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The Ecologist guide to Christmas shopping

Laurie Tuffrey

16th December, 2011

Ditch the high street and shop ethically this Christmas. Laurie Tuffrey shows you where to look

'Tis the season to be jolly, and to buy one hell of a lot of presents while we're at it. As Christmas draws closer, British high streets are packed with shoppers splashing the cash on the colourful piles of textiles, plastics and sugary food brightening up shop windows. Christmas shopping and festive giving might be fun but they come with serious consequences for the planet. The seasonal spike in consumerism generates an 18 per cent increase in carrier bags - pushing the amount of plastic bags over the 100,000 tonne mark – while online, Amazon received 2.3 million orders on their busiest day last year, resulting in huge amounts of cardboard waste.

But Christmas is Christmas and that means presents, for children, friends and family alike. Although not everyone has time to make their own gifts, there are eco alternatives available. ‘[Eco-friendly] products are available,’ says Joanna Head, owner of My Eco Store. ‘It's just about making people aware because half the time they don't know [eco options] exist so go to the high street and buy all the plastic that's there and don't think twice about it.' Whether you’re after non-toxic toys or ethically produced bath oil, here’s our guide to the eco-friendly gifts you’ll want under your tree.

For children

PlayMais, from £3.60
Like Plasticine and Play Doh, PlayMais is a mouldable dough but with a green twist. Unlike the conventional toy doughs, it’s made from maize, water and food colouring and is 100 per cent biodegradable. Impressively, the product is made on an entirely self-sustained facility in Germany. The corn used is purposefully grown on land close to the factory, and all the post-cultivation waste is put back into a biogas plant, which provides electricity and heating for the production, as well as fertiliser for the next corn harvest. It comes in a range of different varieties, including themed sets with the materials to make a princess, a giraffe or even a whole safari’s worth of animals, or simple selection boxes of assorted colours to get creative with. The company’s website has some impressive example models, but if they’re a little out of reach for younger artists, it also has some useful templates for inspiration.

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Solar Rainbow Maker, £21.95
Hang this in a window that receives direct sunlight and it throws out rainbow colours into the room. Its eco-friendliness comes courtesy of a solar-powered motor that slowly rotates a Swarovski crystal, which refracts the light into the rainbow spectrum. The clear case adds an educational element too: your child can see into the multi-coloured mechanics of the rainbow maker and watch the cogs working to turn the crystal. The winter daylight hours might be a bit of a limit on when your child can use it but it will add a pretty dash of colour if it snows, and it’s never a bad idea to diffuse the relentless red and green of Christmas with a hint of indigo and violet.

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Hydrocar, £64.99
There’s always a market for make-your-own kids Christmas presents – most of us have unwrapped sets of Meccanno and Lego - but this year, the best toy to combine this with environmental awareness is the Hydrocar. Using technology similar to that currently being developed for full-size cars, an electrolyzer converts water into hydrogen, which is then converted into electrical energy by fuel cells, making the Hydrocar a working demonstration of a 100 per cent clean fuel. It’s fully steerable, and you will need batteries for the remote control, but it’s a far greener alternative to the buzzy, electric-motored RC cars of yesteryear. The build-your-own element may leave you and your child puzzling over the manual, but if that’s not what Boxing Day is for, what is?

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For her

Reusable Tea Lovers Cup, £11.95
The paper cups employed by high street coffee shops contribute a large number of the 58 billion paper cups which end up in landfill every year. Even worse, styrofoam cups are adding significantly to our plastic waste. So a reusable hot drinks holder makes perfect sense. There are a range of them available, but this one, in pretty blue and white floral print, is the best of the bunch. As an added benefit, Starbucks are now offering discounts on drinks if you bring in one of these, so you're also gifting somebody a cheaper caffeine fix in the process. A winner all round.

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Woven juice carton shoulder bag, £19.99
How about this for a clever way of making use of old fruit juice cartons? Instead of throwing them away, and contributing to the thousands of tonnes of waste that they create every year, this bag taps into their tropical colour scheme and weaves them all together to make this vibrant shoulder bag. It's part of a range of bags available at My Eco Store that use 100 per cent recycled fruit juice packets: you can also get purses, totes and bowling bags. It's durable, versatile and, with its bright orange, banana and mango hue, a whole lot more individual than the hundreds of tan leather numbers out there. Warning: looking at it too long may make you thirsty.

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Love Peace and Harmony Project Foxy Hoodie, £35.00
You can never go wrong with a good Christmas sweater, and what better way to beat the cold this winter than this rather fetching fox print navy hoodie? It’s made from 100 per cent organic cotton and is part of the collection by The Love Peace and Harmony Project, who specialise in carbon neutral fashion. Their clothes are manufactured in a Fairwear Foundation approved factory in India, transported by boat to cut CO2 emissions as much as possible, and finished with the hand-printed design in the UK. There are a number of other designs, including a glittery bear, a labrador and a seal but we think the metallic bronze fox is the most attractive of the menagerie.

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Bodhi Enlightened Traveller Limited Edition travel set, £48.00
Take inspiration Three Wise Men and become an ‘enlightened traveller’ with this rather splendid travel set from Bodhi. Included in the box are bath and shower gels and moisturisers in the Jasmine Falls and Rosemary Chi scents, as well as a Palmarosa Verde bath and shower therapy lotion, designed to ‘spring clean your skin’ - the perfect way to kick start for a post-Christmas detox. Add to this a bamboo flannel and a tweed travel bag and you have one present guaranteed to make someone merry. Better still, you can’t fault Bodhi on their green credentials: they work on the ethos that natural is best, which means no petrochemicals, no sulphates and no parabens. The company also take a strong stance against using palm oil as a result of the hugely detrimental effect the plantations have on rainforest ecosystems.

