How to find ethical Christmas gifts for children and teens

With all the problems our planet currently faces, more and more parents are looking for Christmas gifts that have been produced ethically. But what does that actually mean? And how do you go about finding them?

My criteria for “ethical” was a) not mass-produced plastic b) not transported halfway around the world to reach Europe c) not ridiculously expensive.

Obviously, there are more issues at play than this, and if you want to delve even deeper, you might want to read the FAQs (and even email companies) for any store before shopping with them. While I was researching this, however, I uncovered a range of bigger, long-term issues with Christmas (beyond the trendy “hot topics” people are currently worrying about) that need to be considered by anyone trying to be ethical and sustainable at Christmas.

How did we get into such a mess with Christmas?

Many people think that an old-fashioned Christmas as idealized in Victorian tales is an ethical Christmas. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Victorian Empire (as it was) was built off the backs of some of the most appalling harm any group of people have ever inflicted on anyone else. The end of the Victorian era came with the Universal Suffrage movement — most working class men in Britain didn’t have the vote at this point and had no say over who controlled the country or their lives. Working safety standards were non-existent.

Friedrich Engels wrote “the condition of the working class in England” to try and convey to his native Germany just how appalling the exploitation was in Britain when he visited. Child labour still persisted throughout the Victorian era, and the “abolition of child labour” people often quote as happening in 1833, was the Factory Act 1833, which literally only banned the employment of under 9’s in factories. The second date oft-quoted, 1842, was the Mines Act 1842, which prohibited women and girls from working in mines, and boys under 10.

And that was just what the British ruling classes were doing to their own people, who they at least vaguely accepted were human. Out in the colonies, the exploitation of children and adults was even more appalling, and never protected under law (despite attempts during the interwar years of the 20th century), including in Ireland (where conditions under British rule were horrific). Thankfully Ireland was never especially industrialized so wasn’t subjected to the factories but children as young as five were still exploited as chimney sweeps to make those roaring Christmas fires happen, and used extensively in agriculture.

The British, of course, were not the only nation doing this. Central Africa is still suffering from Belgium’s despicable damage to the Congo. Parts of East Asia have been left to pick up the pieces after the French colonized “Indo-China”, including Cambodia, which might just be the most impoverished country I have ever visited. It’s funny how human rights never seem to reach the places where they would have the most impact.

My point is, a lot of the ethical problems we have today began with the behaviour of various powers during the industrial revolution, despite what smug elderly people might remember about their own childhood in the relatively safe bubble of the postwar twentieth century. You can’t just “go back to how things were” because how things were was just as bad as how they are now (but without glitter and plastic).

These problems were then exacerbated by the sickening capitalism of the cold war, during which America basically pushed people into becoming good little consumers to support the “free nation”. Buy, buy, buy. Cartoons showing characters awakening with billions of gifts. Threats of social exclusion if you’re the adult who said no to too many gifts (How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Only by giving everyone lots of trappings of capitalism could the Grinch show himself to be a good person. Never mind that he was saving everyone from excessively sickening consumerism.

That wasn’t the American way. And it’s subtly been slotted into so much media such as films, books, games, toys and TV shows that most of us have grown up not questioning this narrative. Because, even though most people on this planet don’t live in America, their rampant evangelical consumerism has bled into every country around the world and now third world nations have swathes of people desperate to go to America and be a success (i.e. someone who owns lots of stuff).

Don’t believe me? Go visit Cambodia. They hardly even use their own currency because US dollars are seen as better. Visitors are treated like bottomless cash cows ready for milking by children forced to work long hours to pull on visitors’ heart strings for a dollar per postcard. Which is NOT the going rate for postcards even in the first world. America’s need to infect the world with consumerism, to get one over on the USSR, has compounded the problem quite significantly. According to UNICEF, one in six children worldwide are victims of child labour, and I strongly disagree that any five-year-old can ever consent to this.

America has twisted the narrative from the cynical “possession is 9/10 of the law” into “owning lots and lots of useless crap makes you powerful”. Look at pretty much any modern pop music song and you’ll see it. Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings is a prime example. Our whole culture worldwide is still designed to make us believe this narrative!

People are boycotting China all the time but why does no one boycott America? Because it’s not politically correct!

Flip your thinking on Christmas!

Basically, if you want an ethical Christmas, the best way to do it is to flip your thinking away from the idea of a “traditional” Christmas completely. You may have already done this. If not, keep reading. Do I do all of these things all of the time? No. Do I live in a yurt woven from wild sheep’s wool that naturally fell from the sheep? Nope. But if everyone does exactly what they’re comfortable with, we can all make a difference instead of having an all-or-nothing mindset. So pick the things from this article that you feel comfortable doing and do those.

A note on this: Something like this isn’t going to hit the mark for your children if, after 8-12 years of Christmas being an overload of too many gifts, you suddenly change the entire format without telling them. Get your children on board by sitting them down and talking to them.

You could say something like, “You know the environment is having problems? Well we’ve decided to help it out by doing Christmas differently this year. We’re still going to have tons of fun, but not because we’ve spent loads of time unwrapping so much stuff.” You could talk through (age-appropriate) news articles or videos with them, to show them the extent of the problem.

