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Christmas gifts that can save the planet

01 November 2019

To create peace on earth, the kind of presents given at Christmas need to change, says Huw Spanner

Chris Aldridge/Trees for Life

The Glen Affric landscape, in the Scottish Highlands, has had 60 years of forest reforestation, and was declared a National Nature Reserve in 2002. The challenge now is to reforest beyond its boundaries, says the charity Trees for Life

The Glen Affric landscape, in the Scottish Highlands, has had 60 years of forest reforestation, and was declared a National Nature Reserve in 2002. Th...

CHRISTMAS comes but once a year, and if the earth had a voice it might well say: “Thank goodness for that.”

Our annual festival of hyper-consumerism requires the extraction of vast quantities of raw materials to be processed into (often unwanted) presents for friends and relations which may well end up going back into the ground as landfill.

As the environmentalist George Monbiot once put it, in many cases “the fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts.” We are “screwing the planet”, he says, to make things that “are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away”.

Christians who are concerned that Christmas should not literally cost the earth can model a different way, by giving presents that are useful, eco-friendly, and fairly traded.

One source is Traidcraft, whose website (traidcraftshop.co.uk) proclaims the importance of organic farming, sustainability, and transparency in the lives of growers and artisans around the world, and says that it is “saving vanishing traditional skills from extinction”. There are general gifts, gifts for home and garden, Fairtrade food and drink, fashion gifts (such as ethical socks and bamboo tights), and Christmas decorations and hampers. Delivery for orders totalling £50 or more is free.

TraidcraftTraidcraft’s recycled crayon clock made by artisans in India

Its bestsellers this year include an amusing £44.99 clock from India, which, it states, is an “excellent example of how we can incorporate recycling into our daily life”. The coloured crayons that decorate it were factory rejects which would have otherwise been thrown away. Also from India comes a set of two rustic, antiqued, wire bowls, hand-woven from recycled metal at the co-operative Noah’s Ark: suitable for anything from apples to remote controls, it is a snip at £15.

For foodies, Zaytoun’s succulent Medjoul dates are grown in the rich soil around Jericho, in occupied Palestine. A 250g box costs £3.95, 500g costs £7.45. Every purchase supports growers.

Or how about a 125g bar of honey-and-lavender soap, at £1.50? It ticks all the boxes: Fairtrade marked, biodegradable, free of artificial ingredients, and not tested on animals; and the palm oil it contains is eco-friendly.


ANOTHER option is to buy a loved one a virtual gift from one of the many alternative charity gift catalogues. Not only do virtual gifts save the world’s resources, but, in many instances, work to combat the effects of climate change environmentally, or to support the world’s poor.

“Don’t just give any old gift,” WaterAid (shop.wateraid.org) urges. “Give a present and a future.” For £24, you could nominally furnish a pair of taps to provide hand-washing stations in a village in Africa, Asia, or Central America. The recipient of your gift receives an informative card, or an e-card if time is tight or you want to save waste, which you can personalise for them.

As with many — although not all — virtual-gift catalogues, your donation to WaterAid, which works to give the poorest and most marginalised people in the world better access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene, will not necessarily be spent on actual taps. It will go towards the charity’s work with its partners in 28 countries around the world, based on where the need is greatest.

Christian Aid invites you to make a donation, and, in return, it will send a “lively” personalised card to your friend or relation, describing the gift you have chosen for them (christianaid.org.uk/christmas-presents).

Send a CowLontia, from Zambia, with the rainwater tank supplied by Send a Cow

For an eco-warrior, for example, it suggests, for £14, the nominal purchase of some fruit-tree saplings and seeds, which could help to fight the effects of climate change in Bangladesh. Not only do trees help to flood-proof the land by putting down roots, but also the fruit that they will bear can, in due course, generate income for someone living in extreme poverty.

Send a Cow offers virtual gifts in return for a donation to its practical work helping people from Ethiopia to Zambia to lift themselves out of poverty. Whatever you buy, the charity undertakes to spend your money “wherever the need is greatest”. Its online catalogue (sendacow.org/gifts) is full of inspiring ideas to suit every budget, from £5 to £1500.

Climate change is making water supplies even more uncertain for rural farmers, as weather patterns become less reliable. One way in which Send a Cow supports them is by teaching them how to build and maintain a tank to catch rainwater. “We now have enough water to irrigate our small kitchen garden,” Lontia (pictured), in Zambia, says. “Even our neighbours come to draw water when we have enough.” For £25, the charity will send the chosen recipient a greetings card and a gift pack, or an e-card, explaining this side of its work.


“MUST-HAVE” is a term overused in marketing, but World Vision’s range of “must-have gifts” are genuine essentials. It promises that every one is an item specifically requested by communities in poorer parts of the world to create a better future for their children. When you buy something from its online catalogue, your money goes into a general fund to be used . . . you’ve guessed it.

