Erratic engineeress

A personal blog fuelled by caffeine and curiosity.

Sustainable gift wrapping ideas

Wrap it, wrap it, wrap it real good!

The other day we talked about better gift giving and how to select a good gift for that won’t end up burdening the environment in the trash, so today I want to give you some ideas for sustainable gift wrapping. If you Google/Pinterest sustainable gift wrapping, what comes up is lots of the same aesthetic: recycled brown wrapping paper or newspaper, minimalist natural cords and bits of greens. It always looks very clean and neat and while there’s nothing wrong with that, what it tells me is that these people are only sourcing their wrapping paper sustainably, but there’s usually not a lot of reduce-reuse-recycle mentality in it. We’ve all gotten used to seeing a certain greenwashing aesthetic that just screams sustainable, but before you run out to buy your dull brown wrapping paper, I’m here to tell you that the most sustainable gift wrapping is the one you didn’t buy. Before we dive into gift wrapping though:

This post was inspired by Uresniči željo, a Slovenian volunteer-led charity initiative that grants Christmas wishes for people in need. They collaborate with social centres allover Slovenia and have a list of personal wishes available on their website, so when you choose to fulfil a wish and gift someone a present, you know exactly where it’s going (the recipient name is anonymous though). My friend invited me to join as their IG ambassador and you’ve probably seen me sharing their posts and wishes on my social media, because it’s a sincere initiative that makes the world a little bit better every year and I am proud to be a part of it. To top it all off, this year they are promoting sustainable gift wrapping and buying local, which is obviously aligned with my values as well.

Although our budget is currently strained under house renovation, I decided to grant a wish for a lady from one of the retirement homes, because she wished for an embroidery kit and that particular art is close to my heart as well. There is a teaching moment in this too: when it comes to charity, we often forget that people are more than the sum of their basic needs and they also deserve to be treated with dignity. That is often manifested in donations like torn old socks, because “even that’s better than nothing” and the general attitude that “they should be grateful for whatever” , even when it is not actually useful. How is a homeless man going to bake bread without an oven or a package of yeast when people donate flour only? Or open a can without a can opener? Or imagine a family that has to eat pasta with nothing everyday, because people donate lots of pasta, but there’s no sauce? Obviously I’m exaggerating and it’s great to donate whatever you can, but true charity requires thoughtfulness and empathy, not just 2 minutes of your time, which is why I always also donate some coffee and chocolate.

These types of wish granting projects can teach us a lot about what makes people happy, not just what helps them survive, because surviving is not living. Most people wish for hobby supplies or specific clothing, food or cosmetic items that may seem unnecessary at first glance, but that is exactly the point, because it’s about granting a wish, not basic needs. Instead of thinking “oh, what does that man want with an eau de toilette” or “why does an old lady need an embroidery kit” , let’s think about how much dignity is returned to a person when they feel presentable or get to do what they love. You can survive without pride and dignity, but you can’t be truly happy. So, if we can make someone happy at least during holiday time, I say that’s a deed worth doing and I encourage you to take part in such initiatives too, if you can afford it. 🙂

Here’s my sustainably wrapped embroidery kit gift. I was a bit limited with practicality, because I had to mail the gift, but everything to do with wrapping, including the box, is something I already had at home and reused.

(Re)use what you already have

The first and most important rule of any sustainable/zero waste endeavour: use and reuse what you already have! Although your gifts may not scream sustainable at first glance like the Pinterest ones if you reuse the gift bags and old, tacky wrapping paper that you have stored somewhere at home, they can still look just as inviting and you’ll know that they are sustainably wrapped. So, before you buy new wrapping paper, gift bags, greeting cards, ribbons etc., first use up the ones that you already have at home and the planet will thank you for it.

Pro tip: take the extra few minutes to tie simple name labels on gift bags, because it makes them much easier to reuse if the recipient’s name isn’t written directly on the bag. Also, don’t be afraid of reusing wrapping paper even if it is a little wrinkled, because most people won’t notice and you can always smooth out the wrinkles with a clothing iron.

When it comes to using what you already have, there’s no need to stop at only wrapping-purpose items, because you can just as easily wrap your gifts in old newspapers, magazines, children’s drawings and any other paper or cloth thing that you no longer need. If you do it well, it can look very nice and special, particularly if you put a nice paper or yarn ribbon on it. While I’m at it, buttons, leaves, sticks, pieces of broken pottery, stones etc. can easily replace stickers or plastic decorative items and you can also repurpose old greeting cards for creative details. Use a stapler, hot glue gun and washi/masking tape that’s made of paper instead of the usual plastic scotch tape for a more sustainable option.

