By John Fischer

A thoughtful gift can be a sign of care. So giving more gifts must mean you care more, right? Well, for the planet and all the things living on it (not just the people), more stuff means more mining, drilling, refining, manufacturing, and energy consumption to use the products. 

Here are two ways to consider the environmental impact of the stuff we acquire (or give away).. A life cycle analysis looks at the environmental and energy costs of materials, manufacture, use, and disposal. The embodied energy of things is the energy it took to create them. Both of these concepts can help us more carefully choose what we buy and how we use it.

Look around the room you’re in. Look in the closet. Look in the driveway. Now consider what it took to bring all of your things to you. Making the chair I’m sitting in took energy to cut and mill the wood, assemble the chair, and transport it to my home. I’ve had the chair for 40 years. My parents got it from a thrift shop and fixed it. The chair uses no energy to operate, and could last for hundreds of years — unless fashion says it’s not a good thing to sit in after I’m gone. 

We need clothing, but for most of us, less is more. A closet full of rarely worn clothing took a lot of energy and materials to manufacture and transport. It has a high embodied energy. Washing a few outfits often takes the same energy as washing a lot of clothes occasionally because they rarely get worn. (Side note: If your clothes are not dirty, hang them up and wear them again.) Less clothing is better — unless fashion tells us our clothes are not fit to wear anymore.

Most of the energy used by a car goes into driving from place to place. Buying a more efficient car (electric is four to five times better than gasoline) will reduce life cycle emissions unless you drive very little (three cheers for you!!!). And a car can last a long time — unless fashion tells us it is not the right shape/color to drive anymore.

Your home is a great example of a shift occurring in life cycle emissions. The older, smaller, all wood, less-windowed home without a concrete foundation had a relatively low embodied energy because it didn’t take a lot to build it. But the operating costs were higher per square foot due to poor insulation, single-pane glass, and poor weatherstripping. Modern homes take as much energy to build as they do to operate for 50 years. This is partly due to increased embodied energy: Concrete, glass, steel, and the larger size all create a bigger initial footprint. But increased energy efficiency has made heating, cooling, and electricity in the home into less than half of the life cycle emissions for a 50-year time span. And 50 years should be just the beginning of the home’s useful life — unless fashion says it’s not a good thing to live in anymore. 

But let’s get back to gifts now that you have a good understanding of embodied energy, and life cycle emissions. Something that already exists is almost always better than a new product. A fun garage sale mug exemplifies “I never know what to get for Grandma” as well as a brand new one. (Pro-tip: Grandma likes something you made, like cookies, a drawing, a recorder concert . . . ) Re-giving used to be looked down on, now it is the highest honor to receive a tested, trusted appliance, lamp, or buzz saw (my kids and friends are very honored). If you have two of something that somebody needs, give them one. You could even borrow it back if yours broke (and you brought cookies). Finally, while not technically a gift, loaning out things you have (linoleum roller, tile cutter, chainsaw sharpener, utility trailer) serves the same higher purpose — fewer materials mined, less manufacturing, less transport. If nobody has what you need, rental agencies usually do. The small cost saves you more than the purchase price of a tool — it saves the environment, too.

My grandma always told me she wanted something edible or homemade, ideally both. Now that I am her age, and a grandpa, I decree it to be true.