Green Gifts and a Few Other Favor-ite Things

A friend recently shared a link to a New York Times article about the amount of plastic accumulating in our oceans. She captioned it with a plea: “Before you buy all those plastic toys and stocking stuffers for Christmas, please consider where it will end up once they’re thrown away.” The accompanying photo was horrifying: a pile of plastic debris on a beach in Portugal, so thick it obscured the rocky shore underneath.

The photo, and my friend’s request, resonated in light of—of all things—our search for personal, useful, and earth-friendly wedding favors. Wedding magazines offer an abundance of what folk musician Nancy Griffith once referred to as “unnecessary plastic objects”: giant “diamond” key-chains, wedding-cake shaped candles, nesting hearts salt and pepper shakers. All sweet to look at, but—let’s be honest—likely to end up in the landfill. Traditionally, favors were foodstuffs, and something simple and edible like Jordan almonds or truffles seems much more earth-friendly than miniature Lucite chairs. That is, until you dress the truffles up in multi-layered packaging, little brown boxes with raffia ties and tags, or festive cones in cardboard stands. So cute! And sadly, sure to be tossed as trash as soon as the guest has enjoyed the treat within.

Some thoughts on the thought that counts

Though I’m not so keen on unity sand, I like the tradition of wedding favors, maybe because I’ve always loved choosing (or making) just the right gift for someone, whether it’s big or small, silly or sweet. My relationship to gifts has changed a little in recent years, however, in concert with my shifting relationship to “stuff.” I’ve become increasingly aware of the costs, both to our planet and to our psyches, of an excess of objects cluttering our minds and homes, our waters and our world.

So, as I’ve been favor- and Christmas-shopping this year, I’ve been contemplating the phrase, “It’s the thought that counts.” Though it’s an admirable sentiment on the surface, we most often use it to excuse a present that, while well-intentioned, was actually somehow less than thoughtful—generic, maybe, or ill-suited in some way. We say it meaning, well, at least they thought enough of me to give me something. But are we so attached to the idea that more (stuff) is always better, that we think any present is preferable to none? In a world troubled by excess and over-indulgence, I want to question that assumption. When we pollute our air to transport pretty tchotchkes across the globe, pile them high on already overflowing shelves, then fill our oceans with their detritus once we tire of them, how “thoughtful,” really, are such gifts, those empty gestures bought on sale and given out of habit, or obligation, because we think it’s what’s expected?

More and more people have expressed a desire to encourage genuinely thoughtful gift-gifting, minimizing acquisition for its own sake. I’ve heard a number of parents recite one or more “gift guide” rhymes they’ve adopted in their families: “One thing you want, one thing you need, one thing to wear, one thing to read.” Or a close alternative: “Something you want, something to read, something to wear, something the world needs.” The “something the world needs” can be interpreted in different ways, such as making a donation to a worthy cause, supporting fair trade cooperatives, or choosing a gift from an organization like Heifer International. According to Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery, the goal is “not offering charity, but seeking justice.” The world sure needs more of that than it does action figures or Barbie dolls.

I particularly like another responsible-gifting guide I saw a few years ago. I may not have the wording exactly right, but the premise was that all gifts would be either “hand-crafted, handmade, second-hand, or a helping hand.” Hand-crafted gifts are items handmade by others, such as artists, musicians, bakers; “handmade” refers to gifts you make yourself (edibles, crafts, a collection of poems); second-hand are gifts that are upcycled, recycled, or simply re-gifted; and a helping hand is an act of service. Add gifts of experience, which also counteract the focus on accumulating more stuff, and you have a great guide for thoughtful and green gift-giving.

Many of the most memorable and lasting gifts I’ve received fall into one or more of those categories. When I was five, my mother sewed “twin” dolls, complete with several sets of clothes and blankets; I played with them for years. My parents also gifted us with used hardback books, many of them classics: Little Women, Heidi. I read those titles over and over and developed a life-long love of antique books. I was thrilled to hear about the French artisan my mother bought a necklace from; I received not only jewelry but a story! Much more recently, Steve and Tucker made cupcakes for my birthday. Though Steve had planned originally to buy some fancy bakery ones, I was more touched that they took the time to make and decorate something themselves.

If you want to do the world a (wedding) favor…

There are some great wedding favor ideas out there—one, which echoes the “gift the world needs” idea, is the charitable favor, where the bride and groom make a donation in honor of their guests. (I’d advise against the common practice of printing an individual card for each guest announcing this fact—every card except your mother’s is going to end up in the garbage). Edible favors are also quite popular, and if the packaging is kept to a minimum, they can be an eco-friendly (and delicious) choice. And some favors are genuinely useful: seeds for your garden, or a simple wine stopper for your favorite bottle!  If something’s primary (or only) purpose is to sit on a table and look cute, choosing it doesn’t do your guests or the planet any real, um, favors.

A favor is a gift, and part of the pleasure of a gift is the element of surprise—so I’m not going to reveal what we’ve chosen for our wedding guests. It is hand-crafted and earth-friendly; the packaging is minimal and will be reusable and/or recyclable, depending on one’s inclinations. And there’s a family connection that makes it that much more special.

I can’t say every gift I give subscribes to the “four hands + experience” philosophy, but it’s a worthy aspiration. That’s the kind of “Christmas list,” along with the one featured above, I can feel good about renewing every year.

Wishing you stockings full of joy and genuine thoughtfulness!

Featured image from “Holiday Checklist Remix” by Katie Dalebout

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