A more sustainable holiday

Get ideas for right-sizing Christmas ― and enjoying the real spirit of giving

Allison Arieff

Trying to have an environmentally friendly holiday is a bit like serving Tofurky in Texas. Your enthusiasm for soy may spur your guests to scramble for steak, and merely expressing a desire to put limits on gift giving may make your family think you’re a Scrooge.

But after learning, among other disturbing statistics, that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day generate 3 billion extra tons of garbage annually, I resolved not to sit back in silence and watch the packing peanuts pile up. This year, I’m hoping to pull off a simpler and more sustainable holiday.

But where to start? I took a cue from market researchers and sought out what they refer to as an “extreme user.” And that’s how I discovered John Perry and The Compact.

Though it may sound like the title of a John Grisham novel, the Compact started as a group of 10 friends in San Francisco who made a vow not to buy anything new, except for food and health- and safety-related things like medicine, toothpaste, and toilet paper. (The movement has inspired similar groups throughout the country and even as far away as Japan and New Zealand.)

The Compact began over dinner one night just before Christmas in 2005, when Perry and friends began talking about recycling and how it really didn’t address the root cause of climate change―consumption.

The friends then posed a challenge to one another. “We decided, ‘Let’s not just recycle. Let’s reduce and reuse,’ ” Perry tells me. “We vowed to go a year without buying anything new.”

Three years later, that initial challenge has turned into a way of life. Perry and his fellow Compacters say it has transformed them for the better, allowing them not just to save money but also to focus on their families. Still, I was curious about how Perry navigates the holiday season, when the shopping frenzy reaches its peak.

“Our kids know not to expect a lot of stuff,” Perry explains. During the holidays, he and his partner, Rob Picciotto, and their two young children don’t shop. They either make stuff for friends and family (“We bake a lot of bread,” says Perry), or contribute donations through organizations like Heifer International and Seva Foundation. The couple does buy secondhand toys for the kids, and plans special outings (like ice cream on a school night, or an afternoon hike) in lieu of gifts.

Decorating is a snap because, as Perry says, “Nothing is as accessible as secondhand holiday stuff, especially in the off-season. We got a 12-foot artificial tree off the ‘free’ section on Craigslist. A guy gave it away in July, complete with boxes of brand-new ornaments. Next,” he says jokingly, “I’m looking for a yard-size menorah.”

Next: A sense of relief