Can you love Christmas and the planet too?

What would your dream green Christmas look like?

 I recently joined a ‘Crap-Free Christmas’ webinar (online session) hosted by Jen Gale, author of the Sustainable(ish) Living Guides and website, and all of us taking part were asking ourselves this question.

You know the familiar waste hierarchy of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? Jen has added another layer that’s especially relevant for Christmas – Rethink.  As in, let’s rethink Christmas. We had a go at this during the session.

The problem

  • Twenty per cent of gifts are unwanted. One in 10 go to landfill.  
  • £220m is spent on Christmas jumpers every year. A quarter of these will be worn only once.
  • £280m is spent on office Secret Santas.
  • The miles of wrapping paper used at Christmas would almost reach to the moon.
  • A third of festive food is wasted – 250,000 tonnes; that would make 4.2m Christmas dinners. Two million turkeys and 74 million mince pies go to waste.
  • Council waste collections rise by 30 per cent at this time of year.

Some solutions

 First ask yourself, what do I want Christmas to mean to me and my family?

We are made to feel we should want a festival of excess and consumption. But when asked that question in the webinar most people answered:  down time, daft games, shared times, rest, relaxation. If your ‘love language’ (the way you express love) centres on presents, try to imagine alternatives, such as offering experiences, home-made gifts or volunteering your services.

 We discussed how to take away some of the tension that builds up at this time of year.  One suggestion was to slow down and avoid panic buying.  Then start a conversation with the like-minded souls in your life about how you might do things differently.

And start small – aim to change just one thing this year.  


  •  Don’t guess, ask!  Why buy random things in a mad spending rush just to get it out of the way when you could find out exactly what a person would like?   And play your part too by having suggestions ready when people ask what you or your kids would prefer.  

In her blog about The (Festive) Waste Hierarchy, Jen gives the reminder that the last resort of the hierarchy – Rot – also includes composting. She advises those who don’t yet have a council food waste collection to ‘consider asking Santa for a hot composter to go in your garden…’ We couldn’t agree more!

  • Make a pact to keep receipts so gifts can be exchanged.
  • Do a family Secret Santa (someone suggested Elfster – the online Secret Santa gift generator). Or a second-hand Secret Santa – get a second-hand book, for example, or give a book that you’ve enjoyed. Try WOB (World of Books) – the second-hand online book shop.
  • Resist novelty gifts – they’re usually wasted.
  • Try charity shops for stocking fillers and Christmas jumpers.
  • Buy locally and ethically. Make a pact that 50 per cent of gifts will come from local shops.
  • Make treats as gifts and look out for containers throughout the year to present them in. (This is especially good for pupils to give to teachers). Jen recommends her favourite fudge recipe which can be adjusted with festive flavours.  I tried this out last week as a thank you gift for some work colleagues, one of whom is vegan. So I made a vegan version by using coconut ‘double cream’. I’ll admit that something went a bit wrong with the consistency – I don’t know if it was me or the coconut cream. Let’s blame the cream. To avoid accusations of fudge fraud, I renamed the treats vanilla drops. They were still delicious, even though I had to issue a health and safety warning to suck rather than chew or they’d superglue themselves to unsuspecting teeth. They were greatly appreciated, especially by the vegan recipient. It’s the thought that counts, I told him.

It’s the thought that counts – festive vegan ‘vanilla drops’.


  • Use gifts bags and keep recirculating them.
  • Babipur and Cascayde sell paper-based tape that can be recycled.
  • Furoshiki is a Japanese custom of wrapping gifts in a square piece of reuseable cloth. There are methods online that take seconds to learn.


The carbon footprint of cards comes not just from the card and paper but also the postal service.  Could you send an e-card or make a phone or video call instead to loved ones, especially those in far-flung places?

The modern custom of pupils giving cards to everyone in the class uses two trees’ worth of card and paper per school. Start a conversation about this – suggest the children send one card to the whole class and put them on display or have a Card Secret Santa. This would of course also alleviate the stress of getting kids to write 29 cards or giving up and writing them all yourself. Yes, I’ve been there. Madness.


