Monday, December 15, 2014

My Green Holiday

I've fallen a bit behind with the Simplify the Holidays calendar that I posted about here last month. I was reading the entries regularly for a while, but over the past couple of weeks, I forgot about it. So today I went back to check up on the entries I'd missed, and I discovered the entry for December 8: The Green Holiday Quiz. This seemed right up my alley, since it combines two of my favorite things: environmental issues and taking quizzes. So I took it, and I found it interesting enough that I thought I'd share my results here with you.

Question 1 is "What activities will you be doing this holiday season?" I said that we would be giving gifts, wrapping gifts, putting up decorations, and traveling to visit loved ones, but not sending holiday cards or hosting a holiday meal or party. This got me 12 points right off the bat for not taking part in those last two activities, though I wasn't sure if that was really fair, since we will be partaking of holiday meals at other people's houses. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to give us credit for putting the burden of entertaining on others. But after mulling it over for a bit, I reasoned that we're actually sharing the environmental burden with them: we're doing the traveling, while they provide the food. I also took some comfort from the assurance that we're doing a bit of good for the earth by not sending holiday cards, since I tend to feel a trifle guilty every year when we receive cards and end-of-year reports from half a dozen relatives and friends to whom we haven't sent anything. But now I can say, hey, we're not just being lazy; we're being green. So there.

Next, the quiz asked me for more details about the type of gifts we'd be giving. Would they be new, store-bought items? Secondhand? Homemade? How about gift cards, "gifts of charity" (a donation in a loved one's name), "gifts of experience" (such as a class or tickets to an event), or "gifts of your time and care" (such as lessons, child care, or help with household chores)? I somewhat guiltily bypassed those last few and 'fessed up that our gifts would be a mixture of secondhand, homemade, and store-bought.

The quiz then pressed me for more details: what percentage of our gifts would be new and store-bought? I didn't know the answer to that offhand, so I went to the handy Excel spreadsheet on which I keep track of all our holiday gifts, because I am the most anal person in the entire world. It has columns showing what gift we gave to each person and where it was bought, as well as a column indicating whether the gift was secondhand or in some other way green (organic, local, recycled, etc.). I totted up the number of gifts we were giving that were new and store-bought and found that it came to 17 out of 51 gifts on the list, so I selected "about 25 percent," which was the closest answer. Then it asked me what percentage of our gifts would be shipped either to us or to someone else. I hesitated over that one, not sure whether sending a package in the mail was the same as "shipping," but eventually I decided it was and checked "about 25 percent" for that as well. Those two answers netted me another 9 points.

Next it moved on to questions about wrapping. For what percentage of my gifts, it asked, would I use "upcycled" wrapping rather than new materials? Once again, I was a little thrown by the wording, as I hardly consider our reuse of last year's wrapping paper to be "upcycling." Supposedly, the difference between "upcycling" and recycling or reuse is that an upcycled product is more useful than the waste material it was made from. But our reused wrapping is, at best, exactly as useful as it was on its first go-round—and realistically, it's probably less useful, because even though we discard the obviously damaged parts, the paper still has wrinkles and dents that show it's been used before. However, since "reused" wasn't an option, I told the quiz we were using 75 percent "upcycled" wrapping. (The gifts we have shipped directly to my in-laws' house get wrapped there, which means we use new paper for those.) That got me 3 more points.

Next topic: decorations. Approximately what percentage of our decorations would be reusable? Once again, I wasn't sure how to answer. Our usual holiday decorations are made primarily from natural materials—evergreen boughs scavenged from the Christmas tree vendors, pine cones, holly twigs—plus a single strand of LED lights and some bits of ribbon. The lights and ribbon get reused, but all those branches tend to end up in the compost bin or bundled with the other brush at the curb when the holidays are over. Does that count as "reuse"? After some hesitation, I guessed the answer was yes, since even if we're not going to use these natural materials again, we've already "upcycling" them once. So I said we'd be going with 100 percent reusable decorations and was rewarded with 4 more points.

It then asked about our holiday lights. I was disappointed to see that the quiz didn't even ask whether we were using energy-efficient LED lights, as opposed to the old-fashioned, energy-gobbling incandescent bulbs. All it wanted to know was where we were using them (indoors, outdoors, both, or neither) and whether they were solar-powered. So I had to select "outdoors, no solar" and reveal that we would have them on for "a few hours a day for a few weeks or so." Four more points for those answers, so we didn't do quite as well on decorations as we did on gifts.

