One silver lining from the virus lockdowns of 2020 was that Mother Earth got a slight reprieve from the damage we humans are doing. If you’d like to help a fellow traveler reduce their impact when we start moving around more, here are some sustainable gifts that are eco-friendly in some way or help reduce our impact on the planet.
First of all, one way to cut down on waste is to pick wisely and give traveler gifts that will actually get used. Follow that link for lots of suggestions from $10 up to $130.
Otherwise, it’s good to stop and think about the impact of what you’re giving as a gift. Is it something that will hold up well and be appreciated for years to come, or will it just go into a landfill soon? Green gifts can be classified in a lot of different ways, but one consideration is how long it’ll get used. Another is if it is likely to get a second life when given to someone else. Is it a ’57 Chevy or is it a Chevy Spark? A Mini Cooper or a Yugo?
Even if you need to give someone a clothing item made from synthetic materials—like a waterproof jacket that breathes, for instance—be willing to spend a bit more for something well-made. Buy people quality clothing items that will last, not throwaway fast fashion that’s the opposite.
But there are hundreds of sustainable gifts for travelers out there in a variety of categories. They can be made from recycled materials, manufactured with less impact, be using solar energy, or are at least rechargeable instead of using throwaway batteries. They can be natural alternatives to synthetic versions that won’t decompose. Or they can help a person use less plastic in their travels.
See a few eco-friendly and environmentally friendly gifts from all these categories below. Whether you’re looking for sustainable Christmas gifts, Hannukah ideas for a traveler, or something memorable to give for that next birthday, here are my top picks.
Eco-Friendly Clothing and Organic Apparel for Travelers
Whether your recipient is a hard-core vegan, an animal-lover, a tree-hugger, or just a concerned citizen, you’ve got lots of options that are organic gifts in some way.
The most obvious choice is something made from organic cotton or sustainably farmed merino wool. In both cases the right companies are using a minimum of chemicals and aren’t harming any animals in the process.
For organic cotton, there are a few travel/outdoor apparel brands known for having a wide variety in this category. It’s been the main claim to fame for Toad & Co. for a long time and you could put a whole nice organic cotton wardrobe together at prAna. I love how prAna lays out the important questions to ask on their sustainability story page.
– What materials were used to make this piece of clothing?
– Where do those materials come from?
– Who made this piece of clothing?
– How long will it last?
– What happens to it when I’m done with it?
– What is the real cost of this piece of clothing?
A company that will show up several times in this post because sustainability is in their DNA is Patagonia. They should be your go-to brand if you want to support the company that has always been on the leading edge of low-impact manufacturing. They use only organic cotton, a lot of hemp and natural rubber, and 68% of their synthetic clothing fabrics are made from recycled materials. They treat their workers well too and have been fighting hard for continued protection of public lands. See their “Buy Less, Demand More” page for the full story.
For merino wool, the brand with the best name recognition is probably Smartwool, but I’ve had better experiences with their two main competitors: Ibex Wool and Icebreaker. They all make the utility items you need like base layers and hiking socks (always an appreciated gift for adventurers), but they also make hoodies, lightweight sweaters, jackets, hats, fashionable shirts, and even underwear.
Merino wool is a miracle natural material: it’s insulating and soft, but is also naturally odor-resistant, no complicated chemical additives needed.
I’ve raved before about how much I wear Tilley hats and they are made so well they have a lifetime warranty. They sell many versions made from organic cotton, wool, and recycled scraps.
“Organic” goes beyond food and clothing, however. What about all those hygiene items you pack, and the things you slather on your lips and skin?
Organic Gifts and Toiletries With a Lower Impact
Some items we use every day keep contributing to the planet’s trash pile. Then there are the chemicals we send down the drain that can end up in waterways. A small change in this area can help reduce a traveler’s impact in countries where much of the bad stuff is not processed, recycled, or even gathered up and disposed of efficiently.
Although it’s hard to find a toothbrush that doesn’t use nylon bristles, there are some out there that are all natural. After all, people brushed their teeth regularly long before plastic was invented. The bristles just don’t hold up as well. If nothing else, you can give ones made of bamboo so there’s no plastic handle to throw away that will last until the apocalypse. (These also aren’t packaged in more plastic.)