For example, £8 could cover the cost of a mosquito net or a football, while £24 might pay for a kitchen-garden starter kit, including grow-bags, compost, seeds, tools, and training. Watch the short video (musthavegifts.org) to get inspired.

Roberto Pedraza RuizA snapshot of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere, in Mexico, much of which is in private ownership. The World Land Trust is working with a local partner to bring as much acreage as possible under protection

If you want to have more control of what is actually given, Good Gifts (goodgifts.org) guarantees that, whatever you choose from its website, your money will pay for that very thing. For example, if you spend £35 on a solar cooker and water heater, that is exactly what will be delivered by one of Good Gift’s partners in Africa (probably in rural Rwanda). If you prefer your charity closer to home, £30 pays for the planting of ten metres of traditional English hedgerow.

Christmas is, of course, a time to celebrate peace. One truly distinctive range offered by Good Gifts allows you, in a loved one’s name, to help destroy weapons from a recent war zone. For £25, you can “get shot” of a pistol, a rifle, a grenade, or a sub-machine gun; for £85, you can dispose of a rocket launcher. Your loved one will be sent a light-hearted description of your gift in a card or a simple, self-assembly Christmas cracker, as you prefer.


IT HAS been reported that the earth is going through a “great extinction”. Many of the hundreds of thousands of species on the brink of disappearing for ever are unglamorous, perhaps, and even still unknown, but there are several big beasts among them. For example, the last male northern white rhino died last year in captivity, survived only by a daughter and a granddaughter. The Sumatran rhino, which has roamed this earth longer than any other living mammal, may be down to its last few dozen.

WWF offers the opportunity to “adopt an animal” on behalf of a loved one (wwf.org.uk). Make a monthly donation of £3 or more to aid its efforts to save one of 14 “iconic” species — from the bottlenose dolphin, to the jaguar or the orangutan — and WWF will send your nominated person an adoption certificate, a fact pack that includes bookmarks and stickers, and, if you choose, an optional cuddly toy “to love for ever”, it says.

Three times a year, it will also update them on the fight to save “their” species. (Note that adoption packs can take up to ten working days to arrive.)

Save the Rhino is a smaller, specialist organisation dedicated to ensuring that this “wondrous, mighty beast” is not consigned to mythology. It does not have any formal adoption scheme, but if you make a donation in someone’s name on its website (savetherhino.org), its enthusiastic team are happy to produce a certificate and put it in the post.

“The successes we have seen from the field programmes we support”, the charity’s chief executive, Cathy Dean, says, “give us hope that all five rhino species will, eventually, thrive in the wild.”

Save the Rhino InternationalWhite rhinos in Kenya

Much smaller creatures will leave a much greater gap in God’s creation if we lose them. Bees, for example, play an indispensable part in pollinating many varieties of flowers, trees, and crops. Friends of the Earth (friendsoftheearth.uk) warns that 11 species of bee have become extinct in the UK since 1900 — and a further 35 are now listed as threatened. Without these insects, “the future well-being of our children and grandchildren would be at risk,” it says.

In return for a donation of, at the very least, £5, the charity will send your loved one its “bee-saver kit”. The bundle includes a Christmas card, wrapping paper, a small packet of wildflower seeds, and all kinds of information to make a garden bee-friendly, and to identify the different species that might come to frequent it.

Tree Aid Tree Aid claims to plant a tree every 30 seconds, including the beautiful baobob

Preventing loss of habitat and, therefore, wildlife is the work of the World Land Trust, an international conservation charity that works to preserve the planet’s most biologically important and threatened habitats “acre by acre”. So far, it has funded the protection of more than 770,000 acres in countries from Bolivia to Vietnam, and for £100 you can add one more on behalf of someone (worldlandtrust.org/donate), who will be sent a personalised certificate of purchase. Watch the explanatory video made by the documentary film-maker Jeremy Là Zelle (at youtu.be/HQ_Gj7SvHWY).

Alternatively, £25 will fund the nurturing, planting, and protecting of five trees by one of the Trust’s partners on land that has been deforested. Your friend or relation will receive a certificate of appreciation.


TREES are, of course, a particular priority in the ecological emergency that the world now faces. They are the “ultimate multi-taskers”, the Woodland Trust says: they help to absorb carbon, fight flooding, reduce pollution, nurture wildlife, and make landscapes more resilient. It offers the chance to dedicate trees (£20 suggested donation), or up to a quarter of an acre from £250 (with optional benches or personalised marker post), as well as virtual gifts, including “the hedge fund”, £30, which could help plant new hedgerows in the UK, essential for protecting wildlife (woodlandtrust.org.uk).