The final question was, "What's the most traveling you'll be doing this holiday season?" This was the part of the quiz where I knew we'd get spanked, since our annual trip out to Indianapolis to visit my in-laws is nearly 700 miles of driving. (At least we don't fly, which would produce more than twice as much CO2 per person, according to this "Earth Talk" column.) In fact, I probably got off fairly easily on this question, since I only had to confess to driving "more than 150 miles" and not how much more. I only got 2 more points for this answer, but it was better than nothing.

Totting everything up, the quiz reported that my 34-point score indicated my holidays were "about 68 percent green." Not bad, but it said I could do even better by making a few changes. It offered a list of tips, "personalized to my answers," to help me make my holidays greener:
  • Consider alternative gifts, the kind that can't be wrapped. Unfortunately, this suggestion wasn't very practical for me. It's hard to give "gifts of your time and skill" to a friend or relative you hardly ever see, which describes most of the people on our gift list. Yes, we could offer to help my mom with a computer problem—but we do that all the time anyway and don't consider it a present. Gifts to charity don't really feel like much of a present, either; even if I knew which charities all the people on my list supported (those that are old enough to understand such things), I just don't think they'd get a thrill out of finding an envelope under the tree with a card reading, "A donation has been made in your name to...." And while gifts of "experiences," like event tickets or lessons, could be a great gift for the right person, you have to know what experience that person really wants and have a way to provide it. So while it's a lovely idea in theory, it just doesn't work out that often in practice. Bottom line: I think the whole point of gift giving is to show how you like and appreciate a specific person by giving a specific gift that person will really enjoy. If a charitable contribution or a cooking lesson is what that person would truly love, great. But if not, I think it's much better to choose a gift that will be valued, even if it's not as "green." I do my best to save resources in my own life all year round; I think I can afford to stray a little bit at the holidays.
  • If you give material gifts, choose greener ones. Look for minimal packaging, recycled materials, and durable gifts that won't wear out. Once again, this is something I try to do when possible, but it doesn't take priority over the quality of the gift itself. If I want to give, say, a board game, I'm going to choose on the basis of whether it looks like a game my friend would enjoy—not whether it's made with sustainably harvested wooden pieces.
  • Avoid waste when shopping and shipping. Specific tips include bringing reusable bags on shopping trips, using rechargeable batteries in electronic items, shipping gifts in reused and/or reusable packaging, and recycling your packing peanuts. To all of this, my reaction was: well, duh. I mean, of course I do all these things, and not just at Christmas time. I don't see how this tip could possibly have been "personalized to my answers," since the quiz never asked me about it. If it had, I could probably have picked up an extra point or two.
  • Cut down on paper waste by removing yourself from the mailing lists of catalogues you don't need. Yeah, I know this is something I should really do; it's just such a hassle that I keep putting it off. I don't see how it's a specifically holiday-related tip, either, since I get unwanted catalogues all year long. Maybe I'll make removing myself from these mailing lists my New Year's resolution, instead.
  • Ditch the "candy-filled advent calendar" in favor of an "acts of kindness calendar," which sends you an e-mail each day recommending an act of kindness you can do for someone else. I never buy an advent calendar anyway, so this tip is irrelevant for me, but I frankly can't see how getting an e-mail every day with one more thing you have to do is supposed to reduce holiday stress.
  • Focus on experiences rather than stuff. "Pursuing happiness doesn't mean purchasing it," the site advises. "Moments with loved ones are what will be remembered." Here, at last, is a tip I can completely get behind. My favorite parts of the Christmas gathering at my in-laws are always the ones that aren't present-related: baking cookies, gathering around the piano to sing carols, playing adult-friendly board games after the kids are in bed. But somehow, in the rush to get everything "ready" for Christmas, I end up fixating on whether I've checked off all the boxes in that Excel spreadsheet—coming up with an idea for everyone on the list, buying or making all the gifts, wrapping them, shipping them—and I lose sight of the fact that years from now, this probably isn't the part of the holiday that any of them will remember. So maybe I need to cut myself some slack. If I don't manage to get a present under that tree for every single person in the family, does it really matter? With so many of us all exchanging gifts, is anyone even going to notice if one person's pile of presents doesn't include one from us? Considering how long it takes to open all those gifts, maybe making the process a little shorter would actually be a welcome relief for everyone.
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