Written by Grove Collaborative

Sustainable holidays: Eco-friendly ways to decorate, shop, and give

Last Updated: December 11, 2020

Household waste increases during the holidays, due in part to decorations, gifts, and gift wrapping. Here’s how to make your holidays both festive and sustainable.

Last month, we published an epic guide entitled, Sustainable Thanksgiving: How to Throw an Eco-Friendly Feast, all about reducing food and environmental waste during America’s favorite feasting week. This month, we’re happy to report that we’re still on our sustainable holiday kick, and this time, we’re focusing on sustainable decorating, gifting, and wrapping. Think an eco-friendly holiday can’t be festive? Think again — and read on for proof!


Household waste increases by up to 25 percent in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, much of it having to do with the accoutrements of the holiday season — lavish decorations, mountains of gifts, thousands of miles of ribbon and wrapping paper. This year, reduce your holiday carbon footprint by asserting your creativity and making a few small changes to your usual routine. With this helpful guide, you can green up your holiday decorating and gifting while giving life to new traditions.




Sustainable holiday decorating

American households spend around $230 a year on holiday decorations — mostly plastics and other materials that take a heavy toll on the environment to produce and can’t be recycled. These are a handful of the worst offenders, along with sweet sustainable swaps.


Tinsel


Bah humbug! Those shimmery, silvery strands that give your tree an icy, fairy-tale finish are made from PVC and can’t be recycled. They’re also virtually impossible to disentangle from a live tree, which can pose some recycling issues.


Sustainable swap: For a touch of sparkle, hang some silver glass (not plastic) globe ornaments, or cut heavy-duty foil into circles, and glue them back-to-back along a length of cotton string for a gleaming silver garland.


Artificial greenery


Bah humbug! Fake evergreen branches and wreaths — and faux mistletoe and holly — are made from toxic, petroleum-based products that require an enormous amount of energy to produce and which can’t be recycled. Keep using what you already have by all means, but make a pact with yourself to eschew the phony greenery and deck the halls with the real deal from this year forth.


Sustainable swap: Hit your local gardening center for natural holiday greenery. Not only does it look and feel real — because it is — but there’s just nothing like the natural scent of pine to bring holiday vibes to your home. To keep the greenery fresh, cut the stems, and soak them in water overnight to fully hydrate before you decorate.


Spray snow


Bah humbug! Spray-on flocking, which you can get at your local craft store, goes on your tree and windows, mimicking freshly fallen snow. But this stuff is nowhere near as pure as snow. In fact, it typically contains solvents, propellants, flame retardants, and other toxic chemicals — and it’s very harmful to pets who eat it.


Sustainable swap: You can find dozens of recipes online to make your own, nontoxic fake snow — or you can use cotton balls, poly fill, or leftover spider webbing from Halloween.


Holiday lights


Bah humbug! According to NASA, some parts of the earth — including America’s suburbs — are up to 50 percent brighter between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. The Energy Savings Trust reckons that the amount of carbon dioxide produced by holiday lights each year could power 15,500 hot air balloons.


Sustainable swap: As your holiday string lights go kaput, replace them with LED lights, which use 90 percent less energy than conventional holiday lights. Solar-powered outdoor string lights use zero energy, but they’re not as bright as you might like. Don’t toss your old string lights in the trash — they can be recycled for their plastic, glass, and copper, but you may need to deliver them to the recycling center or find a holiday lights recycling drop box in your town.

Artificial vs. real tree: Which is more eco-friendly?

Artificial trees


Americans purchase 10 million artificial trees each year, 90 percent of which are shipped from China, adding to global carbon emissions. Most artificial trees can’t be recycled, so they end up in the landfill. If you have an artificial tree, use it for at least five years to help reduce its carbon footprint.


  • When it’s time for a new tree, donate your old one if it’s still in good shape.
  • Replace it with a high quality artificial tree that will last many years. Choose one that’s made in the USA to reduce shipping impacts.
  • Alternatively, make the switch to tree alternatives (see below).

Real trees


Around 30 million trees are harvested from tree farms each holiday season, and Christmas trees grow fast — and when one is cut down, one to three seeds are generally planted in its place. But Christmas tree farms are typically monoculture farms that rely on pesticides that can permeate into waterways and soil, meaning they generally aren't the most sustainable option if you're looking for an eco-friendly fir. Real trees typically are more eco-friendly than artificial trees, but some better alternatives are definitely cropping up — such as trees made from recycled plastic. Plus, if your holiday tree is sent to the landfill at the end of the season — as seven million trees are each year — it has a far larger carbon footprint than one that’s recycled.


  • Buy your tree from a local farmer, if possible.
  • Look for the Forest Stewardship Council’s seal of approval, showing that the tree meets green growing standards.
  • Recycle your tree at the end of the season — check for curbside pickup, or take it to a community drop-off site.