Get them invested in this whole thing well before the big day by asking them if they have any ideas for how they might like to make Christmas more sustainable or ethical at home. They may already have done something on this at school, or talked to their friends about it, and not know how to bring it up with you!

The main thing that will make or break a sustainable, pared-down Christmas is your attitude. If you’re constantly miserable about it all, disengaged from your children and spending all day on your phone, your children will notice and feel like they’ve not had a special day. Likewise if the adults in the house are ranting about how crap it all is, children will feel like this year’s Christmas isn’t good enough.

We often use gifts as a substitute for spending time and attention on people we care about. If you take away some (or most) of the gifts, you need to replace them with the real deal – your input. This will obviously be a harder habit to unpick with older children and teens, especially if they are used to spending all day on screens. Don’t try to do too much at once.

Ditch the stocking

Children don’t need to wake up on Christmas morning to a stocking full of presents to know you love them. Half those “stocking fillers” are crap that gets discarded within minutes anyway in favour of the better gift. Children are natural foragers, and Christmas stockings teach them that when you get given something, you should occupy yourself with it only until something better comes along. Is that a life lesson I want my kids to learn? Absolutely not!

You could still put together a stocking but maybe only put one small gift inside it. Stockings don’t need to be full. The whole “Christmas stocking” thing is ridiculous, anyway. They’re not stockings, they’re giant socks that you can’t wear.

If you are going down the stocking route and don’t already have a stocking, instead of buying one of those garish polyester (i.e. plastic) stockings from the Pound Shop, you could use a long sock per child (football socks or hockey socks from the school uniform would be a good size) and put a gift in there.

Mainly, the child needs something to do when they wake up at 5am and you haven’t got up yet and aren’t planning to for a few more hours. So put something in the stocking that will keep them busy. A treasure hunt, perhaps, so they have to search the house for clues? Or a game they can play? Printing out some Christmas-themed word searches or crosswords might work for children old enough to read and write. Or cram a small book in there for them to read or a small colouring book. None of these things will use up plastic and they are cheap and easy to make at home if you want to avoid buying things.

One gift-giver = one gift

Children don’t need more than one present from each adult. One meaningful present, or one much-wanted present, that’s going to last a long time and be used often, is far better than a billion unwanted presents. In the nicest possible way, all they’re learning from those billion unwanted presents is how to grin and lie and say thank you when you don’t like a gift. Instead of looking for lots of wooden toys handmade in Austria, the waste would be less if you just bought that one plastic slide your kid has been hankering after. Think about what they really want and what it would mean to them to get it.

Avoid expensive “advent calendars”

Children don’t need a new advent calendar every year and they absolutely don’t need those big ones full of plastic junk. I am persistently horrified by the bloating that has happened to advent calendars over the years. I think I hit my limit when companies like Benefit released advent calendars with make up products in, aimed at teens and young adults. Where does all that makeup go by mid-February? The back of a drawer, never to be used again. And those calendars cost upwards of £50. What was the point?

Here’s how I did my DIY advent calendar for children (coming soon). You could make something similar or buy an unpainted wooden set of drawers ONCE, keep it year after year, and put little treats in the drawers, or activities, or riddles, or a cracker joke (you know, the jokes that adults think are awful but kids have never heard them before so find them hilarious).

An unwanted ethical gift is still a waste of resources

If your child doesn’t actually want that lovely wooden rocking horse handmade in a yurt in south Wales, they won’t play with it. If they don’t use it, it was a waste of resources. All physical objects (and data) use some environment up. That’s conservation of matter, a basic concept of physics. Don’t waste it.

Ask your child what they really want, then don’t pussyfoot around getting them something different or similar unless the thing they want is beyond your budget.

How about a no-gift gift?

We have gotten into a habit of thinking Christmas gifts need to be physical objects, due to the history outlined above, but what if you helped your child think outside the box and come up with something else they want? A meal at their favourite eatery? A trip to somewhere they love? You could write a little pretend “voucher” for this and put that in an envelope for them to open on Christmas day then plan together how you’re going to use it. Gifts are supposed to represent love and affection, not be a symbol of how much money adults can spend on children.

Shop ethically

Hopefully if you’ve reached this part, you’ve seen that buying ethically is only part of the bigger picture when it comes to achieving a more sustainable and ethical Christmas while staying true to its real meaning. As I’ve said above, I do buy a plastic toy when it’s what my kids want because it’s better to give them one valued present than a million things they don’t use.

However, if an ethical gift is what your child wants to receive, here are stores to consider buying from for your ethical, environmentally-friendly Christmas:

Traidcraft: www.traidcraftshop.co.uk

Ethical Superstore: www.ethicalsuperstore.com/

Good Gifts: https://www.goodgifts.org

These are all nice places to buy gifts, however my only concern with them is the distance these items have traveled. Companies marketing their goods primarily as fair trade rather than ecological or sustainable are generally not as concerned with the environmental cost of moving those goods from Africa or other countries to the UK and Europe. They all ensure fair pay for the people who have made the items, and that the items aren’t made by child labour, but ultimately, many of the goods are still travelling a very long distance to reach the UK.