  •  Beef and lamb have the biggest carbon footprint as a Christmas dinner. Turkey has three times the carbon footprint of chicken. My son who moans every year ‘Why can’t we just have chicken?’ will be delighted to hear this.
  • Have an ‘Eat me first box/shelf’ in your fridge to avoid food waste.
  • Use the Olio app, which helps you to beat waste by sharing and finding things in your local area. 
  • Make a meal plan for the festive fortnight.

Christmas outfits

  • How about suggesting that your children’s school holds Christmas jumper swaps (or Buy a Jumper for £1 stall)? You could also swap other dressing-up outfits, such as Halloween, or World Book Day.
  • If you already have a Christmas jumper, you don’t need a new one. The one you’ve got will last for, oooh…

Rudolph’s return – you can wear him next year – and the next….


  • If you have a fake tree already, the most sustainable option is to keep on using it and pass it on if you decide you no longer want it. We’ve had our fake tree for years and – humblebrag alert – we bought most of the decorations when we moved into our first house in 1990. We don’t do fashion when it comes to Christmas. Because it’s Christmas.  
  • Rent a tree – look up local firms that offer this service: you rent a tree in a pot and return it after Christmas to be replanted.    

At this point in the discussion Jen showed us photos of her alternative trees – there was the green-painted egg-box tree (don’t try this at home) but also the more successful and lovely pom-pom tree that all the family had a hand in making, using freecycled wool. Her husband has also made an impressive pallet tree, which I think has a cool Scandi vibe.

During the webinar, it was great to see people sharing their own easy wins in the chats.  One commentator said she cooked most of the Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve to make the big day easier.  Hearing other people’s ideas opens your eyes to what’s possible.

To finish off, we all made commitments for ourselves. I decided that our Christmas Day meal should only include three vegetable side dishes. Yes, I am aware of how pathetic this sounds now I’ve written it down but don’t judge me, I’m resisting decades of family conditioning here – my mother never met a vegetable she didn’t serve up on Christmas Day. Jen suggested that we could have a family vote about which dishes should be included. This is such a good idea because if anyone complains I can blame Jen. It stands to reason that the more side dishes there are the more waste there will be.

As we signed off, I felt cheerful and optimistic. Crap-free Christmas, I think I’ve got this.  


Since the webinar, I’ve done the following:

  • Asked people for their gift preferences: My mum, a war baby eco-warrior, asked for bokashi spray for her bokashi bin. I will take her at her word but also give her a voucher for a meal at her favourite local restaurant. My sister-in-law asked for her favourite perfume and told me how long it usually lasts (I’ll take that as a hint). My adult sons were offered a choice between boxer shorts and socks, bought from the Impact Positive company Bamboo Clothing).
  • Taken the jam jar idea a stage further by filling them with an ‘I owe U’ for each of my sons, who love eating but not cooking, promising them a meal of their choice cooked to their faffy specifications (without complaining).
  • Sought everybody’s opinions on the turkey/chicken question and there were no objections to having chicken.
  • Tried furoshiki – this is a revelation. It’s so easy and looks nice. You could buy square scarves from charity shops or just use remnants.

A gift wrapped furoshiki-style, above – so much easier and prettier than how this gift came to me from my son last Christmas, below. Before you reproach me for being harsh to a child, can I point out he’s 29?

  • Had a side dish vote – oh my word, why was this so hard? My phone kept pinging with questions – Are potatoes included in the three, or are they assumed? Can two forms of potato – roast and mash – count as one vote? Can’t we just do a long list in order of preference? Are two pea choices – mushy and garden – one choice? This is an ongoing process. I should have started it at Halloween.
  • WOB – another revelation. I bought second-hand books for my husband, sons and myself. (I came across Cold Comfort Farm, which I’ve always wanted to read. I’ll regift it afterwards.)

For more ideas check out:

Christmas eco gifts give back to the planet

Christmas Green Johanna

It’s hard to get something for loved ones who tell you they want nothing.

We get it – there’s nothing worse than the waste of unwanted gifts or yet more clutter. But if a gift can help you to lead a more sustainable life that’s surely a gift that keeps on giving.

  So let our fun festive guide inspire you with ideas for presents that won’t be taken straight to the charity shop in January.


‘Tis the month before Christmas when all through the house not a single thing’s stirring except Rachel’s mouse…

Still on her laptop at midnight, Rachel’s searching for gifts for the family that won’t cost the earth but also won’t cost the Earth.