Other tree alternatives


If you're truly looking to green up your holiday greenery, consider an alternative to your traditional tree, which range from rentable to replantable to repurposing the plant life you have around the home.


  • Rent a tree — try Googling "Christmas tree rentals" for options in your area, like Rent a Living Christas Tree.
  • Buy a potted tree that you can plant after the holiday season.
  • Buy a long-lasting alternative made from sustainable materials or recycled plastic.
  • Decorate the plants you already have at home with festive lights. (Just make sure they're sturdy enough to hold up to the added weight.)

Eco-friendly tree decorations

Tree ornaments and decorations are often made of plastics and resins that have a big environmental impact. You can make your tree extra-special by trimming it with these earth-friendly adornments that won’t take a toll on the environment.


  • String traditional garlands of popcorn and cranberries.
  • Fashion a long construction paper chain.
  • Make salt-dough decorations with the kids.
  • Find things in nature to string up with a hanging wire — pinecones, shells, feathers.
  • Dry slices of lemons and oranges in the oven — they come out looking like stained glass — and loop a string through them to hang.
  • Hang origami cranes and other paper creatures.
  • String up dried red chiles — find them in the ethnic section of your grocery store.
  • Make snowflakes with twigs and hot glue — put a button or gem in the center.
  • Look around the house for odds and ends you can turn into ornaments. Think empty thread spools, buttons, mason jar lids, bottle caps, marbles, old game pieces, nuts and bolts, and other flotsam and jetsam.

Grove Tip

Shop secondhand

If your heart is set on traditional ornaments, shop the thrift stores, which have a huge selection of holiday decor this time of year — chances are, you’ll find something that’s one-of-a-kind and destined to become a holiday heirloom.

Sustainable Gifting

Stuff is fun, but do we really need more of it? The average U.S. home contains more than 300,000 items, and each year we add to each others’ household clutter, which is a major source of stress for one in four Americans. It’s also a blow to the environment when we give or receive gifts that never get used or end up in the landfill.


Gift ideas high on creativity and low on carbon footprint

  • Shop locally owned shops and boutiques to find uncommon gifts for everyone on your list.
  • Visit local vintage or antique shops for a one-of-a-kind gift — jewelry, old books, record albums, dishes, collectibles — there’s something for everyone.
  • Find a local artist collective with an online shop, and give the gift of art.
  • Give experiences instead of things — a zoo membership, an online course, a local spa certificate, a national park pass.
  • Consider a useful and practical gift that gives all year long — house cleaning or lawn mowing services, monthly massages, a local brewery or farm produce subscription box, certificates to the car wash.
  • Give children gifts that aren’t made of plastic — books, art supplies, or toys made from post-consumer recycled materials.
  • Bake up a storm, and give the gift of tasty treats.

Reduce the environmental impact of online shopping


  • If you can, opt for curbside pickup at your local store.
  • Choose shipping options that bundle multiple items together in one box.
  • Religiously recycle your cardboard boxes. If your curbside recycling service doesn’t accept the plastic packing materials, save them, and after the holidays, take them to a facility that does.
  • Consider having gifts shipped directly to the recipient instead of mailing it yourself.
  • Choose green gifts when possible — things made from recycled materials, reusable items, gifts that can be recycled or composted.

Sustainability Tip

Don't rush shipments

For every day you're willing to wait on shipping, you save the carbon emissions equivalent of 200 trees — so think twice before you opt for rush or priority shipping.

Green your holiday greetings

Americans send two billion holiday cards each year — enough to fill a football field with cards stacked ten stories high. The most eco-friendly holiday cards are of the electronic variety — but if e-cards just won’t cut it for you, here are some ways to reduce the environmental impact of this beloved, 160-year-old holiday tradition.


  • Buy cards made from recycled materials and printed with soy-based ink.
  • Buy locally if possible — see if your favorite local artists or organizations sell cards.
  • Avoid glossy cards and those with glitter or metallic coatings — they can’t be recycled.
  • Consider sending holiday postcards, and skip the envelopes.
  • Think about paring down your list — maybe send e-greetings to the tech-savvy recipients on your list and the ones you see on social media every day, and save the paper cards for your beloveds who choose a lower-tech lifestyle.

If you send a lot of holiday cards, you probably receive a lot, too. Here’s what you can do with them at the end of the season.


  • Cut out the images you like, and save them to make gift tags or decorate homemade cards or presents next year. You can also use images and words from the card for your scrapbooking projects.
  • Frame your favorite cards to make new, eco-friendly decorations for next year.
  • Cut off the front of the cards, and send them to the Recycled Card Program at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, which turns them into new cards. (Note: due to copyright laws, they can’t accept Hallmark, American Greetings, or Disney cards.)
  • Nice, thick greeting cards make fabulous little gift boxes for tiny trinkets — find a simple box-folding tutorial online.
  • Recycle cards that aren’t glossy or metallic.

