Developing My Gift Matrix

I know everyone is posting like crazy about holiday shopping and gift guides now. This isn’t a gift guide. It's my gift matrix. Since I typically consume by specific standards (wistful on the reduced consumerism front, hopeful focus on fair-trade and reuse items, vegan, etc.), I have a very specific plan of attack when I'm buying for others. And hopefully you’ll share how you match your holiday giving with your own values, too.

So, this is how I roll.

1. Do we have to? It sounds a little Scrooge McDuck but it isn’t. I pared down my list of gift recipients based on who wanted to exchange gifts. This gave some of my friends an out to say they were hard up for cash and agreeing not to exchange gifts would alleviate some of that gift-giving pressure. If that’s helpful, I’m happy to skip exchanging and just stick with the holiday well-wishing instead.

2. What do you need? While I fully support the idea of the “Buy Handmade” pledge primarily for labor practice reasons**, I don’t always think it’s the smartest way to shop. I’ve found that at times it’s hard to get something useful or wanted and handmade. And – unfortunately – sometimes the longevity of some handmade items just isn’t there. It’s great (wonderful, in fact) when it is but I’ve had some disappointing issues with inadvertent obsolescence due to subpar materials or handiwork. (This was more in the textiles area - clothing, bags, etc.)
Past Example: I knew my cousin needed tools for his trade class. Nothing I could get him off Etsy was going to be useful for him, but I knew a gift card to a hardware store would be well-used, and it would save him from having to spend his own money on tools. So, if there is something I know the person can use, I try to get specs and get them that very thing. Or I get them a gift card so they can. Are they places I’d normally shop? No. But I know they are going to be spending their money there anyway and if there are no smaller business alternatives in their area I deem it useful and let go of it not fitting perfectly within my ideals.

3. What do you want?
Do they have something on their “want” list that I’d be happy to get them? As long as it doesn’t cross my biggest shopping no-no’s (animal ingredients, tested on animals), I will go with it. (Later down the line I consider labor practices, local businesses and manufacturers, etc.) So, I’m not signing you up for Omaha Steaks or donating a heifer in your name but I will buy you a CD. (Also why would I do something like livestock international when I could do Feed More International and feed people without harming animals?)

4. If they don’t have anything to list for needs or wants…
If people won't come up with a need or a want and we're still exchanging gifts, I try to opt for one of two things -- donations or the gifts of a service and/or shared experience. (These are always planned; I wouldn't get anyone a donation as a holiday gift without discussion about the gift exchange first.)
For a few years, my mother and I exchanged donations to charities of our choosing. A few years later we decided to gift each other a shared experience – we realized that the thing we found most valuable was spending time together and giving each other a spa gift card for the express purpose of booking our appointments together was a perfect fit and what we’ve been doing for years now. (Services usually help support an industry and pay people a decent wage without creating "stuff". You would know best which service businesses you feel best supporting.)
If I have people I can’t ask about their needs or wants and I would like to get them a gift, I approach it the similarly. First, can I get them something that’s a service? Can I get them a gift card at a mani/pedi place or a massage place (etc) that pays for a service but doesn’t put “stuff” into their hands if not used?
louvre me louvre me not

Or can I get something comestible they can eat, drink, share with others if they don’t like it? For one Yankee swap this year I got a pound of coffee and 4 vintage mugs. (They were stoneware and had a funny little mouse drawing on it with the word "Mousehole" painted on the back. I couldn't leave them at the store.) I took a chance on the mugs but they seemed to have gone to a good home - the recipients told me they liked them and had just moved so they needed mugs. And it wasn’t new “stuff’ so I didn’t feel too horribly if they were not very well received – people can usually figure out how to donate/repurpose mugs. (Although I totally hemmed and hawed about whether this was a mistake; my boyfriend can vouch for that.)
Equal Exchange coffee - I actually
bought Intelligentsia, which has some farmer
relationship but it's not quite the same
Since I’m vegan I can no longer just go pick up a box of Godiva or whatnot, I usually end up getting dark chocolate items or vegan truffles. (I should be better and look for fair trade but I don't always remember. But I should.) This year I got a bunch of Rescue Chocolate (vegan, delicious and a portion of the $ goes towards animal nonprofits) and Hurraw lip balm (vegan, organic, fair trade ingredients and generally useful in the winter) to gift.

That brings me to general personal care items. I know people are picky about what they use…I am, too. But sometimes I go out on a limb and get general winter-centric personal care items for folks if I think they’re a good quality and they might get used. Again, since I’m vegan there’s no animal by-products or testing involved with the things I choose (no beeswax, no lanolin, no milk derivatives, etc.). This year I ended up gifting some Smith's Rosebud balm/salve (the no lanolin versions) and some vegan hand lotion for people.

Rosebud salve and Peter Rabbit tissue
5. My downfall:
All said and done I totally broke down and bought $50 worth of cat toys that my cats will certainly play with but do not need. I was at the pet store, standing in front of the rescue kitty cages trying to pick out cat toy gifts for our local animal control facility and apparently lost my marbles so our cats got a tidy haul in addition to what I bought for the animal shelter. (The shelter also has some crates coming their way - this was just the little stuff.)
That's it! You're at the end of my gift matrix! My successes, my mistakes! The how and why of my holiday shopping. Your turn?
**I'm also aware that the materials that people use are often produced under poor labor standards and with an ecological impact as well, so "handmade" isn't as awesome as we sometimes think it is, although more and more handmade folks are using recycled materials or trying to chose their materials based on ecological footprint. But I have also seen greenwashing on Etsy in the past. Buying handmade is a good idea but I don't see it as a panacea.


  1. i like the way you think. I skip all of the gift guides anyway....this post is more powerful in encouraging people to think beyond "stuff".

  2. Great gift matrix! I agree with your criteria 100%! (I may not have followed it exactly 100% this year, but I definitely consider a lot of the same points.)

  3. Great gift guide. I don't buy many (any?) gifts at this time of year, but it's an excellent way to think for ALL gifts.

    I had never heard of that Hurraw balm but it looks amazing. I take it you really like it? Any flavour recommenations?


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