splashy goods,” he says, “so gift choices like this reflect not only their enlightened attitudes but also their financial reality.” 

RELATED: Gen Z is using hip-hop as a catalyst for climate advocacy

Say it with (sustainable) flowers

You’ll find no picture-perfect buds flown in from overseas at the Denver floral shop Sacred Thistle. Sustainability is hard-wired into its whole business approach. The owners personally forage nearly half of their floral stock and hand-pick the rest from local sources. And they follow the Japanese way of Wabi-Sabi (“finding beauty in imperfection”), which means any blemishes or flaws are welcomed and simply thrown into the mix. The result is striking and unique floral arrangements that are perfectly imperfect. “Shoppers have grown skeptical of bogus ‘green’ marketing claims,” Duber-Smith says, “so businesses like these that can directly evidence their eco-credentials really stand out.”

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Spread cheer with a beer

Given that Colorado is the “Napa Valley of Beer,” treating someone to a boozy seasonal tour seems almost like a no-brainer – and there’s a dizzying choice of activities. If you’re thinking big, send someone to the largest brewery in the world (that’s Coors, with, 22 million barrels a year). You could also choose from one of many beer walking tours or scale things down by gifting the Denver Microbrew Tour. And if you want to give someone a fun experience that includes some spectacular scenery, the Brews & Views tour (motto: “You drink. We drive.”) visits craft breweries in the foothills of the Rockies.

RELATED: Lager in the laboratory

Support refugees in style 

Here’s a riddle: How do you buy someone a bowtie and help refugees at the same time? Uber-innovative style company Knotty Tie Co. has the answer. Not only does the company use sustainable fabrics for all its custom-designed ties, bowties, pocket squares and scarves (which are exclusively made in Denver). It also works with local refugee-resettlement organizations to create jobs for refugees so they can earn a fair living wage and develop promising careers in their new home. Treat someone to a Knotty Tie gift card, and they will not only look good, they will be doing good.

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On this day 5 years ago, our mission to resettle refugees became reality with the hiring of our first refugee community member, Imad. Imad grew up in Bagdad working in his father’s tailor shop. Imad has worked in Iraq, Jordan, and now America as a sewer determined to cultivate and advance his professional skills. While moving across the world on his own has been a difficult transition, he has worked toward his hopes and dreams of creating a promising future for himself here in America. We take today, World Refugee Day, to honor Imad’s accomplishments, his dignity and sacrifices - and the sacrifices of all refugees forced to flee their homes due to persecution, disaster, and war.

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