Why You Should Choose Your Holiday Gifts Wisely This Season

December 18th 2014

Erin Greenawald

The Real Cost of a Holiday Gift

We all know holiday gifts are expensive as we sit staring at our bank accounts and trying to readjust our budgets this time of year. But what are the underlying costs—both monetary and otherwise—of you buying more stuff, perhaps stuff that people don’t really need?

Let’s say you can’t think of what to get your mom, so you decide to get her some cashmere gloves from Banana Republic that you found in their “For Her” gift guide. It’s a pretty innocuous gift—who doesn’t need gloves or wear neutral colors?—plus cashmere seems like something luxurious she might not buy for herself. Perfect for gifting, right?


But what are you really buying when you buy those gloves? What are the steps involved with getting them to your mother for the holidays? I decided to try and map it out, and was pretty shocked by the results.

The Cost of Textile Manufacturing

Let’s start at the very beginning with the textile used to make the gloves. Mass cashmere production, turns out, has a pretty big impact on the environment (a fact I was especially upset to discover as I sat writing this wrapped in one of my favorite cashmere sweaters).

Cashmere comes from the hair of a specific breed of goat, called Cashmere goats, that primarily reside in China and Mongolia. According to the National Resource Defense Council, these goats are pretty harsh on the land, especially as larger and larger herds are kept to keep up with growing worldwide demand for the soft fabric. Cashmere goats are tough on the fragile land. As a result of their resource use and grazing habits, these goats “have helped graze Chinese grasslands down to a moonscape, unleashing some of the worst dust storms on record. This in turn fuels a plume of pollution heavy enough to reach the skies over North America,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

Then you get to the actual processing of the raw material into the final product you see in stores. The big issues with the processes involved in making this happen are energy use from the factories, excessive water use, chemicals needed for processing, and waste and emissions from the factories. As you can see in the chart below, dyeing and finishing is the biggest user, so let’s focus on that.

WEC Chart

According to The Guardian, “an estimated 17 to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment and an estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which will be released into freshwater sources.” In her book, Eco-Friendly Textile Dyeing and Finishing, Melih Günay goes pretty deeply into the process, noting that 10–50% of the colorants used during processing often end up in the environment, and some of these dyes are “highly toxic and mutagenic, and also decrease light penetration and photosynthetic activity, causing oxygen deficiency and limiting downstream beneficial uses such as recreation, drinking water and irrigation.” Check out the book if you want more details, but take it from me: It’s not that exciting and involved lots of baths of water and chemicals that I had no idea ever touched my clothes—that then often end up out in the environment.

Suffice to say, entire books could be written detailing all of the environmental impacts along the way. Unknown amounts of energy and fuel are used in factories and lead to emissions. Waste is created at every step along the way. The chart below, from Gap’s Social and Environmental Responsibility report, details pretty well the general inputs and outputs from each stage of the process. In the interest of time, I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.

Gap Impact Study

The Cost of Worker Conditions

Additionally, The Gap corporation, which owns Banana Republic, has received a lot of flack in the past several years for operating factories that have less-than-ideal worker conditions.  While The Gap has released Social Responsibly reports in the past admitting to this and has taken some of the biggest steps in the industry to try and alleviate them—even terminating business with 136 factories in 2003 that exhibited some of the worst of the violations—it remains an issue that is completely solved. These are widespread issues in the textile industry and even the company itself admitted in 2004 that “few factories, if any, are in full compliance all of the time.”

And since that report was released, The Gap has been ousted for more issues with their factories; a Gap sub-contractor in New Delhi was found employing unpaid child labor in sweatshop conditions in 2007; the company was boycotted in 2009 for selling clothes manufactured in Sri Lanka, inadvertently promoting a government that has allegedly killed thousands of Tamil civilians, committing possible war-crimes in the process; the company has recently announced plans to start working in Myanmar, a region notorious for its poor labor conditions.

In the company’s latest Social and Environmental Responsibility report, it admits, in so many words, that its trying to address these issues, but is still figuring out the best possible way to do so, especially when many of the problems are larger, underlying issues with the textile industry as a whole.

The Cost of Shipping

Once those gloves are made, they have to get to you. Which, in the instance of these gloves, means getting it from Asia, to a distribution center in the states, and then either to a store or directly to your home.

Engadget reports that, last year, FedEx handled roughly 275 million packages between Thanksgiving and December 22nd and the US Postal Service said it saw a 19% increase in volume from the previous year. So all our shipping gifts adds up, meaning more planes in the air, more trucks on the road, more fossil fuels used, and more emissions in the atmosphere.

The Cost of Trash

At every stage of this process, there’s trash and waste. But we’re going to focus on the last stage—the actual giving.

This gift will be shipped to you in a box with a paper receipt and perhaps some other package, all that will get thrown away or recycled. Then you wrap the gift in more paper and ribbons and bows, all that will get thrown away or recycled in the end. And with millions of gifts bought around the world, that all adds up quickly: The EPA claims that the volume of household waste in the United States generally increases by 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day—resulting in about 1 million extra tons of trash in our landfills.

Besides all that, sanitation workers say that things like furniture, television sets, microwaves and other appliances often end up in the trash mix, as people throw them out to replace them with new things they’ve gotten. So, you get your mom some new gloves, she gets rid of the pair she already has (even though they’re perfectly nice), and the trash pile grows.

What You’re Not Buying

So when you buy these gloves, you’re not just buying a $70 piece of clothing. You’re paying for environmental harm during production, poor worker conditions, use of fossil fuels and pollution of the air during shipping, and creation of a lot of waste.

I don’t mean to just dump on The Gap or Banana Republic here—they’re hardly the only ones causing the problems, and, according to their Responsibility report, are making many efforts to try and fix them. But they’re indicators of a larger system that's troubling; variations of this tale could be told for the majority of gifts being exchanged this holiday season. Fancy electronics are made using environmentally-taxing metals and are produced in factories with pretty bad health implications. Toys produced with questionable plastics are enjoyed, but not well made so they break three months later and end up in the trash. Nice jeans are woven with genetically-modified, pesticide intensive cotton. You get the point.

What Can We Do?

I’m not trying to be all bah-humbug about the holiday season.

And I’m not saying you can possibly think through this narrative for everything you buy to make sure you’re doing as little harm as possible. Researching this one pair of cashmere gloves alone took me nearly an entire day, and I still feel like it’s incomplete. Information about sourcing, production, and the like is information that companies do their absolute best to shove under the rug.

It just hurts me to think of all the harm we may be inadvertently doing during a season that is meant to be about love and giving.

So, this year I encourage you to take all this information and—not to stop gifting—but to rethink it. Only give your family members lists of things you really need not just random things you want, and encourage them to do the same. Think if you can get your loved ones life-enhancing experiences instead of things: a month’s membership to a yoga studio, concert tickets, a dinner out at a really special restaurant. Harken back to your elementary school days and give people coupons for favors or the like. Check out The Center for the New American Dream’s SoKind registry to create a gift list that’s a little different.

You don’t have to buy your loved ones random stuff to show them how much you care about them. In fact, doing things a little differently probably shows it even more.