More of the good stuff

Mathilde Fonteneau and Abi Hurford-Abel with some home-made Christmas decorations made from...
Mathilde Fonteneau and Abi Hurford-Abel with some home-made Christmas decorations made from reused paper, and presents wrapped in discarded magazines and Furoshiki cloth. Photo: Si Williams

We can have both more of the good stuff at Christmas and less waste, writes Gina Dempster. 

Gina Dempster
Gina Dempster

Do you ever feel the pressure at Christmas just to buy, buy, buy? It can feel like we're all on a hamster wheel of consumption, when we already own more than we can ever use. With all the focus on waste reduction, lots of people have been asking how to reduce the waste (and the debt) associated with Christmas. Less waste doesn't mean less fun, in fact a waste-free Christmas can be less stressful and more enjoyable. It just takes a little bit of ... planning (Yes, sorry, I know you were hoping for something more glamorous!).

First off, of course, you can't go past the presents. There's more pressure to spend money at Christmas than any other time in the year, and it starts earlier every year. Maybe like me you're wondering how "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" has invaded your life. I did a little bit of research to find out where they came from.

Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, and since 2005, it's been the busiest shopping day in America. But why limit your shopping to one day when you can keep going? Cyber Monday is the Monday after Thanksgiving, and the name came from the boost in online sales as people got back to work and made the most of access to faster internet. Yep, all around America on Cyber Monday people are sneakily shopping at work and quickly switching tabs if someone walks past. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have spread like a consumer virus to the rest of the world, starting the drive to buy presents just that little bit earlier.

There is real joy in finding the perfect present for someone. But there's also, for me at least, the terror of last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve. Feeling the clock ticking while you run around the mall, trying to find something, anything, for that person you haven't seen for a year or two. I pretty much break into a cold sweat just thinking about it.

This week I discovered there is an economic rationale behind my Christmas Eve shopping phobia: "the deadweight loss of Christmas". The term was coined 20 years ago by Joel Waldfogel, a University of Minnesota professor whose eye for a good story was possibly wasted in economics. When he was interviewed in 2013 by PBS journalist Paul Solman, Waldfogel defined the deadweight loss of Christmas as "the waste that arises from people making choices for other people".

Abi Hurford-Abel with some beautifully wrapped presents in discarded atlas pages and sheet music,...
Abi Hurford-Abel with some beautifully wrapped presents in discarded atlas pages and sheet music, and Furoshiki cloth. Photo: Gina Dempster

Waldfogel explained: "Normally, I'll only buy myself something that costs $50 if it's worth at least $50 to me. When I go out and spend $50 on you though, [be]cause I don't know what you like and what you need, I could spend $50 and buy something that would be worth nothing to you." So the deadweight loss of Christmas is the loss in value when you give a present that the recipient doesn't actually want.

But the good news is that givers who know the recipients well (e.g., parents, friends, life partners) usually manage to buy gifts that the recipients actually wanted. It's mostly a problem, according to Waldfogel, when you have to give to someone who you feel an obligation to give to but you don't know that well.

Which is a good starting point for thinking about how to give well this Christmas. If you can buy for people you know well, your gift has a high chance of success.

Some families are cutting down the number of presents they give; choosing just to buy for the children in the extended family, or pulling a name out of the hat to decide who to give to. Giving to fewer people means you can spend a bit more on each gift, upping the chances of finding something the recipient wants but hasn't bought themselves. Another solution is gift vouchers, which Waldfogel says have exploded in popularity to an estimated one-third of holiday gift-giving spending.

But what if the tables are turned and you find yourself the recipient of an unwanted gift? You're in good company. Research released in 2015 found 71% of Australians received an unwanted gift that year, worth a total of $630 million. The best way to capture the value in those unwanted presents is to regift them.

You can resell gifts online or choose to give it to a charitable organisation or social enterprise (just saying) whose work you want to support. Don't feel bad about finding a new home for your unwanted gift, because regifting means it will end up with someone who values it, stopping the money being wasted.

Once you've found the perfect present, there's the question of how to wrap it. The average UK household uses four rolls of wrapping paper every Christmas, and 108 million rolls are thrown out every year. But there's no need to cut down trees just to wrap our presents. There are many forms of past-its-best paper to reuse which would otherwise have been thrown away: discarded sheet music, magazines, children's art (Not, of course, that you would have thrown it away, but they can be very prolific!). Or maybe you have that time-honoured drawer full of wrapping paper from past presents ready to be reused again.

