the challenge of accepting gifts

You would think that giving and accepting gifts is just a natural thing and that everyone is happy and grateful when they receive and give gifts.  It has just become such a huge part of our society.  We give gifts on special occasions, like birthdays, or other holidays like Christmas, or made-up holidays like Valentine’s Day.  We give gifts sometimes ‘just because’ to show others we appreciate them.  But does it always have to be stuff?

The act of giving a gift I have nearly perfected (in my eyes).  I shop or create with waste in mind, and try to make or purchase something that the person will use; not something that will stand around unnecessarily collecting dust, and also not something that will create a large amount of garbage.  For holidays or other occasions I have made food gifts, like cookies in a jar, or body care products like homemade lip balm or sugar scrub.

Mint sugar scrub

I’m a teacher.  For two years I taught at a middle school; at this age, kids do not give gifts to teachers, nor do parents feel obligated to gift something.  I was happy about this because I do not need anything.  Some positive comments or cards from kids made me beyond grateful and happy, and one student gave me a cactus, which I still have today!

This year though I taught in an elementary school and gifts were just a part of the school culture.  This was difficult for me, as I cannot push my zero-waste passions aside just to accept or give a gift.  I had to really think about the kind of gift I would want to receive as a parent, say for mother’s day or Christmas, that are typically made at school.  So for Christmas, the students made salt dough ornaments.  For Mother’s day, since May is a beautiful time to grow things, we grew a class set of tomato seedlings, and created a flower pot out of twigs.  For Father’s day, I bulk shopped various spices, and we mixed together a steak rub at school; the students handmade their own “gift bags” after learning a paper folding method.

Salt dough ornament
Tomatoes everywhere!
Tying twigs together to form a flower pot
Steak rub ingredients: coriander, mustard seed, rosemary, course salt, pepper, thyme, chili flakes, dehydrated onion, dehydrated garlic

These were gifts the families could use, and hopefully they appreciated that more than a craft that would sit around for a while and later either be put in a box or thrown out.  I am not saying what their kids craft at school is pointless – I just wanted to take a different approach and the students had a lot of fun with it.

Accepting gifts is a-whole-nother story.  I am sure a lot of people both agree and disagree with my perspective on accepting gifts.  Some people may even call me ungrateful, but gratitude is not the problem.  I am very grateful whenever someone thinks of me and shows me in whatever way they want to show me that.  But, like I said, I cannot ignore my environmental brain, and always wish I would receive zero gifts.

It was overwhelming how many gifts I received at the end of the school year this week; beautiful and sweet items, and I loved them all.  But.  Each one in their own individual gift bag with tissue paper.  As I was sorting through these at home I realized just how much garbage I had created; tags and the plastic that holds them to the item, unrecyclable paper and bags, unrecyclable package boxes, plastic gift cards, etc.  Half of me was grateful and beyond appreciative for the gesture from the kids and their families – the other half just thought about the impact to the planet.

It is one thing to notify your friends and family about giving gifts and avoiding packaging; they know you and most of them will accept your lifestyle and wishes and try to abide (with exceptions – I would never expect my 90 year old grandmother to adapt to me, and I’ve tried asking for no gifts, but clearly that’s not going to happen).  From close loved ones you also expect there will be less judgment from your requests; for my bridal shower two years ago, my friends were amazing – the theme was eco-friendly, and many brought homemade food gifts, and one even brought a beautiful basket full of veggies from her garden.

Food gifts are amazing.

However, in a professional setting, it is beyond difficult to state “No gifts” or “Eco-friendly gifts” with fear of others responding with, “Who the hell does she think she is?”  Sure, I could be like, HUMBUG, who cares – this my style and you better accept!  But that’s not me at all.

So my question to you in my green online community is… HOW do you deal with this?  How do you accept gifts, refuse gifts, give gifts?  How do you do this in a respectful way without being too preachy, etc?



  1. Great post, Nadine! Yes, this is an interesting dilemma, especially when working in elementary! It has been a bit of a different experience working in the community I do where people are more often thinking green. One of the most meaningful gifts I received was when a group of students went together and bought me a gift certificate to buy a tree for our new property so that I could have my own “special spot”. I think promoting caring for the environment throughout the year in your classroom goes a long way. Doing things like you say for holidays, showing students how they can make things with zero waste and/or the environment in mind gets them thinking more about it outside of the classroom. We also did a lot of baking throughout the year for various projects and activities, so many of the gifts I received were homemade food in reusable containers (or the fresh juice in glass bottles that they know I LOVE haha). One year someone wrapped homemade cookies in small squares of fabric that I could use as napkins after! I also make a point of gently opening bags and folding up tissue and gift bags afterwards to show that I will reuse them, and I do. One of our projects at the beginning of the year is sewing our own book bags (this year we asked students to bring in an old tshirt to turn into a bag), and at other times when we are using bags to collect nature things, we make a point of having a stash of cloth bags or ask students to bring in their own cloth bags to use since plastic rips. Again, I know it’s the culture of where I am teaching but I think the kids also think of it more because we are constantly doing and modelling eco-friendly ways.


  2. As I hit post I also just remembered that I heard one teacher at our neighbouring school asked for no gifts and suggested a charity that could be donated to that bought school supplies for children if anyone really wanted to do something instead of a gift. I have heard of people doing this (not just teachers) at Christmas too instead of buying gifts they will donate in someone’s name or ask people to do so instead of buying gifts. Just another thought!


    • Thanks for your replies! This is a great idea too. I tried to model ecofriendly throughout the year. We did many projects and had many discussions around waste and how we can do better. This was an ongoing theme for us throughout the year – we even won Wasteless Wednesdays at the end of the year for producing the least amount of waste! I’m not sure how to handle gifts in the future, but the charity idea sounds great. If you worded it properly I’m sure some parents would be grateful to know not to get a gift? I mean, that’s gotta be just an extra thing on their already never ending list!


  3. This is such a hard one – as a small family we give few gifts anyway and as the boys are getting older these are more likely to be things like trips to see sporting events etc. When I buy actual gifts I try to go waste free but know that sometimes this has to go out of the window. One of my boys wanted bluetooth head phones so he could use them more easily when running and training and they all came with masses of plastic wrapping. But I decided in this instance that it was better to give him what he wanted to help with his training and thus his overall health than say no because of the plastic wrapping. And your ideas for gifts from the children are great (Did you explain the waste free side if it to them?). I loved to receive the gifts the boys had made when they were little as they were so proud that they had created them themselves but they are all now gathering dust and the wrapping added to the waste. Had only you been their teacher 😉 #WasteLessWednesday


    • Haha your last statement was very sweet! We have our first child on the way, and I am already thinking of ways to avoid creating an environment of gift giving because I think experience gifts are so much more valuable. However, in events like the bluetooth headphones, sometimes I suppose it just has to be done. I did explain about waste free with the gifts we made at school; this was an ongoing theme anyway throughout the year and I always showed them ways I avoid plastics especially. It’s hard though to get parents on board sometimes! Especially when such a lifestyle might even seem absurd to them. Thanks for commenting 🙂


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