Bamboo natural dental floss would work as an inexpensive stocking stuffer. This one pictured above from Me Mother Earth comes in a cute refillable bamboo case and you only have to splurge $12 for 75 yards. Solid organic shampoo or soap is a good gift that also gets around carry-on limits for toiletries. Find a version that comes with a carrying case, like this one from Seattle Sundries.
You can also find organic ear swabs with no plastic, organic sunscreens for snorkeling around coral reefs, and natural lip balm in recycled plastic tubes. (You can find the Burt’s Bees brand all over the place.)
One Essential for the World Traveler: a Water Purifier
If someone takes off for a year-long trip around the world, but the time they’ve finished they could easily have sent four single-use plastic water bottles per day into Mother Earth’s mouth, which comes out to 1,460 over the course of a year. If they’re mostly traveling in hot places, the number would be even higher. They can bring that down close to zero though by pairing a reusable water bottle with a filter or purifier.
My all-time favorite is the SteriPen, now owned by Katadyn, a company that makes a whole range of purifiers. It works with UV light and has never failed me, whether I’ve dipped it in third-world tap water or what’s flowing down a mountain in a stream. It’s compact and easy to use.
A new one I’ve got in hand that I’m anxious to take on my next trip is an integrated purifier and bottle from CrazyCap. The cap itself is the purifier and it works with UV light like the SteriPen. You can attach the rechargeable cap to any Swell-type bottle you love already, or you can pick out a bottle and cap combo from them from a variety of colors.
Here is a more detailed post with some of the best water purifiers and filters for travelers.
Other Items That Reduce the Use of Throwaway Plastic
Most of us don’t even notice how much plastic we are using and tossing on a daily basis and it has only gotten worse during this virus spread because of person-to-person transmission fears. Even the most developed and enlightened countries only manage to recycle a fraction of the plastic they use and in poor countries nearly all of it goes in the ground or in the waterways eventually.
The most obvious way to reduce plastic consumption is by carrying a water bottle. If you travel in a country where the water’s safe to drink, you just fill it up at any faucet or dispenser and drink. In cases where that’s not reliable, you pair it with a water filter (see above) and you can keep hundreds of single-use plastic bottles out of our landfills, streams, and oceans. There are a zillion water bottle brands out there, and I’ll confess I’ve got a few plastic ones. Some of those are made from recycled plastic at least, which is a start, but ideally get one made of metal.
Start with Klean Kanteen, Hydro Flask, Liberty Bottles (made in the USA), or Tree Tribe (they plant trees with some of their revenue). If you’re using a SteriPen, you’ll want one with a wide opening, not a small one like most Sigg and Swell bottles have.
What about all those times a traveler is getting take-out food of some kind? That can add up to a lot of plastic cutlery going in the trash. There are some cool travel cutlery sets out there made of metal or bamboo that travelers can wash and reuse over and over without adding a lot of weight or bulk to the bag. If the person you’re getting a gift for loves Asian food, you can get folding travel chopsticks too! Or how about a spork? REI has a great selection of these items.
A lot of enlightened beach communities have banned plastic straws, but a typical worldwide traveler will still be offered 100 of them over the course of a few months. There’s a large selection now of reusable metal or bamboo straws that come with a little cleaning brush and store in a case or pouch. This is another great gift that can work as a stocking stuffer. Search a zillion choices at Amazon.
I’m starting to see some nice collapsible coffee cups out there that are easy to carry since they store flat but pop open for drinking. Or get someone one of these cloth sleeves from Java Sok and they can at least forego the extra packaging for a cup of hot take-out coffee, including when they’re close to home.
Hopefully your recipient has plenty of reusable shopping bags in their house for when they visit the store since those flimsy plastic throwaway bags have soiled the Earth worldwide. Most of them aren’t easy to pack, however, so shopping bags that pack down into a small pouch are great for travelers. I’ve got a couple from Sea to Summit and other brands, but try to find ones made from recycled plastic bottles because those help the planet in two ways.
