Green Gifts

So you got a goat for Christmas.

Well, not you specifically, but a family in an African village got a goat, thanks to a donation made in your name by your do-gooder sister as a holiday gift to you. You, however, would have been happier with a luxury goatskin handbag.

Still, you feel guilty about being disappointed, and what about those hapless African villagers? So you smile and trill, “Wonderful!” Inside, you’re peeved, on the way to seething.

Is this your family at Christmas?

Fact: The holidays can be brutal on your near and dear. The usual reasons for bickering and bad feelings — airline nightmares, frantic busyness, rampant consumerism, sky-high prices, general excess — are still there, but now there’s a potential new source of tension: agenda-driven gift-giving tied to moral, political, charitable or environmental passions.

“It’s a growing issue, but I would put it more in the category of one to stay aware of. It’s not yet a widespread problem, but it has the potential to add new complications” to already fraught relationships during the holidays, says Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute.

Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong (nor new) about charity donations in lieu of loot as a holiday gift; some of these charities, such as livestock-donating Heifer International and Christian-oriented World Vision, have been around for decades and have helped millions.

This year, the increasingly popular new twist in gifting is “green” giving: donations to environmental groups, eco-friendly apparel and house wares made of recycled materials and the like.

The choices and quality of green gifts have grown in the past few years. Thus more consumers are buying. An October survey for Conservation International, for instance, found that more Americans than ever want to give or receive green gifts this year.

“Social responsibility is hot this year as well, so everyone is trying to be less consumption-oriented and more cause-oriented,” says Amanda Freeman, a founder of VitalJuiceDaily.com, a health-and-wellness website.

Well, not everybody, she concedes; some, especially kids, “want what they want. They tell you specifically, ‘get me these sneakers,’ so they’d rather get something tangible than a donation.”

Picture a teen who really, really wants an iPhone. Instead, Aunt Sadie gets him a carbon offset from TerraPass.com. Is he happy and grateful?

He is not. He doesn’t even know what it is. (You donate in his name to fund clean energy projects to “offset” his carbon footprint, thus reducing greenhouse gases.) It’s not something you can wrap and put under the tree.

Besides, colorful Christmas wrapping paper and ribbon is wasteful and just fills up landfills, according to current green thinking. Better to use old newspapers or brown paper as wrapping paper.

You can see where a dedicated, heedless eco-warrior in the family might get on nerves.

“Not every gift has to be on a mission to change that person or to save the world,” says Peter Imburg, creator and chief “elf” at Elfster.com, an online secret-Santa gift exchange that promotes reduced holiday excess and consumption. “If you give someone something they don’t want, that’s not a very good example of giving. You should get to know them and understand them, not try to change them.”

Tempers can really start to rumble if gift-givers in a family seem to be more interested in promoting their causes than in the needs of the recipient, who might not even approve of those causes.

“I am definitely in favor of charitable gifts at the holidays, but it should be one that the recipient would support and approve of, not the one you think they should support,” says Rebecca Ligtenberg, 32, a marketing executive in Fallbrook, Calif. “A gift that shamelessly plugs your agenda is not a gift at all.”

The line between being passionate about a cause and distasteful pushiness is not always clear, which helps exacerbate the kinds of misunderstandings that can arise during holiday madness.

“It’s the thought that counts, but not everyone agrees with the specific thought,” Freeman says.

Stephanie Preble, 37, a Seattle teacher, caterer and mother of three, says her family can live without Christmas wrapping paper. They also plan to donate to Kiva.org, the online loan-giving charity, but will still keep the traditional stocking-stuffers and gifts from Santa for the kids. Balance is good; extremism is bad, she says.

“A little push is good. A gentle reminder, a bit of education, some inspiration — all good,” she says. “Foisting, on the other hand, is annoying. Anything in the extreme is annoying. There has to be a happy medium.”

When Mark Spellun, editor of Plenty, a green lifestyle and culture magazine, spent his first Thanksgiving with his in-laws-to-be last year, he offered to get an organic turkey. No thanks, he was told. At Christmas, he replaced their Christmas lights with energy-saving LED lights — surreptitiously.

