Unwanted Christmas gifts cost £2.4bn – nearly as much as the Green Investment Bank

This is a guest post by Julie Hill, author of The Secret Life of Stuff, and an associate of Green Alliance.

If, like me, you’ve emerged from the whole Christmas gift-giving experience feeling bruised and wondering what it’s all about, I have a message of hope.  One that can be developed throughout the coming year, with the intention of making next Christmas a little psychologically easier on us all.  

But why should it all be such a trial? In my quest for meaning, the most compelling explanation I have come across is that of evolutionary psychologists; that gift-giving is a way to make the recipients feel obligated in case we need their help later on. It is also a way for the givers to try to feel better about themselves, through handing over things they’d really like to keep. Translate these less than altruistic impulses to the modern Christmas goods frenzy, and we have the potential for a toxic mix of delusion, disappointment and debt, both monetary and spiritual.

The Christmas present market
Yet at its best, gift-giving and receiving can be an uplifting and genuinely rewarding practice.  My favourite gifts, both to give and receive, are those that have been made by the giver, with the recipient’s tastes and preferences firmly in mind.  They are gifts of time and thought much more than of monetary value.  After that, perhaps inevitably given my profession, I go for the recycled and/or ethically sourced.  These notions work well with friends, but sadly less well with family, who are liable to view my efforts as cheapskate and pious.  On top of that, I risk being regarded as a party-pooper of the worst kind if I let my conversation veer towards the possible inappropriateness of Christmas consumption given the resource challenges we face.

It’s enough to make the environmentally-concerned want to crawl into a hole and not emerge until the spring. But we can’t. Most environmentalists have come around to the idea that there is presently no viable alternative on offer to our market-based political system, and have also embraced the idea that the marketplace can be a force for a good if properly directed by careful state intervention. Personal behaviours can be led by this combination too, and at its best the change is seamless. One family gathering this festive season featured a conversation about how much the fuel economy of cars has improved, entirely unaware of the role of EU regulations in the matter. So most environmentalists would no more seek to cancel Christmas than overturn capitalism overnight in favour of anarchy.  As with families, we have little choice but to work with what we’ve got.

A cash injection for sustainability projects?
So here’s my proposition. We’ve got used to the idea that Christmas cards are sold to benefit charities, and most people I know buy them. Now we need to do the same with all Christmas purchases, and indeed gifts for any occasion. Gift-giving should be an opportunity to divert money to charities, but also towards product innovations that might not otherwise happen – a cash injection to fund research into more recyclable materials, perhaps.

We Britons spent an estimated £13.4 billion on Christmas gifts this year with on-line shops alone[i].  The figures are not yet in for the final total. One survey suggested that £2.4 billion  would have been spent on unwanted gifts, an average of 2 each costing a total of just under £100[ii].  That is equivalent to a third of the UK’s annual overseas aid budget[iii], almost the same amount of money as pledged to the Green Investment Bank[iv], and 3 times the annual budget of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, one of the main drivers of innovation in British science and manufacturing[v].

Initiatives such as Oxfam Unwrapped for gifts with a purpose, or ‘Lendwithcare’ to provide funding to entrepreneurs in difficult circumstances, have blazed the trail.  It is surely time to extend the principal and let no gift-giving opportunity go past without a proportion of the money being re-invested into initiatives that help to secure a sustainable future.

I’m sure there are plenty of organisations that could take on the challenge of making it happen.  According to Wateraid, 884 million people lack access to safe water and basic sanitation, and it costs £15 to provide per person[vi].  That’s £13.2 billion – a bit less than those on-line purchases.  Just 1 per cent diverted could help over 8 million people.  Wouldn’t that be a gift really in the Christmas spirit?


[i] Centre for Retail Research quoted in Guardian business, 4.12.12

[ii] Survey by Gumtree.com quoted in This is Money.co.uk 26.12.11

[vi] Wateraid.org.

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