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Eco Etiquette: How To Stop People From Buying You Useless 'Green' Tchotchkes

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My aunt, who has a heart of gold, has recently become impassioned about environmental issues. Seems great, right? Well unfortunately she thinks being an environmentalist means buying a lot of "eco-friendly" junk for me and the rest of the family that either really isn't environmentally friendly or that no one has any use for (recent presents have included an ugly picture frame made from a reused bike chain and a tacky recycled wine bottle wind chime). Not to mention, she ships most of this stuff halfway across the country to me. Do I say something? I'm going to her house this Thanksgiving, and I know there will be presents waiting...

-Jeremy

First off, count your blessings. Having an aunt who showers you with presents -- and conscientious ones at that -- should be the worst eco-dilemma you ever have to deal with over the holiday season. The rest of us will be fending off climate change-denying cousins at the dinner table and explaining ourselves to in-laws who tell us we're throwing our children's college fund down the toilet by shopping organic.

At least your aunt recognizes that the world has environmental problems; she's just a bit misguided as to what to do about them. In the United States, we live in a consumer-driven economy, and it's difficult to get out of that buying mentality. So we keep the same behaviors and just substitute "green" ones for the old ones. I'll get rid of my gas guzzler and buy a hybrid. I'll swap out my old T-shirts for brand-new ones made from sustainable hemp and cotton. I'll stock my pantry with organic goodies from Trader Joe's.

It's only later, once we learn more about sustainability, that most of us see the proverbial green light. The real solution lies in developing alternatives to our consumer economy: Reducing the amount of products we purchase (go for a hike with friends instead of clothes shopping) and reusing the ones we already have (get those shoes repaired!). Every product we buy has its cost to the environment, whether it's the raw materials harvested for its manufacture, the carbon cost associated with shipping it to the store, or its eventual destiny in a landfill. Not everything can be recycled indefinitely.

Americans currently comprise 5 percent of the world's population yet guzzle up nearly 25 percent of its fossil fuel resources. That 25 percent isn't just about heating our homes and powering our electronics, though surely those numbers would be smaller if we stopped building McMansions (thanks, Great Recession!) and thought twice before we snapped up the latest iPod/video game/flat-screen TV; much of that figure is about all the crap we've been conditioned to think we need to buy in order to be happy. And with an additional 2.5 billion people expected to be added to the world's population in the next 40 years, that rate of consumption simply isn't sustainable.

But you know these inconvenient truths already, which is why you cringe every time your aunt FedExes you another candy-wrapper tote bag. The question is, are the environmental repercussions of her gifts severe enough to warrant hurting her feelings, not to mention possibly dampening her new-found enthusiasm for all things eco? I say no. But there is a way to gently show her that being a steward of this planet is about more than buying "green" tchotchkes, however cleverly designed they may be.

Here's what I would do: When it comes time to bestow a present upon her over the holidays, give her an experience (e.g., a massage appointment or tickets to the theater or a homemade gift certificate that says you'll come over and organize her closet) over something that's material (e.g., a pair of mittens made from recycled soda bottles), and tell her that you read on HuffPost Green that giving experiences is the new green gift-giving. Then, a month or so after the holidays, email her The Story of Stuff. If that doesn't make her eyes pop, nothing will.

In the meantime, do your part to recycle those unwanted presents by posting them on Freecycle, donating them to Goodwill, or adding them to the neighborhood tag sale. Good luck!

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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