Seattle's Child

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sustainable holiday gifting

A quilt made of old rock band T-shirts. Even the dog likes this family's use of recycled materials for holiday gifts. Photo courtesy Cheryl Murfin

The re- re- re- approach to holiday gifting

Regift, recycle, renew, resew, repurpose, re-read . . .

Nowhere in the definition of gift — n. a thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present — do you see the words “must be new.” That’s why, for the past 15 years, the prefix “re” has factored more and more into my family’s winter holidays. Recycle. Reuse. Repurpose. Regift. Renew. Rethink.

In the face of a climate change crisis and the hyper-commercialization of the Christmas holiday in particular, we’ve tried to rewrite how we show our love during the broader season of giving. While we haven’t 100% stopped purchasing gifts (and the inevitable packaging they come with), I’d say we’re at about 75%. Part of our holiday fun is challenging each other to low- or zero-carbon footprint gifting. 

The hunt

That means in the months leading up to December, you’ll find me, my kids, and other relatives and friends making gifts out of recycled materials, searching out gently-used gifts from second-hand sources, creating art or pieces of writing for each other, or purchasing locally-made gifts and food from locally-owned businesses, artists, and artisans. 

We have one rule whether we are “re-ing” or sustainably purchasing: We commit to spending real time thinking about each person on our list as we make or hunt. In the years when my kids were largely annoyed with each other, I am convinced this rule served them and their relationship well.

Sustainable holiday gifting

Japanese rice bag purse made from recyled fabric.

So many gifts we’ve loved

Our rethinking has manifested in some great gifts, ample laughter, and much surprise over these years. Nobody wore the scarves I hacked (literally) out of old socks, but we did laugh until we cried. Here are examples of how we gift:

Repurposed: A neighbor was tossing out old fabric pieces. I took them and, in about an hour, turned them into simple Japanese rice bag purses (Komebukuro) for my daughter. Throughout the year, I scroll through the Buy Nothing Project in my neighborhood in search of free fabric or other items to upcycle into something fun and “new.” 

Recycled: For us, a perfect gently-used piece of clothing is just as welcome as a brand-new item. The fabric industry is one of the biggest industrial polluters. My son wanted a leather jacket in 11th grade. I found the perfect fit in a local second-hand store for $20 (as compared to $350 new). Seven years later, he’s still wearing it. 

Renewed: A friend found an old house window frame ($7) at Ballard Reuse and printed out four photographs to place in the frame. It’s a remarkable piece of art that makes a windowless room feel downright airy. I’m stealing this easy idea to make a piece for my mom this year.

Resewn: My son is a T-shirt junkie. Two years ago, a family member took some of his favorite old-but-too-small tees and had them quilted into one of the coolest heavy metal music-themed blankets around. It simply “Slayered’ him. The dogs love it too.

Re-read: Rather than buying new books, we wrap up and pass on books we have loved in the last year. The trick is matching the right family member to a beloved book. 

Regifted: We all receive gifts from people outside the family. If it’s not the right gift for the person who received it, it’s fair game for gifting. Schwag from events we’ve attended counts (see “Consumable”)! 

Locally-made: Last year, my daughter visited local markets, local artisans, and a locally-made store to collect largely unpackaged handmade soaps as gifts, which she wrapped in plain brown recycled paper bags with string. Perfect.

Consumable: Locally made oils, wines, and pastas make for great family dinner dates throughout the year. I walked away from The Northwest Chocolate Festival last October with a bag of freebie high-end chocolate bars that stuffed all last year’s stockings. When possible, we give food in reusable containers.

Re-wrapping: In our family, we save gift wrap. We save ribbons. We keep brown paper bags we can draw on with crayons and turn into wrapping paper. Paper is a precious commodity. Our wrapping jobs are silly, creative, and festive, and we get the job done without purchasing paper. Mostly.

Connection and service: The greatest gift we can give each other is the gift of time. Under our tree, there are usually cards that promise we’ll spend specific time together – spa passes for my daughter and me, tickets to a movie with my son, promises of help with the garden work or cleaning a car. We put redemption dates on these gifts. They aren’t just ideas; they’re promises. If you’d like a simple template for creating and printing “service” or “good for” holiday coupons, check out the one at

What we spend

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spend an average of $997.73 each at Christmas — $4,000 for a family of four. My average cost of gifting during the holiday season is about $300. for everyone. It takes time. It takes some creativity. It takes a lot of looking at charity stores, consignment shops, and online give-away lists like Buy Nothing and Freecycle. 

But it also means I spend a lot of quality time thinking about each person in my family as I choose, make, create. 

“Give back to Santa”

The other side of re-use is donation. Invite your kids to “give a gift Santa” in the form of gently used clothes and toys. At the beginning of the fall holiday season, ask your kids to choose a few items they no longer use. Pack it all into a box, wrap it up and put it under the tree. This is your child’s gift to Santa — or the community. Bring them with you when you drop off the wrapped and decorated box at the donation site so that they receive the thank you from the organization that receives their gift.

An approach that flexes

So, do we give and receive gifts that don’t follow the “re” rule? 

Sure we do. 

But when big-ticket wants come along — a drum set, a computer — everyone in the family is in on the purchase. It helps keep costs low for each of us. But, more important, it shows the person receiving a costly gift that they are held and loved by the whole family. 

More at Seattle’s Child:

On holiday giving

On giving: Gifts of light and service during Chanukah

Settle in for holiday movie nights!

Celebrating Diwali: Three gifts to strengthen bonds

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at