The Second Cost of Holiday Gifts

That frantic time we ironically call “the holidays” is nearly here, and it’s time to get shopping. For most of us, a big factor when buying is the price tag, the little ticket that tells us how much cash we’ll have to hand over if we want to take something home.

But just about everything has a second cost that’s not shown on the price tag. It’s the ecological cost, the impact a product has on our planet, from manufacture to delivery to eventual disposal.

A lot of factors make up an item’s ecological cost. Here are just a few:

  • What is it made of? Metal from a mine, plastic produced from petroleum, or wood harvested in some faraway land?
  • Are any of those materials recycled? Are they recyclable?
  • What about the packaging? Is it minimal and easily recycled, or is it heavy-duty and destined for the landfill?
  • Where was it made, locally or half a world away? It matters, because transportation is often a big part of an item’s ecological cost, and every kilometre counts.
  • How much energy did it take to manufacture the product, and what kind of greenhouse gas emissions resulted?
  • How much energy will the product use during its lifetime? Is it battery operated?
  • How durable is it? Will it be broken, trashed and replaced by Easter?

Finally, here’s an often-overlooked point:

  • What’s the environmental impact of the shopping trip when the product is purchased? If it’s a quick stop at a local store as part of an errand run, the impact is pretty minimal. But if it’s 6 hours up and down the Interstate plus 2 hours of idling at the border, better factor that in too – it’s likely the biggest ecological cost of all.

Figuring out something’s true ecological cost is not simple; you’d probably need a PhD to accurately add up all the complicated factors involved . Still, it’s a good notion to keep in mind when shopping, especially if taking good care of the planet is a priority for you.

A gift can have a huge ecological cost, but you have to look beyond just the price tag to see it.

So – what’s today’s eco-friendly elf to do? Here are a few gift options to help make Christmas… well, green!

  • Tickets to a local production, a movie, a museum or even the lottery
  • Books, especially about green living
  • A nice set of made-in-NB Brunswick fleece sheets (, guaranteed to warm the coldest of nights
  • Rechargeable batteries
  • Gift certificates for something special, like an antique store, a spa, a chocolatier or a garden center
  • A low flow shower head, a programmable thermostat or an energy efficiency audit (see for details)
  • A home-made treat – accompanied by a bottle of Canadian wine
  • “Fair trade” coffee, food and crafts, that provide growers and artisans with a fair return
  • Anything used but useful – because it’s a waste to throw out perfectly good stuff

For the person who has everything: a donation in their name to a charity. You might be able to buy a symbolic ‘night of accommodation’ from the local emergency shelter. Or, through international organizations such as World Vision, you can help faraway people in need by buying a goat or covering the cost of a well.

One last idea: consider shopping on-line from home. It’s more eco-friendly to have purchases delivered than driving to buy them, especially if you choose surface mail delivery.

Make this holiday season a truly green affair. Check the prices, but also consider the costs – the ecological costs.

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Carl Duivenvoorden is one of two Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver live presentations of “An Inconvenient Truth”. He lives in Upper Kingsclear, and can be reached via his website,

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Or phone Carl at 506. 363. 8117 (in Kingsclear, New Brunswick).