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Christmas upside down: How to slow down & consume less

Anna & Polly Anna & Polly 13 Dec 2021 Christmas upside down: How to slow down & consume less

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Christmas is almost here! Just a couple of days and nights and… – did reading this stress you out a bit? Has your mind already jumped to the baking, decorating, and all the gifts you are still planning to buy? It may be the most wonderful time, but also the most hectic time of the year. But does it have to be like this?

Actually, no. Christmas doesn't have to be about buying piles of presents that our loved ones might not even need. But how do we slow down when we’re stressed about buying the right gifts and outfits? Is it even possible to consume less this time of year when everything around us screams 'buy me now!'? In short: can we turn Christmas upside down?

You got some good questions, there! ?? Luckily, we sat down with three wonderful women (Aja Barber, Chanel Trapman and Elke Rabé, aka ‘the Christmas spirits’) who shared their experiences with a more sustainable holiday season. And by more sustainable, we mean both for the planet and your own well-being.

In this article:

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Behing a very cute and innocent-looking dog, there is a fainted Christmas tree

Gosh, don’t you just hate it when that happens?

Elke Rabé: Instead of buying a new product, give a ‘present present’

Elke Rabé (40) is co-founder of Present Present, an initiative to give presents mindfully and with attentiveness, instead of buying a new item or product.

Can you tell us something about the idea behind Present Present?

“Every year we give each other millions of gifts. Most gifts are newly bought, even though we already have so much stuff. And most of them are produced elsewhere in the world, using resources and damaging nature.

By giving and asking ‘a present present’, something that’s already here, we can prevent this. We have enough stuff already. It’s our goal to replace 100.000 newly bought gifts this year.

On our website, we keep track of how many gifts have been replaced by a ‘present present’: which can be something handmade, a donation to a charity or an experience. As long as it’s not something ‘new’.

Of course, we can never be sure about the exact number of people doing it, but it's about the movement we’re trying to create. We want to change the way people think about gifts.”

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Toy Story meme: 'Wrapping paper, wrapping paper everywhere

The horror in Woody’s eyes when he sees all that wrapping paper going to waste (Toy Story, 1995)

What is your personal favourite present present?

“What I like best to give and receive is a long walk with a picnic. Some people thought that was strange at first, but in the end, they all liked it and now want to 'give' it to others, as well.

Sure, you need to make time for it, but that is also the power of the gift. People are ‘forced’ to make free time for themselves. And talking while walking really yields a different conversation.” 

Christmas tips on gifts from Present Present:

  • A gift that's already there. A great find from a thrift store or a swap meet or anything that’s otherwise second-hand. Or give something from your own collection of items.
  • An experience gift. Tickets for a concert, workshop or museum. Make a voucher with a day programme or an activity gift card. Present Present sells beautiful voucher cards and DIY packages.
  • A custom-made gift. A homemade delicacy or flowers you have picked yourself. Make boxes with memories or photo poetry. Give plant cuttings, mini paintings and sculptures.
  • A gift from the world. Donate to charity, give a microcredit or plant a tree. Give a bag of bee and flower seeds.

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Present Present green logo

Present Present aims to replace 100.000 newly bought gifts this year

Chanel Trapman on the temptations to consume more during Christmas

Chanel Trapman (28) founder of Mumster, a conscious campaign agency for a more sustainable fashion industry

Chanel, you have a 9-year-old son. Do you think it’s difficult for kids to understand if their parents are buying fewer or different gifts this Christmas?

“Presents are given out of love and the intentions are good. That’s what makes it a delicate issue. Relatives want to shower the children with gifts.

In my family, we have agreed that my son will receive one ‘big’ gift that he really wants. My son is used to that, so he only asks for one specific thing. Kids are totally okay with this.”

How about yourself? Is conscious consuming a challenge for you this time of year?

“During the holiday season, most of us are overwhelmed with a kind of joy and the urge to go out of our way for special food and clothes. We’re like: 'Fuck it, I just want to have this.'

This is also due to social media and advertisements: you see full and festive tables everywhere and everyone looks beautiful.

This increases the chance that you will buy something very exuberant, something you’re not going to wear to pick up the kids from school the next week. That's really just a waste of money and resources.

And these are the clothes that are often impossible to recycle because of all the glitters and sequins.”

It can’t be an ugly sweater if you’re the one wearing it babe! Illustration by Maritsa Patrinos

“I’m celebrating Christmas Eve with friends this year and we all decided to put on an outfit that suits the dish. Yes, that was my idea, haha! Now I have to resist the temptation to buy a funny suit at the party store.

The challenge is: how am I going to do this with the clothes I already have? This is the perfect time to go all out and get creative with the clothes I already have.”

Suppose I really want to wear a new piece of clothing for the holidays, perhaps because I no longer have the same size as the previous years and therefore have nothing suitable to wear. How can I still make a more sustainable choice?

“Don't buy new clothes, especially not for one occasion. Try to borrow something from a friend or go to a rental store. Or maybe you can swap something! Buy second-hand clothing from a nice local vintage shop or use an app. There are many options.”

Christmas tips from Chanel:

  • When it comes to clothes and decorations: use what you already have, you have more at home than you think.
  • Presents: give something of which you are sure the other person can use well and often.

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photo of Chanel Trapman

Chanel Trapman, photo credits Laura van der Spek

“Is this making us all happy?” a conversation with Aja Barber

Aja Barber, the author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change, a must-read book if like us, you're curious about the link between the fashion industry and colonialism, climate change and consumerism.

We’ve hardly recovered from Black Friday and another wave of advertisement is crashing down on us already. This pressure to constantly buy new stuff must have an impact on us.

