Green Gestures: Thinking Outside the Gift Box

Earth in hand
Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

I’ve seen many guides to green gifts, both generic and occasion-specific. But I realized recently that there are not many, if any, guides focused on green gestures. This is the phrase I use when thinking of gifts related to sustainability that do not involve giving a tangible item to the recipient. Instead, green gestures are more symbolic for the recipient or honoree, but they may indeed have tangible benefits for the environment or for society in general. Green gestures are good to keep in mind for the person who seemingly has everything, or for acquaintances or colleagues for whom you do not have a good sense of interests and preferences. Green gestures are also a good solution to expressing appreciation when ethical considerations can make giving or receiving tangible gifts undesirable or inappropriate. An example would be thanking an elected official for speaking at your event. Such gestures are often also used as memorials or to celebrate special occasions like a birth, a wedding, or a retirement. This list is by no means exhaustive (feel free to share your ideas in the “Comments” section of this post), and should not be construed as an endorsement of any of the items or organizations listed by GLRPPR or its host agency, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. This list is for informational purposes only, and is meant to help you start thinking outside the gift box.

Plant a Tree

This is probably the first symbolic gesture that would pop into everyone’s mind. The idea of a lovely tree providing shade, shelter for wildlife and improvement of air quality in honor of a person or event is sure to be well received. If you don’t want to go through the actual process yourself, organizations like the National Arbor Day Foundation make it easy by allowing you to donate a modest amount of money and either print out your own certificate to present or have a special ‘Give-a-Tree‘ card printed for you to commemorate the planting of trees in a national forest.  Of, if you prefer to give actual seedlings and allow others to plant them where they wish, you can do that as well.

Retire Emissions Credits

A few environmental groups sell emissions credits for certain pollutants, which are thus retired, meaning that specific amount of pollution will not be legally emitted in the first place–a different twist on pollution prevention. With fewer credits available for purchase, there is also a theoretical incentive for emitters to change practices to avoid emissions. I once retired a ton of acid-rain causing pollution as a present for an environmentally conscious friend, and felt assured that no one else had gotten such a thing for her. (As a wedding present, for example, it’s a bit less likely to be duplicated than a toaster someone forget to check off a store’s gift registry.) She was delighted and proudly showed off her certificate to her environmental biology students.  The Adirondack Council retires credits for acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide pollution or carbon dioxide credits [retired from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) program]. Certificates are provided. The Acid Rain Retirement Fund also purchases and retires sulfur dioxide emissions credits using member donations. They provide certificates as well. The US EPA Clean Air Markets “Buying Allowances” page provides a list of environmental groups that retire emissions credits, but it should be noted that the Clean Air Conservancy Trust apparently closed down in November of 2010. That’s unfortunate because according to the EPA page, this was the only known environmental organization to retire nitrogen oxide credits. As the EPA page notes, emissions credits are also available via brokers (a list is provided) and EPA auctions, and keeping credits off the market has the same effect whether one purchases credits via an environmental group, broker or EPA Auction. See for information on EPA auctions; this page includes links to fact sheets on allowance auctions in general, as well as a fact sheet on how to bid. Using an environmental group as a go-between is surely easier for most individuals looking for a unique gift.

Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets involve making a donation to an organization that uses the funds toward a project that will reduce emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases somewhere else, in theory balancing out the emissions that an individual or group would be responsible for via a given action or set of actions. Projects typically funded involve the generation of renewable energy (wind farms are a common example) or reforestation. Offsets are measured in metric tons of  carbon dioxide equivalents (see for an explanation of the term). See the Wikipedia article on the subject for a list of the greenhouse gases typically represented by carbon dioxide equivalents, as well a general discussion of offset markets, sources, related accounting, quality assurance schemes, and the various controversies surrounding carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are somewhat related to the previous two options in that tree-planting projects are sometimes used for offsetting purposes and carbon allowances can also be retired from emissions trading schemes as a method for offsetting carbon emissions. Be aware, however, that a corporation’s purchase of carbon offsets can be seen as a type of greenwashing, in which money is paid for an easy to promote green image without actual behavior change, or at least as something that generates a lot of hype without real effectiveness. Again, check out the “controversies” section of the Wikipedia article for more information. HowStuffWorks also has a good article on carbon offsets, controversies and links to more information to help you make an informed choice. Some of the criticisms of offsets can apply to all of the gestures listed in this post, but the gestures listed here are provided as a positive way to say thank-you or congratulations to someone while also inspiring them to think about their impact on the environment, rather than as the solution to any particular global environmental problem. A Google search on the phrase “carbon offsets” will yield several organizations from which offsets can be purchased, including,, TerraPass.

Sponsor Wildlife or Wild Places

Another option is to make a donation in someone’s honor to project that promotes the conservation of particular wildlife species (this is often geared toward endangered species) or a particular ecosystem or protected area, such as a national park or refuge. The Sierra Club, for example, offers sponsorships for multiple national wildlife refuges and national monuments and national parks, with notes regarding the wildlife species that would be helped by protecting these areas.  Other organizations, such as the National Wildlife Federation and the World Wildlife Fund offer “adoptions” of certain animal species that typically come with a certificate and educational information about the animals in question. These types of donations are generally symbolic and the money is used in the way the agency deems best to protect wildlife in general. The World Wildlife Fund also offers an option that allows the recipient to “choose” the animal they are sponsoring, rather than you choosing it for them via an adoption gift card. The Nature Conservancy offers gifts to sponsor specific conservation projects or tributes tied to particular occasions with e-cards sent to the recipient. You could also consider making a donation on someone’s behalf to a local or state conservation organization to protect a state park or fund specific conservation projects that are closer to home for them. If the person in question likes fishing or boating, you might consider a donation to an agency focused on protecting waterways, for example.

Other Charitable Donations & Gift Subscriptions

Think about the three main components of sustainability–economy, environment and society. The gestures we’ve discussed thus far have clear environmental components, and even economic components, but what about a donation to a charity that touches upon the social aspects of sustainability, or all three components? Via Heifer International, for example, you can donate gifts of livestock or plants that will help make families and communities in less developed areas more self-reliant. A flock of chicks, a cow or some honeybees can provide food and income for someone less fortunate. Mercy Corps offers symbolic gifts in a similar vein; you can choose gifts related to environmental issues, health, children’s welfare, etc. A donation to an environmental education project in the recipient’s community could help inspire the next generation of “rethinkers” while also providing the social benefits of engaging young people in constructive, civic-minded activities. A gift membership in the recipient’s local community supported agriculture program would help foster a healthier environment, a healthier lifestyle, a stronger community and a healthier local economy. Check out the Local Harvest web site to find such programs in your recipient’s area. A donation to support medical research obviously touches upon the social aspect of sustainability and could also potentially be linked to environmental issues as well, when you consider the health impacts of pollutants and emerging toxins. Another interesting twist on the idea of tributes that I came across is a donation in someone’s honor to charity:water, which works to provide clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. If none of these ideas strike a chord with you, check out Alternative Gifts International, an organization that offers links to projects administered by other non-profit agencies. They group projects by category in their “Shopping List for the World” to help steer you toward the projects that will resonate with you and your recipients.

Are you aware of other ways to give thanks or tribute while also giving back to the environment or society? Share your suggestions in the comments section of this post.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.