Richardson: The season for mindless consumerism

‘Tis the season for mindless consumerism.

I love giving gifts when they’re from the heart. But I hate giving or receiving presents if they’re things nobody needs, given out of a sense of obligation.

By Jill Richardson OtherWords columnist

By Jill Richardson
OtherWords columnist

Here’s a story that illustrates what I mean. Back in college, a friend of mine approached me and said, “I just want to give you a heads up, my new girlfriend bought you a gift.”

Uh-oh, I thought. I didn’t even get him a gift, let alone her. But without missing a beat, I replied, “Oh, that’s so sweet! Well, I got her something too.”

Now I had to get them both something.

I rushed off to Target to see what I could find. These were two people I didn’t know very well. Umm, how about a nice Christmas-scented candle for him, and some shower gel for her?

A week later, the fateful gift exchange took place. In place of the candle and shower gel I gave, I received… a candle and shower gel. I don’t know if they had any burning need for more candles and shower gel in their lives, but I sure didn’t.

From my point of view, the three of us enacted a hollow ritual: I ended up with some junk I didn’t need and the candle and shower gel industries made a few bucks. Multiply that times many millions, and that’s what happens each December.

When people find gifts that uniquely symbolize their friendship or their gratitude for one another, that’s touching. It’s what gift-giving should be.

A good gift sends a message: “I love you.” “I appreciate you.” “You matter to me.”

That’s how I felt when a friend gave me the latest book from my favorite author last year. I was overwhelmed with love. And I hope that’s how my mom felt when I gave her a carefully selected a bird feeder and seeds to attract her favorite birds (cardinals) while keeping away greedy squirrels.

A bad gift sends a message more like “I didn’t feel like putting in any effort,” or “I felt obligated to get you something.”

The end result of thoughtless gift-giving is waste. Think of all of the fruitcakes, ornaments, tchotchkes, and, yes, candles and bath products that are produced and exchanged for no good reason.

Sometimes these items are given in thoughtful and loving ways, like a panda-shaped ornament given to someone who collects panda bear trinkets, or a Christmas decoration given to someone who lives for decorating for Christmas.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are ornaments and Christmas decorations given to Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim people who don’t celebrate Christmas. (Yes, that really happens. A lot.)

Each of these items requires materials to produce, more stuff to package, and energy to ship. Plus, you spend money to buy these things to give to people who have no use for them. What a waste.

The spirit of the season is wonderful. Its mindless consumerism is not. This year, why not take back the meaning of our gift-giving tradition?

Before you give a diabetic a batch of sugary sweets, a Jew a Christmas tree ornament, or anyone else something thoughtless and unnecessary… stop. Think. And put your money to better use instead.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. 

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