Going evergreen for the holidays

Chang is a Times staff writer.

Dreaming of a green Christmas?

From biodegradable greeting cards to solar-powered Santa decorations, consumers have countless ways to celebrate an eco-friendly holiday season this year.

And in this tight economy, here’s some good news: Going green doesn’t mean having to spend a lot of it.

“It’s a massive misconception,” said Sophie Uliano, a Los Angeles author who wrote “Gorgeously Green: 8 Simple Steps to an Earth-Friendly Life.” “People think solar panels, hybrid cars, organic jeans and very expensive skin care. But that doesn’t have to be the case.”


The holiday shopping season officially started Friday with the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving sales. This year, an eco-friendly Christmas is on consumers’ minds -- along with an uncertain economic situation.

Many say they will shop less and cut their holiday budgets by hundreds of dollars. So in addition to slashing prices and extending store hours, retailers are boosting their selection of green products this year to attract shoppers.

“The outlook is not for a great Christmas season,” said Richard Giss, a partner in accounting firm Deloitte & Touche’s consumer business division in Los Angeles. “All retailers are looking for some edge. If they can be seen as the eco-friendly retailer, that will help them.”

In Deloitte’s annual holiday survey this year, nearly half of consumers said they were willing to pay more for green gifts, despite the bad economy, and one in five said they would purchase more eco-friendly products this holiday season than in the past.

“People are starting to become sensitized in ways that they previously weren’t to green issues,” Giss said. “It’s very hard to argue that you shouldn’t do the right thing, and more and more people are accepting this as the right thing to do.”

Whether you have already adopted an environmentally friendly lifestyle or are just starting out by recycling here and there, here are cost-conscious ways to green your holidays with something besides pine branches.


Green gifts

Finding an affordable, eco-friendly gift is easier than you might think. These days, brick-and-mortar stores and online merchants carry a wide selection of green products such as bamboo fiber bathrobes and stuffed animals made from recycled sweaters.

At Kellygreen Design + Home, a specialty store in Silver Lake, owner Kelly Van Patter said environmentally minded holiday shoppers have purchased the store’s reusable water bottles, 100% recycled paper goods and eco-friendly bath products as gifts.

“The most popular items are functional, for people who are trying to focus on giving gifts that are low-impact,” Van Patter said. “A lot of the items are handmade and made from recycled things, so they’re not mass-produced.”

And your choices aren’t limited to small boutiques and eco-friendly websites. Big-name retailers, such as Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., also are highlighting green items on their shelves and on the Web.

One of the most useful and cost-conscious gifts is a reusable shopping bag roomy enough to fit groceries and household items. Many stores encourage consumers to use these tote bags, which eliminate the need for paper or plastic at the checkout line.

“It bothers me to think we’re hurting the environment and all we have to do is bring a bag to the store to reduce that impact,” said Aynsley Amidei, co-founder of Chicago-based Goody Green Bag, which sells reusable totes for $8.95. “When I go to Macy’s or anywhere, I don’t use their bags anymore, so I’m saving them money. It’s a whole change of thinking.”


Another option is to buy a present that doesn’t involve a lot of packaging.

Ethan Schreiber, a composer from the Hollywood Hills, said he tried to eliminate waste by not buying “material goods” as gifts.

“Rather than buying people things, I buy them experiences” such as gift cards to restaurants and concert tickets, said Schreiber, 31. “It makes me feel better.”

Experts say the ultimate feel-good gift is a donation in your giftee’s name to an eco-friendly charity or a park or zoo.

If the person you’re buying for is an animal lover, the World Wildlife Fund offers “symbolic adoptions” of more than 90 species, including polar bears and dolphins. A $25 adoption comes with a species spotlight card, a certificate and a photo of the animal you chose.

Holiday cards

If you feel guilty about the mountain of glittery wrapping paper and holiday cards that goes straight into the trash after Christmas, there are a number of creative and easy do-it-yourself options.

Try looking around the house for material that could be used instead of gift wrap, such as extra fabric, old maps and glossy magazine ads.


“The message we’re trying to get out this year is save money on the wrap and make that yourself so you can spend money wisely on the gift,” said Paul McRandle, deputy editor of National Geographic’s Green Guide publication.

Still others opt for a completely bare-bones approach.

“The buzzwords here are don’t wrap the package,” said Giss, the Deloitte analyst. “Leave it in the box and if you want, decorate the box.”

Not feeling particularly artistic? Many stores sell wrapping and holiday cards made from 100% recycled paper.

Green Field Paper Co., based in San Diego, produces handmade cards from recycled paper, including cards made from hemp and junk mail.

One of the company’s most popular holiday items is its handmade “Grow-a-Note” greeting cards, which are embedded with wildflower seeds. Once you’re done enjoying your card, you can rip it into pieces and plant it in the ground.