The Japanese have perfected the art form of wrapping without paper, known as Furoshiki. They use squares of beautiful fabric that can be reused a multitude of times, and there are all sorts of fancy techniques you can find online. Admittedly, some of my presents have looked more lumpy than elegant, but that just makes them more interesting to poke and prod. You can pick up some gorgeous fabrics from op-shops very cheaply; it's good to keep in mind that you need a much bigger piece of fabric than you might expect.

Planning for leftovers is the best way to reduce Christmas food waste.
Planning for leftovers is the best way to reduce Christmas food waste.
And then, of course, there's the food. I love the way New Zealanders are transforming the traditional Christmas dinner into something that suits our families and guests, the season and our way of life. Whether it's a barbecue, a picnic on the beach, or a turkey next to beautiful fresh salads and new potatoes, we're forging our own Christmas food traditions.

But no matter how good the food, there are always plenty of Christmas left-overs. It's hard to find statistics about Christmas waste from New Zealand (possibly because nearly the entire country, including researchers, goes on holiday over that time) but a UK study from 2015 estimated that 4.2 million Christmas dinners were wasted, including 263,000 turkeys and 17.2 million Brussels sprouts.

The key to not throwing out all that extra food is a bit of planning (and cooking fewer Brussels sprouts). You can start now by eating as much as you can out of the fridge and freezer before Christmas, leaving more room to store left-overs.

Planning for left-overs during Christmas week is also key, after all, who wants to cook on Boxing Day, or even the day after? If/when you get sick of cold meat and salad, branch out by putting left-overs into curries, risottos or even ice-cream (the Christmas cake, not the turkey). For a great source of Kiwi recipes on how to use up Christmas left-overs, have a look at

No-one sets out to have a wasteful Christmas. And yet our default seems to have ended up becoming a big bloated Christmas, where we end up wasting money, food and stuff in an effort to show each other how much we love each other. The thing we underestimate is the value of time. The best memories we create at Christmas come from spending time together with the people that we love and doing the things together we enjoy. Whether it's cooking, playing cricket, boating, eating, talking, arguing, laughing ... whatever it is we love to do with our family and friends, that's the heart of Christmas. So this year, make the most of whatever time you have to celebrate with the people you love and leave the waste behind.

Avoiding deadweight loss at Christmas (or how not to choose bad presents)

Photo: Si Williams
Photo: Si Williams

As economist Joel Waldfogel says, less icky than giving cash but lets the recipient choose what they want. Perfect for teenagers, so long as you know their favourite stores.


Many kids toys won't even last through Christmas Day, and it's hard to explain why Santa's pressie broke the first time they played with it (believe me, I've tried). Look for robust toys that encourage creative play; and have faith that the tried and true gifts you loved best as a child are still winners; e.g., lego, bikes, toy cars, balls etc.


We all have so much stuff already that some families are choosing to only give to children or to pull a name out of a hat for each person to give to. Fewer presents means you can spend a bit more and have more shopping time to nail the perfect present.


Finding out what the recipient really wants makes it more likely your present will hit the spot. The Santa list is handy even into teenage years, so long as your kids realise early on that it's a long-list. Like the Booker Prize, it's hard to predict what will make the cut on the day.


Fun family time is the best part of Christmas, so giving experiences is a winner. It's the one time you can safely give the same gift to all the family; which can make it the quickest and easiest Christmas shopping you'll ever do.


Who doesn't love delicious things to eat and drink together? If you have a bit of time (or are just a multi-tasking high-achiever), digestible gifts can really add to the Christmas spirit: preserved lemons and home-made truffles from my sisters' kitchens are two of the best I've received (not that I'm hinting).


Less expense, more fun. Giving secret Santa gifts with a dollar limit encourages creative and hilarious present giving, especially if you like op-shopping. Suits any family where laughter is top priority.


That bolt of inspiration in July will probably have faded from your memory by busy December. Keep a list of great present ideas in your phone and it helps take the stress out of last-minute shopping.


Passing on a gift you don't love is the best way to restore value to the object. Regifting is becoming more popular: donate to a charity op-shop, resell it online or just give it to someone else (hopefully with different tastes to you).

Gina Dempster is communications officer at Wanaka Wastebusters. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.


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