Several other charities also offer opportunities specifically to plant or dedicate trees. Trees for Life (treesforlife.org.uk), for example, aims to “rewild” the Scottish Highlands, where it envisages revitalised forest that provides space for wildlife such as red squirrels, black grouse, capercaillies, pine martens, and golden eagles.

National Forest Company Planting trees as part of the developing National Forest in the Midlands

To dedicate a single tree at Dundreggan, near Loch Ness, and have a colourful, personalised certificate sent to your recipient, costs £19.99 (or £17.99 for an e-certificate). Extra trees are £6 each. For £30, you can even establish an “online grove”, with a webpage where friends and relations can add trees and dedications of their own.

Further south, for £15 you can dedicate a tree in the National Forest (nationalforest.org), whichis now spreading its vast canopy over a once-industrial landscape in the Midlands. Choose from oak, lime, hazel, birch, rowan, and cherry, and personalise a certificate which can be printed out (or not). For £30, you can actually plant the tree, or your recipient can do it — a friendly and enjoyable experience, the website promises — with experts on hand to give advice, and answer any questions.

Tree Aid (treeaid.org), which says that it plants a tree in Africa every 30 seconds, is asking for £10 to plant anything from a baobab to a tamarind. The charity emphasises the health benefits that people derive from these trees. For example, the tiny leaves of the moringa are rich in vitamins, protein, iron, and calcium, and can be used in food to fight malnutrition in the continent’s drylands. A Christmas card will be sent to the person you nominate (or to you, if you prefer), with an informative insert about the tree that you have paid for in their name.

Christian Aid/Faysal Ahmad Children come to a clean water pump, provided by Christian Aid in Bangladesh

If you are looking for a gift for someone who feels strongly about peace and justice in the Holy Land, Embrace the Middle East proposes that you buy an olive tree to be planted in the occupied West Bank (embraceme.org/olive-tree-project). In due course, each new tree will become an important source of income and sustenance. Even planting saplings on land at risk of confiscation can help Palestinian farmers and their families to maintain their rights to it.

Each sapling has a price tag of £15. You will receive a card you can send on, and, once the tree has been planted, the charity will send a certificate and information about the farmer on whose land the tree is growing.


Ten planet-friendly gift ideas:

  1. Savour the Advent season. Instead of going Christmas shopping, could you take time to bake or to make Christmas gifts? Involve the children or grandchildren and make some new family traditions.
  2. Give purposefully, not for the sake of it. Organise a family secret Santa, or contribute towards one big present for each member; decide as a family to all give handmade gifts, or agree to go on a hunt for well-chosen gifts from charity shops.
  3. Go for recycled. Research “recycled gifts” for websites promoting gifts made from items that would otherwise have gone into landfill. Steer away from non-recyclable plastic gifts, or things which need batteries.
  4. Buy “local”: artisan food gifts; English wine; local arts or crafts.
  5. Give experiences: perhaps a theatre token; an afternoon-tea voucher; a cinema trip; a book token; a child’s day or morning pony experience; a trip to see a musical; an online magazine subscription, etc.; or organise your own special day out.
  6. Offer your talents. Create your own “vouchers” by offering something thoughtful — to babysit, perhaps; cook a dinner-party meal for someone; rewrite a CV; dig a garden or allotment, etc.
  7. Reduce meat/one-cup consumption. Give (or ask) for vegetarian or vegan cookbooks to restock someone with new recipes. Or gift a reuseable coffee mug or water bottle.
  8. Think children and animals. How about sponsoring a child for someone through Compassion (compassionuk.org/sponsorship); or Save the Children’s work with children through their virtual gifts (shop.savethechildren.org.uk)? If your recipient loves animals, consider a donation on their behalf to an animal shelter.
  9. Buy-one-give-one schemes. If you are buying socks for someone for Christmas, consider Stand4Socks: for every pair bought, one pair is given to the homeless (stand4socks.com). Jollie’s (jolliesocks.com) does the same; you can even take out a monthly sock subscription for £10 a month. Buy a reconditioned Royal Mail postal bike from Cycle of Good (cycleofgood.com/elephant-bike). Their reconditioned “Elephant Bikes” cost £280, and each purchase provides another bike for someone in Malawi, “where owning a bike transforms lives”, Cycle of Good says. Buy a bag from Madlug (madlug.com) and another is given to a child in care (most, reportedly, transport their worldly belongings in bin bags).
  10. Get it all wrapped up. Steer clear of glossy or metallic wrapping paper; it cannot be recycled. Try old newspapers (choose a page that suits a person: like the sports page; cookery column, etc.), or even potato-print pages. Alternatively, paint or print brown paper; re-use old wrapping paper; or even wrap in fabric. Make your own tags and use Sellotape, which is made from benign plant cellulose (most other clear adhesive tapes are fossil-fuel- and chemical-based).

Christine Miles

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