12/15/2005 12:16 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Sustainability of 'Alternative Gifts'

'Tis the season for giving -- and, for some, avoiding conspicuous consumption.

There's a way you can accomplish both.

I'm always pleased and humbled this time of year to receive the Alternative Gifts International catalog, which is filled with opportunities to give low-cost, life-enhancing gifts to those in need -- the very basis of "sustainability."

In a world sated with gizmos, gadgets, and geegaws, AGI offers the opportunity to give simply, elegantly, and effectively. It works with reputable nonprofit agencies that aid established projects around the world. Its annual gift catalog is an education in itself. Each of the gift opportunities included features background information about the problem and how even a small contribution can make a big difference. Categories include child survival, development, disaster relief, education, hunger relief, peace/justice, medical assistance, livestock, shelter, water, and women in development.

The AGI catalog is an education by itself.

For example, one AGI gift in this year's catalog is the Medicine Box, which "provides basic medical products to treat the common ailments of approximately 1,000 adults and children for two to three months in a typical third world hospital or clinic." The value of the box is leveraged by donated medical products from pharmaceutical and supply companies, bringing the actual value of the box to more than $2000. The cost: $44 for enough medicine for 100 people; $440 will supply medicine for an entire village.

Many of the gifts support NGOs, such as Solar Cookers international, which teaches Kenyans how to build and use solar cookers for cooking food and pasteurizing water, saving precious firewood. SCI trains dozens of women to solar cook and to become solar cooker demonstrators and salespersons in village marketplaces, earning income as Africa's newest solar entrepreneurs. $15 pays for one solar cooker; $55 trains and equips one woman entrepreneur.

Many of the gifts are environmental. For just $6 you can help The Nature Conservancy protect an acre of coral reef off the Jamaican coast. The group is partnering with Pedro Bank fishers to protect their livelihoods. A first step is building a sanitation system to safeguard the health of 900 residents and nearby coral reefs. Twenty bucks helps the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund monitor and protect the gorillas and their habitat every day with the surveillance of anti poaching patrols. For $28 pays for seeds to help the American Friends Service Committee assist Haitians in the building of tree nurseries and the mass planting of the "marvelous" mango tree.

AGI screens recipients to choose those with notable records of cost-effective projects. It chooses projects that encourage development and empower poor people to help themselves, so results are long-term. It seeks matching funds, which leverages donations.

This time of year -- in fact, all year long -- there are so many worthy recipients like AGI. But AGI's catalog is a stark reminder that as we prepare our annual giving lists, the gifts we choose -- and the impact they have on both the social and natural environment -- can extend well into the future.