Sustainable gift wrap

Americans spend around $2.6 billion on holiday gift wrap each year, and the British throw away enough wrapping paper during the holidays to circle the earth nine times. Unfortunately, many types of gift wrap can’t be recycled, so even if you put it all in the recycling bin, all that expensive, useless paper goes straight to the landfill.


How to tell if gift wrap is recyclable

Ribbons, bows, and tissue paper can’t be recycled — but you can save and reuse them. While some wrapping paper is recyclable, not all recycling mills accept it, so if you end up with gift wrap you want to recycle, check with your provider. Wrapping paper can’t be recycled if it:


  • Is laminated.
  • Contains non-paper decorations, such as glitter or plastics.
  • Has metallic gold or silver features.
  • Is too thin to have good quality fibers.
  • Has sticky tape attached to it.
  • Doesn’t pass the scrunch test — scrunch it up into a ball, and let go. If it doesn’t stay scrunched up, it can’t be recycled.
  • Ribbons, bows, and tissue paper cannot be recycled.

Keep in mind that even if your wrapping paper is recyclable or made from recycled materials, it still takes an enormous amount of resources and energy to produce, contributing to environmental pollution. So, how can you wrap up all those doodads and gewgaws while maintaining a carbon-neutral footprint? We’re so glad you asked!

Sustainable wrapping paper ideas

Wrap it in reused paper

These sustainable wrapping paper ideas are way cooler than the rolled-up stuff — and some of them are probably lying around your house right now. To make bigger sheets for large gifts, tape smaller sheets together.


  • Decorative paper shopping bags — cut them up for custom wrap, or present gifts in them as-is.
  • Old magazine pages — find something that relates to the recipient for added impact.
  • Maps — old maps you have lying around make unique, colorful gift wrapping.
  • Posters — collect all kinds of posters throughout the year from thrift stores and garage sales.
  • Your kid’s artwork — grandparents will go gaga for this one.
  • Newspaper — a classic gift wrap that never goes out of style. Go vintage or foreign language to make it extra-cool.
  • Paper grocery bags — cut them into sheets, and if you want, decorate the wrapping with cut-potato or rubber stamps, markers, or collage.
  • Sheet music — your favorite musician or music-lover will appreciate the nod.
  • Packing paper — the packing paper in your Grove box and other packages often comes in large sheets perfect for wrapping big presents. Crumple it up into a small ball, then smooth it back out for interesting texture.

Grove Sustainability Tip

Potato chip bag gift wrap hack

Potato chip bags aren’t recyclable, because the shiny, silver interior coating is made from mixed materials — usually plastic and aluminum. Instead of tossing them in the trash, wash chip bags out with a mild, natural dish detergent, and cut them into flat sheets to use for gift wrap. They’ll end up in the landfill eventually, but making them pull double duty helps to reduce their carbon footprint and makes your gifts super festive.

Green gift toppers

A little two-sided tape or a hot glue gun will work wonders as you embellish your eco-friendly gift wrap with some combination of these clever, classy alternatives to store-bought bows.


  • Twine/yarn/string you already have lying around the house.
  • Tiny paper chains.
  • Second-hand brooches or other baubles.
  • Old ribbon — iron it to straighten.
  • Evergreen sprigs.
  • Baby pine cones.
  • Cinnamon sticks.
  • Candy sticks.
  • Things you collect in nature, like berries, pretty dried leaves, or interesting sticks.
  • Bows made from scrap fabrics.

How to wrap gifts in fabric (furoshiki)

Furoshiki

Furoshiki is the traditional Japanese art of gift wrapping — more specifically, it’s the squares of fabric used to wrap and store things. Furoshiki can be big or small, depending on the size of the gift you’re wrapping. You can find numerous furoshiki folds for wrapping things of all different shapes and sizes. Turn these items into festive furoshiki:


  • Scarves — visit the thrift store to stock up.
  • Tea towels — pretty kitchen towels are great for wrapping cooking-related gifts.
  • Scrap fabric — your stash of fabric scraps, including old clothes, can net you some beautiful furoshiki.

Alternatively, try these fabric gift-wrap options:


  • The dust bags that your shoes, sheets, or Crown Royal came in.
  • A tote bag, which becomes part of the gift.
  • Old (but clean) patterned pillowcases — tie them at the top with twine or recycled ribbon.

Shop sustainable gifts


Looking for cleaning how-tos and other sustainable swaps you can make at home? Grove has you covered with our buying and cleaning guides. And let us know how if you have any sustainable gifting questions (or share your own tips using #grovehome) by following Grove Collaborative on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

If you're ready to make the switch to sustainable gifting, shop Grove Collaborative's top gifting picks for the presents your loved ones — and the planet — will love.

Shop Grove Gifts

Keep reading

Join thousands of happy customers creating a healthier home. Get started to select your free welcome set!
Claim My Offer