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Alexis Dove TV glass tassel earrings, £95.00
These earrings, designed by Alexis Dove, are made from old TV screens reborn as decorative beads. The Christmas TV shows of yesteryear may well have been screened on these beads in their former life, so it seems apt to wear them for the Yule festivities. Ella Georgia, the jewellers stocking the brand, have an excellent Christmas range, and a strict ethical policy, only dealing with suppliers who work on Fairtrade lines and striving to make a minimal impact on the environment. Equally, they only work with designers who have the same vision, and aim to prove that fashion and eco-friendliness can go hand-in-hand.

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For him

Ecobutton, £15.75
For the environmentally friendly technophile, this could just be the perfect present. Hook it up to a Windows PC or laptop (a Mac version is on its way) via a USB port, and click it to start the computer’s ‘eco mode’ - an activated state that uses minimal energy. Click it again, and the computer springs back into life, with all running programmes and data intact. The ecobutton also comes with some nifty software that measures the amount of power, money and carbon units you save by using it, so you can know exactly how green you’re being. That stats are impressive: if all computers in the UK were equipped with an ecobutton, we could save up to 700,000 tonnes of carbon and £115 million annually – that’s around £50 per home.

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TAPE cork iPhone/BlackBerry cover, £12.50
Fed up of getting scratches on your smart phone but don’t want to buy one of those moulded plastic cases? Here’s the remedy: a rather fetching cork cover. Rather than being fashioned out of non-biodegradable plastic, these cases are made from lightweight, durable cork, which has been sustainably sourced. You can even choose whether you have red or orange stitching. They’re made by a brand called Ryan Frank, and distributed here through the record company TAPE, so you can give some much-needed help to the UK’s independent music industry while doing the environment a favour at the same time.

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Ethical Superstore Water-Powered Shower Radio, £34.95
The shower radio has become a perennial stocking filler for men, most of which tend to be shoddily constructed units that suck up AA batteries and break mid-February. This, the world’s first eco-friendly shower radio, is no such thing. Installed above or below the faucet, it’s powered by your shower’s water pressure and stores excess energy so that it can be used as a general bathroom radio when the shower’s not running. It also looks rather nifty. Better still, the radio is easy to install, which means water-powered musical ablutions by Boxing Day.

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Freeloader Globetrotter Kit, £54.95
How many times have you been caught out with a battery-sapped mobile or an mp3 player lingering in the red? The Freeloader will make sure that that never happens to your present’s recipient again. It’s a portable solar panel that you can use to charge phones, cameras, music players and just about every other type of electrical device imaginable. It charges itself using its solar panels, from a USB port on a computer or via the Supercharger, which speeds up the process by getting the Freeloader full of juice in just four hours. The Globetrotter kit includes both of these, as well as a hard-wearing carrying pouch and a set of 11 adaptors to fit all types of devices, so your giftee can trot the globe safe in the knowledge that their phone will be fully charged, plug-free, whenever, wherever they are.

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Rawr Choc Christmas Collection, £7.95
Before your friends and family start contemplating their new year’s resolutions, give them this: four chocolate bars, artfully wrapped up in red organza ribbon with a recycled card gift tag, from Cambridge-based organic chocolatiers, Rawr. The collection includes bars of plain ‘Dark Purity’, orange-flavoured ‘Zest’, mint ‘After Dinner’ and the Christmas bar, which includes orange, nutmeg and cinnamon. Ethically sourced Peruvian cacao and recycled packaging is thought of with the environment in mind. If that wasn’t enough, all their chocolate is organically certified by the Soil Association and is vegetarian and vegan-friendly, so your present can be happily munched on, guilt-free.

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Uig Lodge smoked salmon, from £10.00
Perched on the Isle of Lewis, Uig Lodge has been hand-producing smoked Scottish Atlantic salmon for 27 years. The salmon comes from the Wester Ross fishery, which meets the stringent RSPCA Freedom Foods standard, and Uig actively encourage ‘catch and release’ measures to ensure that Scotland’s wild salmon levels don’t diminish. The smoking process itself is a fine art: everything down to the prevailing weather conditions is taken into consideration, which pays off: Uig was awarded their first Gold Star in the Guild of Fine Food’s Great Taste Awards in 2007. Their range goes from the trimmings pack, to garnish a Christmas dinner starter, all the way to the mammoth Hebridean Collection, which includes a range of other locally-sourced produce including sticky toffee pudding and farmhouse cheese.

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Fattoria La Vialla Gourmet Box, £37
Crammed with homemade Tuscan treats, Fattoria La Vialla’s Gourmet Box has enough to keep organic food fans happy well into New Year. Among the goodies on offer are Orange Olives made to an old local recipe, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and a hearty bottle of Casa Conforro Chianti Superiore. Everything is produced to biodynamic principles and the farm has a negative carbon footprint; absorbing 4,488 tonnes of CO2 every year. What’s more, so green is Fattoria La Vialla, it was held up at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in 2009 as the model of an eco-sustainable farm by the European Environment Agency [EEA]. Since then, with the launch of in-house NGO, the Fondazione Famiglia Lo Franco, things have been getting even greener, with projects launched to help promote biodynamic agriculture and to study agricultural biodiversity.

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