How to Talk to Family about Embracing Eco-Friendly Holiday Traditions

Change is hard. Changing a whole family group is harder. It is natural for us to resist change, but as the saying goes: “If we don’t adapt, we die,” or in this case, our family traditions do. 

Think about your family traditions for a minute. How long have they been going on? How often have you made changes to them? The ones that last the longest probably tend to adapt to the changing needs of the family over time. 

In my family, we’ve been thinking and talking a lot about being more Earth-friendly during the holiday season. Think wrapping in reusable fabric instead of piles of discarded wrapping paper and e-holiday cards instead of snail mail ones. Below, I’ll walk through how to introduce a eco-friendly changes to traditions around the holidays and gift-giving to your family. 

Know Your Audience

You probably know your family well enough to do this in your sleep, but it can be useful to really think through a traditional audience analysis to help you tailor your change-message. An audience analysis uncovers a group’s attitudes, beliefs, and values in order to adapt a message or speech to the group. You find out things like what makes your audience (or in this case, your family) tick, what motivates them? What are their values and what are they interested in? Use this to alter your message so that it appeals uniquely to them. There are many ways to introduce the ideas of a more sustainable holiday, each likely more effective on different audiences. For example, you could emphasize how no one needs “more stuff” to people who are trying to downsize or tend to lean toward minimalism. People who are passionate about sustainability can be brought on board by sharing with them some of the staggering statistics about waste around the holidays. People who love adventure might really be into the idea of exchanging experiences instead of gifts this year. Your cash strapped college student niece will be thrilled at the idea of buying less and saving some cash this holiday season. The artists and creative types in your life might be enticed to join in if you emphasize the opportunity to make the holidays more creative if you exchange hand-made gifts only. Does your brother love a challenge? Challenge him to see which of your families can have the lowest impact on the earth this December. 

Emphasize the Positives 

Don’t frame the change as a negative, or a loss. For example, don’t say, “no wrapping paper this year” – instead say “this year we get to pick out sustainable fabric we can use year after year for wrapping!” Avoid saying “don’t buy me anything this year,” and instead say “get me an experience-gift we can do together!” These simple reframing techniques can change the tone of the conversation from negative to positive and may increase buy-in and excitement about the prospect of change.

Use Perspective-Taking to Identify Potential Barriers 

If you know your audience, you might recognize ahead of time the objections different family members may have to your proposition and either head them off or have prepared responses. For example, if your sister-in-law loves shopping, she might not be on board with a change that leads to less shopping. For her, you can share information on ways to make shopping more sustainable and let her know that an eco-friendly holiday does not mean no shopping, it just means making some slight (and fun) alterations to the shopping you do. 

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Make it Fun

Make a game out of giving sustainable gifts. Gamification increases engagement. Gamification means adding game-like elements to a task or activity. For example, you could set up some rules and create a points system and crown a “winner” for the family member who puts forth the most effort or reduces their waste the most. Use an app like Elfster to bring technology into the changes you are suggesting. Apps like Elfster facilitate drawing names so that each family member buys for just one other member, potentially reducing the overall gifts purchased. Make sure everyone has a role to play and a stake in the new traditions.

Say it Effectively

This next one should come as no surprise. Decades of communication research shows that people do not like to be told what to do. We call telling people what to do threatening a person’s autonomy. Autonomy is the part of us that likes to make our own decisions and not have others impinge upon our ability to make choices and spend our time as we choose. Even worse, sometimes being told what to do makes us do the opposite. Social scientists call this “psychological reactance.” 

Your personal experience has probably taught you most of this already, but what you might not know is how to plan your messages to avoid threatening a person’s sense of autonomy. The easiest way to protect someone’s sense of autonomy is to give them choices. You can give these choices strategically so that you can still meet your goal but the other person feels they have some control over the situation. For example, you might say: “we are going to work towards a more sustainable holiday season this year, and I want your input on how to make changes to our existing traditions. Which sounds more fun? Drawing names for giving gifts or pledging to give only handmade gifts this year?” This way your family members get to make a choice about what they prefer to do and they feel ownership over the decisions being made. 

Get People Excited before Introducing it to the Group

Go around to your different family members and get them on board using the techniques mentioned above. If caring for the earth appeals to one member and supporting local artisans appeals to another, start by talking to these two people separately and really emphasizing the parts of the challenge they will like and be interested in. Then, when you tell the group as a whole, these two already know why it is a good idea/beneficial for them to be supportive.  

Find the Right Time to Introduce Change

Two weeks before the holiday is probably not the best time to introduce major changes to traditions. Especially when most people already have purchased gifts and holiday wrap. An ideal time would be well in advance of the holiday season. Give people plenty of time to consider the changes, give feedback, and adapt to the changes. Consider the mood for the conversation. A non-stressful, laid back gathering would be best. Think about who needs to be in on the conversation. Sometimes less opinions in the room is helpful but key stakeholders should be there.

Make Small Changes First 

Going 100% zero-waste this holiday season is likely to cause rebellion and hard feelings. Try changing just one part of your holiday traditions this year, and change another part next year. We wrote about 10 easy changes to make here. Sometimes the easiest changes are the ones that don’t require us to give something up, but instead introduce an alternative. For example, rather than asking family members to drop traditional gifts altogether and go for experiences or a family vacation instead, introduce alternative ways of wrapping the kinds of gifts you’ve always given. Work your way up to limiting the total number of gifts in the future. 

What eco-friendly holiday traditions do you have in your family? Has your family successfully navigated a change to your family traditions? How did you do it? Share in the comments below or message us on Instagram or Facebook.

Interested in having a more eco-friendly holiday this year? Take our Eco Holiday Challenge! Register here to have tips and inspiration sent to your inbox.

Parts of this post were originally published on Psychology Today.

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