She’s hit on a solution for her husband Paul’s parents, Dick and Liddy, who are so tricky to buy for. They say they don’t want any more presents because they already have everything they need. And Dick says he doesn’t need any more gloves because he’s not an octopus. Ditto socks.

They’re already keen recyclers and want to do their bit for the environment in an easy way for people in their eighties.

So how about a Green Cone food waste digester? It takes all food waste, even bones, and no stirring or turning is required. It doesn’t produce compost, but that’s OK; Dick and Liddy will be perfectly happy with the nutritious soil conditioner that will seep from the underground waste basket into their flower beds once worms and microbes have broken down the food scraps.

Dick will like the fact that they’re in control of their own food waste, turning something that harms the planet in landfill to something that heals it by nourishing the soil. Liddy will love the idea that, in their own small way, they’re doing something to save the planet for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The little we can do is a lot – that’s Liddy’s motto.

Composting for a busy brother

For her brother Stephen, who is officially the busiest man on the planet (which he would love to save if he could only get the staff), Rachel plans to get a Green Johanna hot composter. He’s seen Paul and Rachel’s Johanna at work in their garden and has even been known to make himself useful by emptying the kitchen caddy into it. The idea of having a ready supply of his own free compost would definitely appeal too.

Green Johanna Winter Jacket

Worm-farming for children

Stephen’s wife Jill would also like to save the earth; she just doesn’t want it being traipsed through the house on the children’s muddy boots. So Rachel thought a great present for their children, Billie and Ben, would be a wormery. She managed to sell the idea to Stephen by saying it would get the kids interested in eco-science (anything educational always gets his vote), and Jill agreed when she knew the Maze Worm Farm could be kept in the shed. Rachel knows the kids will be fascinated by the process, and if through harvesting their own vermicompost they gain a passion for gardening, well…that’s the very definition of a gift that keeps on giving.

Rachel suspects it might become her job to teach her niece and nephew how to harvest the compost, but it will be more than worth it to see them giggle when she tells them that this nutritious soil food is essentially the worms’ poo. If you’re under 10 it doesn’t get much funnier than that.

Gifts for the eco-conscious young

What could be better for Rachel and Paul’s son, George, than a Compost Tumbler for the back yard of his student house? The compost it produces will come in handy for all their potted plants and vegetable raised beds, as well as at the  community garden where they help out.  

And a useful stocking filler would be a kitchen cooking oil container. George has taken on the job of storing his household’s used oil in various containers to take to the local recycling centre where it’s collected to be turned into electricity. But this purpose-built 3 litre container with its secure lid will make it so much easier to store and transport the oil.

George has had to stop his housemates pouring their used oil down the sink, which they thought was the right thing to do. In fact, what happens is the oil binds with other objects that should never have been flushed away, creating huge fatbergs that block sewers. Everybody thinks their own little bit of oil can’t do any harm but try telling that to the engineers who get the lovely job of breaking down these monster blockages so that the rest of us can flush the toilet confident the waste will just disappear. Sewage backflow anyone?

Every millilitre adds up. Isn’t this at the heart of recycling? Grandma Liddy says: The little we can do is a lot. And she’s right; there are no small acts.

A present for the planet

For Millie, George’s girlfriend, Rachel will get a bokashi bin. Millie showed great interest in Paul and Rachel’s Maze Bokashi Bin when she saw it on their kitchen worktop and was fascinated when Rachel explained the anaerobic process which ferments all food waste, turning it into pre-compost. Well, not every girl wants scented candles…

14 litre Maze Bokashi Bin

Millie will be able to feed her houseplants with the diluted bokashi ‘tea’ fertiliser that drains from the contents of the bokashi bin. The tea can also be used concentrated as organic drain cleaner. Another freebie – what’s not to like? When the food waste has fermented to become pre-compost pulp, she will add it as an accelerator to the Compost Tumbler to break down into compost.

Paul suggested that with all this festive recycling going on, perhaps he could give back to Stephen and Jill the flashing-nose Rudolph jumper they gave him last Christmas?

Rachel said no.

Christmas joy – and sustainability – to the world

Does an eco-friendly Christmas mean nibbling on foraged roast chestnuts and trimming up with last year’s holly?

Right now many of us are once again trying to find the middle way between a bleak midwinter season and one that sends tonnes more waste to landfill.

