Thomas J. Story

This year, skip the plastic trinkets and go for sustainable stocking stuffers

Dakota Kim  – December 10, 2019 | Updated December 16, 2019

As a country, we create 25% more trash from Thanksgiving to New Year’s— an extra 1 million tons per week compared to our usual. During this giving season, we toss wrapping paper, greeting cards, and gifts like ugly sweaters and fad trinkets into the landfill without a second thought.

Katherine Steck, a sustainable Los Angeles mom, wants folks to have second thoughts when it comes to buying those trinkets in the first place. She’s on a mission to change the way we shop for stocking stuffers—the cute and often meaningless little gifts we often purchase at dollar stores and Spencer’s Gifts.

Steck’s answer: a creative panoply of fun and toothsome little gifts, all sustainably sourced. From local craft breweries and secondhand shops to the Patagonia WornWear stores and swaps, Steck directs us to dozens of easy gift sources that don’t exploit workers or pollute the earth. 

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Garden ranger Cindy Villaseñor, who teaches kids about gardening, composting, plastic pollution, and zero-waste living at non-profit Enrich L.A., believes we shouldn’t just give to give. “We should really think about our purchases,” Villaseñor says. “It’s important to look into low-waste, sustainable, and reusable gifts, because our planet is suffering from over-consumption. I want the young children I teach to have clean air and water, to go visit the forests and desert.”

Villaseñor heads to Sustain L.A., a refillable container beauty shop in Highland Park, to scoop up zero-waste holiday gifts like a reusable silverware kit, bamboo toothbrushes, and Epsom salts. She also gets crafty by making seedling kits, personalized jars of tea, and gift cards for personal experiences.

“When the whole nation is doing these little gag gifts just to give the recipient a five-second high, it makes a big impact,” Steck reminds us. “The little plastic doodads you pick up at the dollar store are going to last 500 years in the landfill.”

“Ask yourself: ‘What can you put in stockings that is actually going to be used and needed?'” Steck says. “Then, try to avoid plastic packaging as much as possible.” (Easy tip: there are lots of sustainable wrapping paper alternatives.)

From craft beer and artisanal snacks to a color-blocked, recycled Patagonia WornWear t-shirt, here’s the best sustainable cheer for your mantelpiece this year.

Get Crafty

Villaseñor advises gift givers to get crafty on a smaller scale for stockings. She likes to make a small seedling starter kit, spooning a little soil in a jar and placing some sunflower seeds in a terra cotta pot. If she doesn’t have a container, she crafts a little pot out of newspaper and toilet paper tubes. If you don’t feel like doing the work, check out Etsy.

Make It All Personal

From tickets to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl or Palace of the Fine Arts to a certificate for free dish washings and massages, you can make your stocking stuffer personal. Create a gift certificate for a personalized Blue Apron-style food kit for the cook of the family, and mark it “Order one week in advance.” You’ll make dinner easy for him or her—no plastic packaging or ice needed!

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

Packaged foods like hot sauce, beer, chocolate, and coffee are great stocking stuffers for your family gourmand. Steck likes to slip a beer into her husband’s stocking and stash the rest in the fridge so one is cold and ready to go for him on Christmas Eve. She also thrifts cute mugs and fastens them to a pound of coffee with ribbons. Villaseñor makes tea and spice gift jars with bulk supplies from Wild Terra, where you can take your own container to pick up your purchase. Villaseñor and Steck both visit Sprouts for bulk candy like chocolate pretzels, chocolate almonds, and candy stars, pouring them in thrifted Mason jars and wrapping the jars with pretty bows. Bonus: food items take up a lot of space in the stocking.

Be Eco Chic

On apps like Poshmark and Mercari, clothes and accessories get a second chance at life. Steck loves that these sites are easy on your wallet and the earth while impressing a stylish recipient with designer brands. She also recommends checking out Patagonia Worn Wear, which sells stylish outdoorsy duds that are gently worn or made out of old stuff consumers have traded in, like this cool tee. If you decide to buy first-run apparel, check Done Good to read up on the sustainability and labor practices of the brand you’re buying. Brands like Domecil have hand-knit, plant-dyed wool socks in adult and kid sizes.

Read Up

For used books to add to your bibliophile’s stocking, check out a thrift shop or a great indie bookstore near you like San Francisco’s Green Apple Books— or go online to BetterWorldBooks or ThriftBooks, where most books are under $4.

Play Around

Steck uses Facebook Marketplace and thrift shops to find toys for her daughter’s stocking. Check out used toy and clothing stores like Chloe’s Closet and The Green Bean Toy Shop. Villaseñor advises looking for small wooden toys instead of plastic toys, since they contain fewer PVCs and dyes and will decompose more easily and leach fewer chemicals and dyes if they end up in a landfill. 

Supplement Your Stocking

Vitamins are a great small stocking stuffer, and Care/of packages theirs in compostable packs. Your gift recipient can take his or her vitamins and throw the wrapping in the community garden compost heap. With everything from maca to milk thistle, B12 to K2, they’ve got you covered on personalized packs. If you’re looking to pump up someone’s energy or gift them a good night’s sleep, try HUM‘s purpose-driven pills.

Clean Up

Steck gifts the Humble Brush, a toothbrush made of sustainable bamboo, to the entire family at Christmas. Unpaste, a zero-waste toothpaste with no plastic tube and only paper to recycle is also a good option. Villaseñor purchases colorful, gently scented bars of soap and lip balm in compostable tubes from No Tox Life.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Here’s a stocking gift that folds: swap out your single-use items like plastic wrap and foil for green alternatives. You can find wax wrappers at Trader Joe’s and Bee’s Wrap. Thrift water bottles and funny beer coozies at garage sales, or grab a cheap one at Target. Choose reusable straws and add a straw pouch to boot—they’ll fit perfectly in that stocking.

Grab an All-in-One

The REI Co-op Stocking Stuffer is perfect for little elves who want to combine a slew of the above gifts— a reusable water bottle, vitamins, chocolates, coffee—into one easy package.