A box of four cards sells for about $15 and can be found at specialty retailers around Los Angeles.


“The beauty of that is, especially toward the holidays, you’re giving a gift as well,” co-owner Shari Smith said. But “when you do plant it, make sure there’s no information you need on that card.”

And although they aren’t as personal as handwritten notes, e-cards don’t use paper -- recycled or not -- and are usually free.

Tree and lights?

It turns out that experts are divided on the long-standing question of whether to buy a fresh-cut live tree or a plastic one.

Many don’t approve of buying fresh trees, which are grown for years -- often with the aid of pesticides -- before being cut down and shipped thousands of miles to Christmas tree lots.

Once the holidays are over, the trees are tossed to the curb and often wind up in a landfill.

But before turning around and picking up an artificial tree, consider this: Many fake trees are made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which can contain harmful chemicals. And even though you’ll probably use the tree for years, eventually it will have to be thrown away.


“Christmas trees in general are just bad news,” said Damien Somerset, a Hollywood new media producer and environmentalist. “If you can, I would say avoid a tree -- of any kind.”

But for many Americans, a tree is a must-have Christmas tradition.

So when shopping for that perfect fresh-cut tree, consumers should ask where the trees came from and whether pesticides were used to help them grow, said McRandle of Green Guide.

“A third option that is even better but requires a little more work is to get a live tree in a pot, take that home and put your lights and your ornaments on it,” he said. “The idea is after Christmas, you just plant it in your yard. That would be probably the greenest option.”

To brighten your tree, green website sells ornaments made from old record labels, wood Scrabble tiles and tea bags.

If you’re into crafts, many designs can be replicated with knickknacks from around the house, a glue gun and string.

To reduce your energy use, McRandle recommends using LED lights instead of traditional incandescent ones. Also keep an eye out for items featuring an “Energy Star” label, which identifies energy-efficient products.


After you hang your Christmas lights, make sure to set them on a timer and turn them off during the day and when you go to sleep at night.

Cooking green

When buying ingredients for that home-cooked holiday feast, take advantage of the many farmers markets in the area.

Besides being fresher, produce sold at farmers markets is grown locally instead of potentially thousands of miles away. That reduces the amount of fuel it takes for your meal to make its way to your dinner table.

For the same reasons, pay attention to buying produce that is at its peak in your area.

In December, agriculture experts say, foods that are in season in Southern California include apples, artichokes, beets, corn, potatoes, winter squash and yams.

“Buying locally and in season helps support the farmers and food network in your region,” McRandle said. “This has a lot of benefits.”

Don’t have time to peruse the farmers market or grocery store for the freshest ingredients?


Auntie Em’s, a restaurant in Eagle Rock, recently began an organic produce and meal delivery service.

“Instead of all these cars driving to the farmers market, driving to the restaurant, I have one van that brings everything to them in one swoop,” owner Terri Wahl said.

For $62, the restaurant will deliver a box of 15 to 20 seasonal fruits and vegetables to your home -- enough to feed a family of four for a week, Wahl said.

You can also order prepared dinners, such as an organic roasted vegetable lasagna that serves six for $30 or a quart of chicken soup with vegetables for $9.

Another eco-friendly restaurant, M Cafe de Chaya in Los Angeles and Culver City, offers both regular and holiday catering menus.

Items can be chosen a la carte, so you can set a budget and stick to it.

Catering manager Melissa Melcombe says M Cafe encourages “a cleaner way of eating” and prepares all of its dishes without using dairy products or meat, except seafood.


“It kind of goes hand in hand -- eating green and being green,” Melcombe said. “Overall, you just feel better about yourself.”

No matter how green you go this holiday season, experts say one of the most important things you can do is become a well-informed consumer. So don’t feel shy about asking where and how products were made.

“Every product has a story behind it, and it’s important that you think about that when you purchase things,” said Kellygreen’s Van Patter. “The whole reason I started this is because I felt like a lot of people want to consume with a conscience.”




Wrapping it up

Every holiday season, carefully gift-wrapped goodies turn into not just great presents but also huge wads of shiny wrapping paper, tangled ribbons, bulky boxes and whatever else ended up on the carpet. If you feel guilty about the mountain of pricey gift wrap that goes straight into the trash after the box is opened, here are ways to reduce, reuse and recycle during the holidays.

* Look around the house for material that could be used instead of gift wrap. Glossy magazine ads, extra fabric and fancy paper bags are good options.


* Wrap your present with another present. If you bought your sister a scarf, why not use it to wrap the CD you also got for her?

* Wrapping with newspaper? Make it more personal and relevant by matching the gift to the section. For example, you could wrap a cookbook with the food section or a children’s game with the comics.

* If you can’t bear to give up wrapping paper, use it to cover a shoe box and place your present inside. Like a gift bag, your decorated shoe box can be used again and again.