One Thing You Can Do: Sustainable Holiday Shopping


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Black Friday kicks off the holiday shopping season this week and, according to a recent survey, sustainable shopping is on a lot of people’s minds this year.

For example, half of respondents in the survey, which was conducted by the consulting firm Accenture, said they would opt for lower-carbon delivery options — like slower shipping or in-store pickup — if possible when doing their holiday shopping.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to give yourself those greener options: Start early.

If you get going sooner rather than later, you’ll avoid the need for expedited shipping, which often means more trips, and less-efficient ones, by delivery trucks. And, it’ll be easier to consolidate your items into fewer deliveries. Best of all, you’ll probably give more thoughtful gifts. A bit more time for research means fewer panic purchases that are likely to be returned.

“Buy less and buy well,” recommended Shilpi Chhotray, a spokeswoman for The Story of Stuff Project, a nonprofit group. “The gifts we can give can be thoughtful and helpful instead of impractical and contributing to more clutter.”

If you shop at brick-and-mortar stores, try to avoid single-purpose car trips. Rather, combine your holiday buying with other errands or do it on your way home from work. That, said Miguel Jaller, who studies sustainable transportation systems at the University of California, Davis, means “the marginal distance for doing that shopping is really, really small.”

But it’s not just how you get the gift that matters. It’s also about the gift itself. So, consider used items.

That might not be for everyone. But, roughly half of people surveyed by Accenture said they’d be glad to give and receive secondhand things. And, we’re not talking about shabby castoffs. Think about distinctive collectibles, beautiful old books, vintage jewelry and antique household items.

“It’s not only great for the environment, but it’s also an easier way to get a high-end brand,” said Jill Standish, senior managing director at Accenture.

When it comes to beauty products, which generally come with a lot of petroleum-based plastics, there are brands out there that help you recycle or reuse plastic containers and others that aim for zero-waste or sustainable packaging. You can even get vegan beauty products.

If you want to make a climate-friendly donation in someone’s name instead of making a purchase, you have a lot of options. Those include groups that focus on food waste, forest protection and restoration, girls’ education and pollution.

Gift cards can also help your friends and family avoid unwanted stuff. Or, you could make a gift of your time. For example, giving someone a day off from chores or making them a special meal.

Finally, don’t forget the wrapping paper. According to one estimate, 25 percent more trash than usual is thrown out between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. A recent study also found that Americans spent $12.7 billion on gift wrapping in 2017. A whole lot of that paper ends up in landfills because most of it can’t be recycled.

One way to bring that down is gift bags, with a note asking that people reuse them.

You could also use paper from around your home. The idea is to be creative and think colorful. That could mean using newspaper comics or old road maps. Or, you could put children to work decorating paper bags for gift wrap.

“There is nothing more aligned with the spirit of the season,” said Kate Kiely, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “than thinking about the impact our choices have on the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.”


In the United States, we can count on fairly accurate weather predictions. In some other parts of the world, things are fuzzier. But a new weather forecasting system developed by The Weather Company, a subsidiary of IBM, could help address what company scientists call the world’s “meteorological divide.”

This month, IBM announced its new Global High-Resolution Atmospheric Forecasting System, which uses a new supercomputer and weather modeling software developed with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The improved forecasts from the system are available at no cost through IBM websites and apps like Weather.com and Weather Underground.

The result, said Cameron Clayton, head of The Weather Company, is that “a farmer in Kenya is going to have the same quality and resolution of forecast as the farmer in Kansas.”

The company says that, in the upgraded areas — which include Asia, Africa and South America — global weather models have generally covered areas of six to 10 square miles and been updated two to four times a day. Under the new system, forecasts get down to a bit less than two square miles, or about five square kilometers, and are updated hourly.

That means an image of, say, India during monsoon season will go from looking like “a huge blob” of continuous thunderstorms to showing thousands of individual storms and the gaps between them, Mr. Clayton said. That could inform decisions for people like farmers. For areas at risk of weather disasters like severe flooding, it could also be crucial for transportation officials and emergency planners.

The heightened capabilities will be increasingly important in the age of climate change, Mr. Clayton said. “The weather is getting more volatile, the impacts are getting more severe, and the financial impacts are rising as a result.”

The IBM initiative comes at a time of rising apprehension about the commercialization of weather forecasting and climate modeling.

Some people already pay private companies for faster and more accurate information, and that raises some thorny questions. The idea that timely access to life-or-death information could depend on paying a fee is disconcerting, said David W. Titley, a retired rear admiral in the Navy and a former chief operating officer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Is there some level of basic service that should be guaranteed by the government,” he asked.

While The Weather Company is making the upgraded forecasts available for free, Dr. Titley said, “There’s nothing that says they have to do that.” The company could change its mind any time, he noted.

The company says it has no plans to charge for the service. So, at least for now, it looks like the improved forecasts will remain available to all.

“Everybody should have access to reliable information, everywhere in the world,” Mr. Clayton said.

That was echoed by his colleague Kevin Petty, director of science and forecasting for The Weather Company. He called bridging the global meteorological divide an essential part of the program. “We believe that weather insights should not be a privilege enjoyed by the few,” Dr. Petty said.


Hello! We get many, many letters this time of year asking about the environmental impact of Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas trees. So, here’s a little gift to those letter writers: Our New York Times colleague Karen Zraick has covered the Christmas tree question from every angle. And this Q. and A. about food and climate change written by Brad Plumer and Julia Moskin is full of ideas about how to cook, shop and eat in a warming world. It’s for any meal, not just holiday ones.

So, dig in. And have a Happy Thanksgiving.



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