The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Sustainability Spotlight: Oranges for Christmas

online shopping

From the day after Thanksgiving until the winter holidays, we find ourselves in a mad dash of buying presents for family, friends, coworkers, and everyone else in between. Realistically, the entire year is now a time for accumulating “stuff” for ourselves and others, but many companies make late November through December an open season for sales. Some start even earlier on November 11th, also known as “Singles Day.” This ‘holiday,’ spurred by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has now become the world’s largest one-day shopping event. 

These and other corporate holidays such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday have transformed the way many of us we celebrate holidays that were once centered around gratitude and spending time with family. While these elements are still present in many of our gatherings, gift-giving is not only celebrated, but expected as a key part of the festivities. 

All across the internet and on social media are blog posts providing lists of products that we “simply cannot live without.” Online shopping has become nearly effortless thanks to corporations like Amazon. Before you click that next “Place Order” button, though, just remember that by doing so, you’re supporting a multi-billion dollar company that paid $0 in federal income taxes on the nearly $11 billion of income that it earned in 2018

It’s hard to change a culture of consumerism if we continue to contribute to it, but there are ways that we can shift our focus away from “stuff” and focus on the countless other things that bring joy and utility to our lives. Going forward with our gifting, consider giving someone lessons to learn a skill they’ve always dreamed of doing or tickets to a local concert or museum that they’d enjoy. While many of these gifts still cost money, the memories associated with these experiences will last far longer than the cheap plastic toy/one-use houseware/nifty electronic device you were considering as a last-resort present. 

Better yet, donate money in someone’s name to an organization doing work that improves the lives of others. Consider giving to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Planned Parenthood, or another impactful non-profit of your choice that is working to protect human rights, ensure quality healthcare for people of all backgrounds and identities, promote stricter standards for fair labor practices, and address other humanitarian and sustainability challenges. 

In order to break away from our capitalist system in a more realistic way, consider giving someone your time. Do you know how to fix a bicycle? Do you have a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking? Where’s your favorite place to go hiking? Teach a skill or enjoy an activity with the person to whom you are “gifting” your time. That new breakfast sandwich maker may have an exorbitant price tag, but you can’t put a value on human interactions and investing in friendships. 

I will always remember my grandmother reminding me that when she was a child back in the 1920s, her annual, much-anticipated Christmas present was an orange. A piece of citrus fruit. Imagine giving a friend or loved one this as a gift and bracing yourself for their reaction. This is the power of consumerism; presents are valued by some of us based simply on price, and if it doesn’t meet our expectations, it won’t be received with as much gratitude. 

Over time, this culture has taken hold of our priorities while changing the way we think about gratitude and gift-giving. Only when we step back and evaluate our focus on consumerism can we begin to move away from these models of living and re-center our focus on expressing kindness and compassion in ways that are not grounded in materialism.