Earlier this week, I asked my Instagram followers for a topic to write about in this week’s blog post. I wanted to know what information people would find most helpful. I received a pile of great ideas!
One topic came up several times that I also struggle with.
When people ask me—and I hear this question often—what I find most difficult about zero waste, I say other people. After many years of living this way, I have my routine down, I don’t find it difficult and I enjoy it immensely. But sometimes, well-intentioned friends and family wanting to do something nice for me try to give me stuff I just don’t want. They may not understand what zero waste means or they may not take my lifestyle seriously. And I probably haven’t explained well that I really don’t want gifts. Or they might not realize that I don’t merely write about this stuff, I actually live by my religion. And I am observant!
If you no longer want to receive gifts—either the quality stuff or just the landfill in transition—with some friends and family, you can have a frank discussion about gift giving and with others, you simply cannot. These suggestions won’t work in every situation. But if you can convince even a few people to fulfill your request, you’ve made progress!
1. Manage expectations
To reduce disappointment, let your family and friends know well in advance that you no longer want to receive gifts. I asked my kids last month to please donate to 350.org for Mother’s Day and I repeated my request this week. MK said she already donates to 350.org monthly, so she said she would donate to NRDC instead.
If you’re planning a birthday party or wedding or baby shower and don’t want gifts, drive the message home by adding “No Gifts Please” to the invitations.
2. Explain why you no longer want to exchange gifts
Tell your friends and family that you don’t have room in your home for more stuff, that your kids have too many toys as it is, that your home is a plastic-free zone, that you’re broke and can’t buy anyone gifts and so accepting them will feel awkward, that you just Maria Kondo’d your home and have it just the way you want it or whatever other reason you have.
3. Tell them how they benefit
This is your best bet for convincing people to do things that they don’t want to do. Tell them what’s in it for them. Point out that they will save money and time by not shopping and will experience less stress worrying about what to get you.
4. Suggest some alternative gifts
If they still really want to do something for you, tell them you’d love to go to your favorite restaurant or spend time together or you crave a batch of their famous chocolate chip cookies or you could use a massage or you’ll take the cash instead (maybe don’t say that…).
You could ask grandparents to buy your kids stocks or bonds. I bought my daughter MK Microsoft stock with any money people ever gave her, beginning at birth. It paid for half a year of university 19 years later!
5. Go to the top
If everyone in your family listens to your commanding grandmother, for example, enlist her to your cause if possible. This will help others fall in line.
6. Realize that some people will continue to buy you gifts you don’t want or need
No matter how well you explain your desire to opt out of exchanging gifts, or how often you explain it, some people will insist on giving you gifts. Just accept that they haven’t heard you and thank them for the present.
When my daughter MK was little, her great grandmother sent crappy gifts—once literally! One Christmas, Great Grandma sent MK a secondhand onesie with an eight-inch long, wide poop stain down the inside back. I don’t understand how she could have possibly missed it.
MK was only two or three at the time but after that experience, we practiced how to receive gifts with gratitude rather than a dry heave. I would hand MK an imaginary gift and tell her what was inside. She would pretend to open it and then look up at me and say something like, “Thank you for the box of dirt.”
7. Be diplomatic
Preachy does not work. When someone gives your child yet another junky plastic toy built to break, resist the temptation to get angry and yell “Are you trying to kill more whales?!” You won’t win any supporters if you judge people.
You might not want to then and there say “Please don’t buy us presents.” The person will feel insulted. Try numbers 1 and 2 later on before the next gift-giving occasion. (It depends on the person though.)
8. But at the same time, stop worrying so much about being nice
Some social norms need to end—including the exchange of useless gifts on every occasion and the expectation that women please everyone all of the time. (Ninety percent of my readers are women.)
Seven months ago, the UN issued the IPCC report, which states that we have only 12 years (now, 11 plus) to implement the drastic measures necessary to keep warming from exceeding 1.5C between 2030 and 2052. Scientists concede that 2C warming is dangerous and that 3C—the level of warming we are on track to hit by the end of the century—threatens our civilization as we know it.
Then this week, the UN issued another distressing report stating that 1,000,000 species face extinction, threatening human society—species such as the insects that pollinate our crops. Our very life support systems have begun to fail.
These dire warnings put things into perspective. We can no longer continue to consume mindlessly, often for stuff we don’t actually need. If my pleas for no gifts render me a nasty woman, so be it. The parts of my brain that deal with worry are busy with other concerns.