The leading brand for these in the states is ChicoBag, with products made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. I almost never go on a trip without packing one of these and they take up very little room. Check out this cool packable backpack too that’s just $35.
Take it a step further with reusable produce bags. These mesh, drawstring bags keep your market-bought fruit and veggies separated and avoid the use of more throwaway plastic.
Speaking of throwing away, how many ink pens have you tossed into the trash in your life? There are ones made of wood and bamboo you can give where just the inner ink tube is plastic, or there are quality pens where you use the same casing over and over, just replacing the ink part in the center. A cheaper step that still does a little good is a pen made from recycled single-use plastic bottles, like this B2P one from Pilot, selling for less than a buck fifty each.
See this post for more ideas on how to be an Eco-friendly traveler
Solar-powered Items That Don’t Need an Outlet
If you’ve got an adventure traveler or camper on your list, chances are they are sometimes in a place with no outlets for recharging. Help them harness the eco-friendly rays from the sun with gadgets that enable solar power for adventure travelers. One of my favorite gifts to give is the Luci solar lantern from MPowerd. After a few hours in the sun it can run all your night waking hours, but then it deflates and is easy to stow. You leave one in the sun during the day, then you’ll have light for as long as you need at night. They list for $25 and there’s a social change element to your purchase too: the company donates some to off-the-grid villages.
They also make solar-powered string lights that are good for any camper or RV traveler on your list. If you are buying for someone who doesn’t have to carry everything on their back, there are solar-powered cookers, gadget chargers, and Bluetooth speakers. A lot of adventure watches are powered by solar too, including a number of Casio ones. I’ve had a Pathfinder version for a decade now and it still works great.
Rechargeable Replacements for Battery Drainers
Batteries are one of the worst things to send into a landfill because of the acids and heavy minerals, plus they’re very difficult to recycle or even process to lessen the impact. Thankfully, more and more items are going rechargeable each year, including things like flashlights, lanterns, and speakers that can require a lot of power.
While a phone flashlight will do in a pinch for finding a bathroom in the dark, that won’t cut it for a night hike or times when a person needs their hands free. So a rechargeable headlamp can be a good gift for an adventure traveler. A small rechargeable lantern can be a godsend too, especially for campers and budget travelers (most cheap backpacker hotels have lousy lighting and dim bulbs). The best choice is a lantern that recharges by solar power, but next best is a camping lantern that recharges.
Fair Trade Gifts and Sustainable Packaging
There are other sustainable gift-giving ideas around that you adopt to lessen the impact on the planet, some in ways you might not have thought of. Items made in your own country don’t require as much fossil fuel for shipping as ones made in a factory halfway around the world. Or even better, in your own region. Fair trade items sold by artisans are better than ones that went through three middlemen. The best sources for those are Novica and Ten Thousand Villages, though your local farmer’s market or crafts fair will work for this locally.
E-books are also a great sustainable gift. Sure, a Kindle Paperwhite will require a smidgen of recharged electricity to use, but there’s nothing to manufacture or throw away. You can support this author by buying one of Tim Leffel’s books. (But go here for e-book versions of my living abroad book, A Better Life for Half the Price.)
Gift-giving itself can generate a mountain of trash, so can you find some ways around that? You could start with something recycled to go around the gift, some eco friendly wrapping paper. (At the very least, get the kind with minimal ink and no glossy coating so it can be recycled.)
Or could you skip the wrapping paper entirely? Any container that hides the item inside can achieve the same element of surprise. Gift boxes and bags can be reused easily or the wrapper itself can be a second gift: put the present in a reusable shopping bag, a storage container, or a Buff scarf perhaps. Or maybe you have some old paper maps somewhere that you don’t need anymore and were going to toss at some point anyway? These make great wrapping paper for travel gifts.
I hope you found something useful in this round-up of ethical gifts, sustainable presents, and other unique gifts for travel lovers. A lot of us are going to be itching to hit the road in 2021 after this lost year of staying close to home. We’ll be anxious to pack some new items for the journey!
Disclosure: many of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means I’ll earn a small commission if you click through and buy something. You’ll never pay more than you would if you went direct to the URL though and this helps support the site. As always, I never recommend a brand that I wouldn’t use myself.