All of the gifts in the photos above were wrapped in gift bags/paper that I’d previously received gifts or products in, which brings us to our next point:

Keep the gift bags, wrapping paper and online shopping boxes

I know a lot of waste reducing tips sound like an open invitation to hoarding, but having a smart stash of gift wrapping supplies makes things so much easier and you’ll avoid expensive and ugly last minute gift bag buys. I always keep any gift bags, ribbons and larger pieces of wrapping paper from my gifts if they are in good condition and we keep them in a bag at home. Same goes for small jewellery boxes, pillow boxes or even the occasional smaller quirky or pretty packaging from chocolates and other products, because it can make for a fun moment if the recipient expects one thing and finds another upon opening the gift.

We also hoard the cardboard boxes that our online shopping comes in and my partner reuses them to send out the products he sells in his Etsy shop. I reuse them every December to mail out gifts to my friends abroad, for storage and as gift boxes. If you remove the postage labels and add some details to make the box prettier, it’s a great and sturdy way to transport any baked goods that you want to gift to your friends and family for their birthdays etc.

Sometimes you’ll get very pretty boxes or bags and if you don’t need them for packaging or storage, you can cut them into cards or small details to make your gifts prettier. For example, I used the box my books came in to make the simple Christmas cards with a bit of yarn ribbon that you can see below.

Get creative

If you want to go beyond simple reusing, you can get creative and decorate regular paper bags to turn them into gift bags or to make simple wrapping paper more interesting. I really like the minimalism of drawing a ribbon instead of tying it on for example and you can find tons of creative gift wrapping ideas online.

If you really want to go the extra mile, you can make reusable cloth wrappings – my grandmother always makes cloth bags for larger gifts and we reuse her Christmas stockings for St. Nicholas’ Day every year. Alternatively, if you’re not into sewing, you could try furoshiki, the Japanese art of fabric wrapping. You can buy furoshiki kits online or make the cloth wrappings yourself and it’s a very interesting and unique way to wrap your gifts. By the way, if you are gifting a scarf or other clothes, you can use those as wrapping for the rest of the gift as well.

What about flowers?

Last but not least, we all like to add some greens and flowers to our gifts, right? Well, instead of cut flowers that will wilt and go in the trash after a few days, you can gift potted plants or small plant cuttings that you’ve propagated from your plants at home. My partner and I always have multiple cuttings in the water around the place and I often give them to people with their gifts – some of them are sturdy enough to survive out of the water for a few hours like the ones in the photo below, while others should be given in a jar with water. If you are not gifting a nice vase along with the plant, reusing clean glassware from food can be a cheap and nice option. You can also wrap the roots in a wet paper towel with some wrapping paper or plastic foil on top if you don’t have any extra glass jars.

So, how about it? Are you ready to make your gift wrapping a little bit friendlier to the environment? You can check out some more sustainable gift wrapping ideas on my Pinterest board here, but don’t get pulled in by the aesthetic I mentioned earlier, just look at the ideas themselves and adapt them to your needs. As you can see, my gift photos aren’t nearly as pretty and clean as the ones below, but I promise you that the recipients of the gifts were just as happy with them and the way they were wrapped (which is something most people don’t really care much about, if we’re being honest). Sustainability is a mindset, not an aesthetic and ever since it became a marketing term we tend to forget that.


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2 responses to “Sustainable gift wrapping ideas”

  1. Hahaha! Here I thought we were just being cheap. We have reused all sorts of bags and boxes and even paper over the years including the tissue paper. When newspapers used to have decent sized comic sections we would use those, too. I used to watch in amazement as this elderly lady in our church (depression-era) would unwrap a present so very carefully and neatly fold the paper. It was almost a painstaking process.

    1. Exactly, that’s the way to go. I don’t think it’s being cheap if the gift still looks nicely wrapped, cheap would be not doing any effort at all. I wish reusing was as self-evident as it is to you, but a lot of people have gotten used to excess and wrapping paper accounts for literal tons of holiday waste for no good reason + the fancy ones are hard to recycle. And of course, frugal and sustainable often have a large intersection, except when it comes to the big things like infrastructure.

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