Avoid Wasteful Gift Giving

Avoid Wasteful Gift-Giving

By Michael Jessen

One Christmas when I was in Grade Three, I starred in a school play about some children who snuck down to unwrap presents under the tree well before Christmas morning. The parents – knowing this would happen – wisely put the practical gifts, not the toys, under the tree.

My line of dialogue was “Oh no, two pairs of underwear” as I unwrapped my present. The disappointment I acted out in that play is unfortunately repeated many times over during the gift-giving season.

Spending hours in crowded malls looking for a tie to give Uncle Tom or a scarf for your sister Sharon is hardly worth it if it goes straight to landfill or the thrift store. That’s the premise of Scroogenomics by Joel Waldfogel, the chair of business and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Waldfogel says what people pay for gifts rarely matches how much the receiver values them. In surveys, he asked his students to estimate the value of their gift to what they would pay for it. On average, gifts were 20 percent less valuable.

Canadians spent $7.3 billion on Christmas gifts in 2007 and according to Waldfogel’s estimate, that’s a loss of $1.5 billion. On a worldwide basis, he suggests it’s the equivalent of throwing $25 billion into the garbage. Last year, two million unwanted Christmas presents were listed on eBay in Britain.

Now that we’re concerned about the carbon footprints of our lifestyles, it seems logical that we join this economist in lamenting the “sloppy spending” of Christmas, a season Waldfogel describes as an “organized institution for value destruction.”

A British statistic says the average person’s footprint is increased by 1,500 kilograms through Christmas gift purchases. The waste from unwanted gifts swells the footprint by 80 kilograms.

Even before that Grade Three theatrical, I’d been a strong believer that gifts should be just as important to the receiver as to the giver. Back then, of course, I would blame Santa Claus if I didn’t get what I’d told him I wanted while sitting on his knee.

As an adult, I want to buy something for someone that they would have bought for themselves and I’d like to receive something that I would have bought for myself.

No matter how well someone knows you, their taste in sweaters may not match yours. Waldfogel’s research found that parents, spouses and siblings fared best when buying valued Christmas presents. But with faraway friends and distant relatives, the greater the chances were to mess up on a choice of gift.

Since one holiday survey found the average person buys 23 Christmas gifts, that’s a lot of room for error and a lot of potential waste.

Now we all know that Christmas provides the biggest stimulus of the year to our economy and a lot of people get extra employment because of this annual buying spree. So how can we avoid being an Ebenezer and instead act like one of the Three Wise Men?

One obvious solution is to get your significant others to provide a list of desired gifts. That way you can be sure the gift is wanted.

Moving away from the idea of bigger is better, an envelope with either cash or a gift card may be more welcome than another boxed and overwrapped knickknack or doodad.

Another idea is to give a homemade gift – someone’s favourite cookies or dessert. Give a gift basket with your favourite recipe and all the necessary ingredients.

Use a colourful tin or a jar to package your homemade goodie and avoid wrapping paper. According to Ecoholic author Adria Vasil, Canadians use 40 square km of virgin forest wrapping paper every year!

Buy previously enjoyed gifts of antiques, books or CDs – they’re often as good as new and always cheaper. Support local authors when you buy books and don’t forget artwork or crafts made by local artists.

Experiential gifts of tickets to a movie, play, concert, art show, or lecture that you can enjoy with the recipient are always excellent choices.

Make a donation to a charity or non-governmental organization relevant to the recipient’s interests.

My favourite gift idea this year is a donation to Nelson’s Amy Ferguson Institute to help them mount an original opera to be written by Nicola Harwood and Don Macdonald.

The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada has an excellent guide to reducing your Christmas environmental footprint. It can be found at http://www.janegoodall.ca/documents/HolidayGuide_002.doc.

Christmas gifts are not going to stop piling up under the tree anytime soon, but as shoppers we can become wiser in our shopping choices.