 This is obviously the most challenging time of year if you’re attempting to live sustainably. It’s especially hard for parents of young children who are trying to find planet-friendly ways of providing festive joy as well as keeping their heads above water financially.  

Can Christmas ever be sustainable?

If you look at what like-minded people are doing, you’ll find you’re far from alone.  

One of my favourite composting influencers (yes, it’s a thing), Compostable Kate, usually buys her children’s toys second hand, but she admits it’s a constant balancing act as you don’t want your children to feel excluded from what they see going on around them.

And I laughed out loud reading Jen Gale’s account of the time her young son saw her online post about not buying so many presents, and shouted ‘Presents are the whole point of Christmas. They bring the joy!’

 Is there a child who would disagree with him?

 Jen’s book The Sustainable (ish) Living Guide has some great tips which I’ve incorporated into our family traditions.

Make presents

Play to your strengths by sewing or baking gifts to give.

These are the best presents (depending on the skill of the maker…) Last year an Asian neighbour, remembering that I had told her my dad would much prefer spicy food to the traditional turkey, came round on Christmas morning with platters piled high with freshly-made samosas. Samosas go great with roast turkey dinner, we discovered. The thoughtfulness of this homemade gift really made our Christmas.

Reverse Advent calendar

Jen’s suggestion of a reverse Advent calendar is absolutely on-trend with the Christmas message.

 Put an item of non-perishable food into a box each day of Advent and then donate to a foodbank. If that isn’t teaching your children the true spirit of Christmas I don’t know what is. And when you think about what Jen’s son said –  ‘Presents bring the joy’ – he didn’t say it was only receiving presents that brings the joy.

Offer your time

Adults would love the offer of baby sitting or gardening services, for example. You could also buy experiences as opposed to material gifts, or arrange for the family to do a Secret Santa.

Dial it down

My own tip is to focus on what means most to your family at Christmas. You don’t have to dial everything up to the max just because that’s what the adverts show. In fact, tread carefully with all those ads. They are lies and damned lies. I feel the stress-ometer mounting with every female face I see smiling beatifically as she feeds the 5,000 sitting down to dinner. It’s not just the feeling that I haven’t bought enough, won’t have cooked enough and it won’t be good enough, it’s also the sickening thought that much of what does get cooked over Christmas will end up in the bin.  

And that’s another thing – remember that no one’s stomach expands magically like Mary Poppins’ bag just because it happens to be December 25th. Let’s not forget that those ads will change on the stroke of midnight, as fast as Cinderella’s ballgown, from encouraging you to gorge yourself silly to suggesting it’s high time you joined a slimming programme and a gym, Fatty.

Reusing Christmas cards:

Make them part of the Christmas decorations – The large picture over our mantelpiece shows an African landscape at sunset. It doesn’t exactly scream Christmas, and I’m afraid it is important to me that our house in December should scream Christmas. So, to get that Screaming Christmas feeling, I now create a display on top of the picture’s glass by blutacking cards onto it. This works so well I started doing it to all the glass-covered pictures all over the house. With a bit of creative manoeuvring you can’t see the original picture underneath. Ok, you might be able to see the odd bit of original picture but this guide is not meant for perfectionists, whom I would direct to the safe, loving attentions of Kirstie Allsopp instead.

Top lazy cheat

As a great fan of lazy cheats, I’m proud to have found one of my own. A few years ago I bought a lovely glass Christmas candle lantern decorated with a wooden reindeer. I decided it was too nice to keep only for Christmas, but I didn’t want the reindeer staring at me all year long. I reasoned that if I turned it round, no one could see the reindeer and would be none the wiser.

Then I applied this logic to cushions. Last Christmas I sewed some scraps of fabric onto plain cushions in the shape of holly leaves. I was planning to unpick them in January, but then thought, why bother? Why not just turn them round too? Granted, this isn’t a method for everyone; some people might get the vapours if an untrained family member happened to inadvertently turn a cushion round to expose (gasp) holly in July, but this guide is only for the very lazy and seasonally-liberal. Life’s too short, isn’t it?  You’re welcome.

Now if only I could work out a way to keep the tree up for the other 11 months of the year…

However you choose to celebrate – enjoy. It’s Christmas!


Spare Parts