“It's this message that is not just displayed on your TV, your phone, but also when you go out. One day, I went out in London and I was trying to count all the advertisements I saw. I kind of gave up after like a hundred, I just lost track of it.

Advertisement towards consumerism is so embedded into our society that we don't even notice all the places it's embedded in.

The message tells people: 'It's the holidays, it's about family, but it's also about spending all the money you have on buying people things that they might not need'. And that's the part of the message we need to get away from. Because it is not good for us.

On Christmas day, tons and tons of waste go into landfill – plastic waste in particular. I just think, is this making us all happy? Is it adding anything except for credit card debt?”

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The (very small) list of people I'm shopping for this Christmas – Community meme

Hmm, there are only two letters written: ‘m’ and ‘e’. Who could it be?! (Community)

“It starts on Black Friday – a day to buy things that you didn't really need or want. Actually, many consumer goods are created specifically for Black Friday to be sold at the price point that they are being sold at but to be advertised to you as a sale.”

Reading tips:

What would you suggest instead of giving newly bought presents?

“Can I remember the presents that I've gotten throughout the years when I've gotten plenty of presents? No, I remember only a few things that stayed with me for years and years.

When I call my niece and nephew they never really talk to me about stuff. They talk about the things that we did the last time we were together. I took them ice skating with my partner – gosh, we hate ice skating – but they really wanted to go. And they still laugh about that because we were all just a mess.

I don't think that anybody is like 'every gift I got for Christmas was so important'. We do think about the memories. And I think it is important to get back to that and the idea that Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa isn't about piles and piles of presents. It really isn't.”

Christmas trivia from the experts:

What is the best (Christmas) gift you’ve ever received?

Chanel: My son. I didn’t know I was pregnant so that was a real surprise.
Aja: When I was fourteen, my mum got me a pair of Doc Martens. I didn't think I was going to get them, because they were pricey at the time. And till this day – because I still have the shoes today – my mum says it was the best 95 dollars she’s ever spent.

What is the worst (Christmas) gift you’ve ever received?

Chanel: Thongs, bought by my grandmother. I can’t refuse, so I wear them. But the prints are a bit tacky.
Aja: Religious presents from relatives – when you are not religious. Also, one toy I asked for that had been advertised so heavily on Saturday morning cartoons. I got it and it broke on the same day. I remember feeling like 'that's a scam'.

What is your favourite Christmas song?

Chanel: I'm ashamed, but I think it's All I Want for Christmas by Mariah Carey. This song gives me the ultimate Christmas feeling and I unconsciously sing it out loud throughout December, which drives my partner and child completely wild, haha.
Aja: I like Carol Of The Bells but the version done by The Bird and the Bee. It is really pretty.


Our guess is that you’ve already heard All I Want for Christmas a couple of times, but you shouldn’t miss out on this song either. We only discovered this version thanks to Aja too, so no need to feel embarrassed!

Many people buy new clothes for the holidays to look a bit different and festive. In your book Consumed, you also mention that clothes have become a disposable product. Could you tell us a bit more about this issue?

“That's obviously year-round – it is larger than the holiday season. The holiday season is just when we really embark on our consumerism up to eleven.

The price and the quality of clothing have been going down for years. And with the popularity of social media, there is this idea that you constantly need to be buying new clothing, which makes it feel like all of our clothing is disposable.

I remember participating in fast fashion and feeling kind of exhausted by the idea of needing to buy new clothing for the summer, when the things that I had from the last summer were equally as good. But still, I was feeling the pressure to get into stores and get something new. It's just sad – but that's what our society tells us.”

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'Dashing through the' – grumpy cat in a Christmas decoration – 'no'.

Grumpy cat can’t wait for the festivities to begin!

Recently, you shared on Instagram your experience with finding the courage to wear the same outfit twice. It's difficult, isn't it?

“I struggled with that my entire life, and part of that comes from childhood. I remember somebody asking me if my family was poor because I wore the same outfit twice in one week.

It made me feel a deep sense of shame and I never want someone to ask me that again. But I had to sort of grapple with that and tell myself 'you're an adult, these things can't hurt you anymore.'

I recently did two book events and I wore the same outfit both evenings. And I felt free. It was an amazing feeling.”

Christmas tips from Aja:

  • Don't buy people things unless you're sure that this is something they can use, need or want

“We have to limit the excessiveness that's happening in our society. If there were ever a holiday season to really scale back, it would be this one. Especially with the supply chain issues that we are currently seeing.”

  • Give babies trash for Christmas

“This also applies to cats – my cats have never met a cardboard box that they haven't fallen in love with.

I know that people want to buy a lot of stuff for babies, but they are just as happy with a plastic bottle full of beans or pasta that makes a lot of noise. I think that the allure with babies is that they are so tiny and cute and it's fun to buy cute things. But babies wear outfits once and then they outgrow them.”

What are some Christmas plans that you're looking forward to?

“I haven't seen much of my family for two years, so I am just looking forward to spending time with them. And maybe I will take my niece to the spa because we tend to do that – it's all about the experiences, honestly. And also, I don't feel like shopping this year. I don't think anybody really does. So…let's just not.”

Aja Barber, photo credits dvoraphoto

Stay in touch with the experts

Did you know that learning from these wonderful experts doesn’t have to be just a Christmas thing? So, stay in touch with them throughout the year. We do – and we can’t recommend it enough.


Reading tip, in case you can't get enough of Christmas content:

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Merry Christmas to you!

Have a wonderful, relaxed and sustainable Christmas, everyone!