An alternative is to look for recycled gifts:

Envirotoy: envirotoy.co.uk

Bebeco: https://www.bebeco.co.uk/100-recycled-toys-652-c.asp

Natural Baby Shower (bizarre note, despite their website URL, they’re neither based in Ireland nor do they ship here, but great if you’re in the UK): https://www.naturalbabyshower.ie/pages/dispatch-delivery

However, some of these companies are also in the habit of disguising certain aspects of their business practice which some consumers might find distasteful. For example, many of the “unique recycled toys” I’ve seen for sale in niche and mainstream stores are made by Green Toys, a US company. While their mission to turn milk bottles into recycled toys is laudable, shipping these goods to stockists and consumers worldwide isn’t necessarily very environmentally friendly.

Whether that would be a dealbreaker for you depends on how comfortable you are with these kinds of complications. At the end of the day, nearly every solution to the problem will bring a bit of carbon into your life, and some stuff (i.e. packaging) you’d rather avoid. Personally, I would buy from them if they were the right place to get what my child wanted. For example, if he wanted a fire truck for Christmas, and they sell a fire truck (they do), we’re onto a winner. But I won’t mindlessly shop with any company just for the sake of “feeling green” when the production methods, packaging, and delivery miles still have to be accounted for, whether stuff has travelled 2 miles or 2000 miles.

An even more environmentally-friendly option is to buy from local charity shops or secondhand on Facebook marketplace or Ebay (you can filter Ebay so you only find used items). The chance of finding something your child asked for might be low if it’s an on-trend item, but if you search for the item early enough in the year, you might get lucky.

Tips for snagging a secondhand Ebay bargain

It might take weeks or even months to hunt down that special something on Ebay but if you’re pragmatic and willing to regularly check the site for your item, you’ll eventually get it. Follow these tips so you never miss that bargain (article goes live on Saturday)!

Charity shopping

Finding something specific at a charity shop can be hard, but if you go in with a loose idea of what you’re looking for, you can almost certainly find something similar. For example, my husband collects Forgotten Realms books. Many of these are out of print and go for a lot of money on Amazon. These are easy to spot in a charity shop because they have a characteristic logo that’s visible on the spine and front of the book.

Another example is board games. These can often be found in the toys section of charity shops. If you have a teen who is into “proper” board games (Settlers of Catan, Hero Quest etc), you can potentially find all sorts of fantastic finds at great prices, because these are one of the few items left in charity shops where the volunteers don’t price them over the odds. Of course, the downside of buying a secondhand board game from a charity shop is that it’s unlikely to have all its pieces. Check this before wrapping the gift, then either look on Ebay for spare parts or, if it’s the tokens etc that are missing, make your own.

If your teen is hankering after something designer from a particular brand, check out your local “high-end” charity shops. Most areas have one or two charity shops with a reputation for getting designer donations. Or consider giving your teen money and taking them on a charity shopping spree (scout out which shops have the best goods ahead of time if you want to make this a streamlined experience). For suggestions on where to get designer stuff, check out my upcoming article on buying designer clothes from charity shops (article goes live on Friday).

Doing your Christmas shopping on Facebook marketplace

This is more hit-and-miss for me, because Donegal doesn’t exactly have a thriving Facebook marketplace and Facebook is an abysmal failure at showing me local items, preferring instead to randomly mix in results from Dublin (but never Derry which would obviously be infinitely easier to travel to).

What I have learned is there are a lot of sellers on there who are wary of time wasters, especially when it comes to free stuff. To avoid this, sellers list things for odd prices like €1 or £1. Sellers also expect you to mind your manners. They are much more likely to deal with you favourably if you say please/thank you. Always check where the item is before messaging the seller to save both of you lots of time and effort. If it’s further afield and you can’t collect, expect to pay full postage costs.

However, some sellers are scammers or timewasters and you need to take reasonable steps to stay safe shopping this way because it’s the least secure way of buying anything. Never give them your bank details and don’t fall for the line about “oh I’ve just moved for work/uni but I’ll post it to you”. If they’re saying that, it’s a scam and they aren’t ever going to post it to you because they basically don’t have the item. When you get there, check (in a well-lit place) that the item is what they say it is (ALWAYS OPEN THE BOX), and that you’re happy with the condition of the item. You have very few rights to redress if you get scammed in a private sale, so Facebook Marketplace is my least favourite way of sourcing secondhand items but some people swear by it.

Check out car boot sales

Some people might think this is a dated way to shop, but either buying your child something from a car boot or even taking them to one to pick their own gift could be another great way to find something for their Christmas gift. If you’re like me, you might end up buying more than you intended, though!

Same rules apply to car boots as Facebook marketplace – always open the box to check what’s inside before parting with cash.

Author: Torie Adams

I am a thirtysomething travel writer, lifestyle blogger, photographer, and USA Today bestselling author in Ireland, aka Mama Adventure. As a writer, I have written articles that are published in Offbeat Bride and on Buzzfeed, and as a photographer, I have taken photographs that are published in local and national news outlets in the UK. I have a blog at www.mamaadventure.com Twitter: @mamaadventurez

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