The art of saying no to presents without pissing off your family, and how to give without pissing off the planet.


Part of living “zero waste” is trying to live more simply, the idea is if you have less, you need less. I was a little sceptical about this when I first started trying to be less “trashy” – how does reducing my belongings and having less make me need less? Surely I’ll just need to buy more again.

Having grown up in old English houses crammed full of my mum’s second-hand treasures, bare surfaces and the one-beautiful-vase-on-a-shelf aesthetic is just not in my DNA. My home is still far from minimal, but I have decreased what I own, selling and giving away a lot and miraculously, I haven’t felt the need to replace it all. I’ve also realised that things make me feel overwhelmed, not just because of the clutter, but because they remind me of the amount of stuff we humans consume. Stuff we usually don’t need, so spit back out into the world with our eyes closed for the planet to deal with.

Which brings me to Christmas. Or specifically, Christmas presents. I come from a long line of givers. Presents are a way of showing love and maintaining connections in my family. There are a lot of us – parents, step-parents, siblings, step-siblings, in-laws, aunties, grandparents, spouses, sibling’s spouses, kids, etc. It’s a lot of people to buy for, which can be an expensive and stressful task. But trickier for me these days, it’s a lot of people to receive from. My family are generous, which doesn’t always mean spending a lot, gifts are often handmade (my sister spends endless nights in December sewing beautiful garments for us), or chosen with care. But, there are the inevitable token gifts, given because you should – sparkly bubble bath when you don’t have a bath, a floral mug that will soon be edged to the back of the cupboard, a plastic reindeer that poops chocolate raisins. My answer when asked what I want for Christmas is “nothing, I don’t need anything”, but this is usually ignored. I think people assume I’m just being polite, or modest. I’m not. I really don’t want more things.

I’m not calling for an all out ban on giving and I’m totally for kids getting Christmas presents (I’m not that mean). But come on grown-ups, do we really need all the things from all the people?

If you want to do presents you can do it with a smaller footprint on the planet. Here are some light-footed gift ideas, but just remember people – “no presents, please” means “no presents, please”.

Pick a name
A great way to give and receive less is to put the names of all the adults in the family in a bag and then everyone picks a name. You then just buy something worth X amount specifically for that person. A bit like secret Santa, except it’s not a secret.

It’s vintage!
There’s a stigma around giving second hand presents, some gift collections for refugees and homeless refuse used items. It seems crazy when many homes are full of unused things. Trawl charity shops, markets, thrift stores, etc., for unique treasures and then instead of saying it’s second hand, call it vintage. Sounds better, right?

Experiences over stuff
Rather than buying “things”, give an experience. Whether it’s a ticket to a museum or theatre, or something simple like a babysitting voucher or an invite to a homemade dinner.

Edibles and growables
Give gifts that can be eaten or grown, avoid big plastic boxes of chocolate and go for locally made treats, or produce like honey or bottles of oils and vinegars. Seeds that can be planted and come up in the spring are the gift that keeps giving.

Things that last
Skip the novelty pooping reindeers and pick something that will last and that you know will be used a lot. Shops like Buy Me Once specialise in items that are built to stay with you and never need replacing.

Things that help you go zero
If you’re into this zero waste thing, give something that will help others do the same, like a homemade cloth bag for their vegetables or a reusable to-go mug for a coffee lover.

Have a happy and minimal Christmas! Rowan.