This year, now that’s he’s officially part of the family, he ordered an organic turkey from a local dealer, and it was a big success. He gave his mother an organic bouquet-a-month as a Christmas gift last year; she said it was her favorite gift ever, he says.

“The holidays are about tradition. People want to do the same thing every year, so there can be conflict in even trying to make modest changes, whether it’s a recipe or a gift,” he says. “You have to be patient, and understand you may not get it all done in the first year. After all, global warming is a long-term problem.”

It should be obvious how a donation to a political cause or organization could be occasion for a real donnybrook in a family. If Junior donates to, say, the National Rifle Association in his mother’s name, and Mom is strongly anti-guns … well, that’s not going to be a merry Christmas.

But non-partisan, non-political charitable giving at Christmas is practically a tradition in the USA, and Americans are famously generous. Donations to the nation’s 400 largest charities grew by 4.3% last year, to $67.5 billion, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual Philanthropy 400 survey.

Since 1944, Heifer International, a favorite charity of such celebrities as Susan Sarandon and Bradley Whitford, has donated livestock and training to nearly 10 million families — and nearly 700,000 families in 2006 alone.

Such donations are popular, especially among people who say, “I already have too much stuff!”

“At 57 years old, I have enough stuff to last a lifetime,” says Jeanne Liston Barnes, a graphic designer in Chesterfield, Mo., who was delighted when her brother adopted a wolf for her for Christmas last year.

“I am trying to minimalize my life by giving junk away and trying not to purchase new junk. I also try to give gifts that are perishable —cookies, cakes, candy. Americans have entirely too much.”

But even the most charitably oriented person might be put off by a gift that seems to be unsuitable to the recipient. Or worse: Remember that old Seinfeld episode when cheapskate George, in lieu of gifts, said he donated to the fictitious “Human Fund” (slogan: “Money For People”). Eventually, he was found out; hilarity ensued.

“People can smell a rat,” Post says. “Even though it’s a good thing to send money to charities, (it’s not) if they only did it to save time and not because they really care about the charity.

“Giving to charity should be my choice, and giving me a charity gift card takes that choice away,” says Parissa Sai, 33, a computer programmer in Millersville, Md.

Contributing to a charity is such a personal thing, adds Jennifer Williams, 36, a yoga teacher in Chesapeake, Va. “It’s between me and the organization, not the rest of the world.”

Nickole Ketterer, 27, of Cincinnati, a Kentucky government worker, says she suspects people say they like charitably oriented gifts because “they don’t want to seem like jerks,” but they may in fact be largely unmoved by them.

“If I specifically asked for something and got a charitable donation in my name to an organization I never heard of, I would probably be a little irritated,” Ketterer says.

On the other hand, if she hadn’t made a specific request, a charity donation would be far better than “some junk I would never use and that would just collect dust.”

But there are pitfalls to this kind of giving: How to avoid family tension? Plenty magazine and the Sierra Club’s website provide little tongue-in-cheek scripts that eco-warriors can follow to slip hints into holiday dinner-table conversation with their less eco-obsessed families.

But really, all you need to do is to remember some of the things you learned in kindergarten: Use common sense, watch your manners, communicate and above all, think about the recipient first.

Hap LeCrone, 67, a clinical psychologist in Waco, Texas, who writes a newspaper column, grumbles that people today are more self-centered. He says they suffer from a form of “cultural narcissism.”

“A gift is supposed to be something that the receiver would like to have. It’s not supposed to be about the giver making a point,” he says. “But people today don’t seem to mind doing in-your-face things with pure lack of consideration of other persons’ feelings.”

The Center for the New American Dream, a 10-year-old non-profit dedicated to educating people on how to “live consciously, buy wisely, make a difference,” has sterling do-gooder credentials. Executive director Lisa Wise says there should be no conflict between “giving with our values and at recognizing the person we’re giving to.”

“When you’re giving something, make sure it’s a meaningful exchange, a gesture that will be recognized.”

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