Reducing Gifts, Stress, and Waste for Well-Being and an Eco-Friendly Holiday with Laura from Reduce Reuse Renew

Eco Holiday Hero Badge, Step 2

To complete Step 2 of the Eco Holiday Hero Badge we interviewed Laura Durenberger, the blogger behind Reduce, Reuse, Renew. Laura gave some great ideas for focusing your shopping lists on what your loved ones really need. We love her four gift rule. We learned how to keep our mental health strong during the holidays, all while doing good for the planet and our families.

Laura’s blog, Reduce, Reuse, Renew, is a site that serves as a guide to reduction-based living through mindfulness, minimalism, anxiety management, and zero waste living in order to make room for the things that matter.

Step 2 of any badge is to learn from others. Talking to an expert or taking an organized class is a great way to do this step if you can find one! For the Eco-Holiday Hero badge we suggest taking a class from your local recycling center or other green organization, learning how to DIY some gifts this year, or practicing Furoshiki wrapping. Read on to see what we learned from Laura, an expert on zero-waste living and eco-friendly holidays!

We were so excited to talk with Laura of Reduce, Reuse, Renew. Her blog is full of posts on how to make your life and the holidays more eco-friendly. We love that she makes the link between clutter and overbuying with stress and anxiety and gives a ton of tips for improving mental health. Her expertise started from her experience decluttering over 150 large boxes of items and selling countless more, and reducing her family’s waste by 35lbs a week. She is also the creator of the interview-series ‘Anxiety Stories | Normalizing Anxiety in Today’s World’, and 2-minute self-guided mindfulness meditations using her nature photography. Our first question orients us to Laura’s background.

  1. How did you get started living a more eco-friendly lifestyle?

I’ve always been interested in environmental topics – influenced at an early age by my mom and grandma. I went on to study environmentally related topics in high school through graduate school. Being ‘green’ has been part of my life for a long time. 

However, it wasn’t until the fall of 2017, when my family (which consists of my husband, 4-year-old son, and three cats) and I got accepted for a nine month long zero waste challenge through our local county, that we actively started reducing our waste at home. Since then, we have reduced our waste by 35-40lbs a week on average, and have started putting more of our efforts into our local community and surrounding areas. 

At the same time, we had already been on a decluttering journey for a couple of years and working towards a more minimalistic life. Minimalism and eco-friendly living are very similar in that they both have the mindset around reducing. Since we started our decluttering journey in 2015, we’ve gotten rid of 140 large boxes of stuff and sold countless more. As we got rid of stuff, it became even more important to us to prevent more from coming back in. 

  1. What are your favorite zero waste gifts you have given/received?

Gift exchanging was something that was challenging with my newfound low waste/minimalist lifestyle, as I LOVE giving gifts. I really had to buckle down and take a look at what was really important to me re: gift giving events (birthdays, holidays). In the end, I realized that the act of opening gifts was really about spending that time with others, which we can still do without going overboard on gifts. 

When my son was one year old, we started incorporating the ‘four gift rule’ for his gifts for birthdays and holidays. The four gift rule is as follows:

  • Something you want
  • Something you need
  • Something you wear
  • Something you read

We celebrate Christmas, and ‘Santa’ is in charge of the stockings. We’ve worked out a deal with him where he brings one gift for our son, and for stockings he fills them with consumables and necessities. 

My husband and I exchange one gift for Christmas, and help Santa with each other’s stockings. We don’t exchange anything for birthdays and instead celebrate as a family. 

Specifically, one of the things we love asking for is experience gifts. For example, for my son, we may ask for money towards a zoo membership, lessons, or a local nature center membership. 

I personally LOVE getting and giving handmade gifts, and the gift of time. When it comes to some of my friends, instead of exchanging gifts, we’ll go out for bubble tea or a treat and just spend time together. 

I think the important thing when it comes to gift giving is make sure the person truly wants and will use the item. Even if you give them something clutter and waste friendly, if the person doesn’t want it, it doesn’t do anyone any good. If you aren’t sure what someone will want, offer the gift of time, or opt to not exchange gifts at all. 

  1. How did you get your immediate family on board for an eco-friendly holiday? What about your extended family? We have experienced some resistance with our extended family and would love your tips!

The only person you can control is yourself. The best thing you can do is communicate and lead by example – this is true whether we’re talking about immediate or extended family. If your family exchanges gifts, ‘wrap’ yours in a cute reusable cookie tin or fabric. Offer to host an event and use reusable dishes and make the compost pile front and center in the kitchen with a sign. 

Communicate why not doing a big gift exchange is important to you. Share statistics and data that you’ve learned about waste and clutter to back your reasoning up. If there is a friend or family member that you think may also be on board, enlist their help in the conversation. 

Be open to questions and conversations. Keep expectations in check. As an individual, you didn’t change your actions overnight, and others aren’t going to either. Change can be hard, especially during the holidays if it goes against certain traditions. Make it clear to your family that it isn’t about them personally. 

It may take a few times, but you may be surprised at what other people start adopting that they see you doing. For example, last year I shared some statistics on social media about the insane amount of gift wrap waste, and it inspired my mother-in-law to make reusable cloth gift bags last year. Everyone loved them!

On the other hand, some won’t. And honestly, it’s not worth trying to change those who aren’t willing to change. It is just going to turn them off of the movement and is taking up your energy that you could be putting elsewhere. 

  1. Tell us more about your Pay it Forward/Traditions/Activity-Based Advent Calendar.  We love this idea! Any thoughts on adapting this for very busy older kids/teens?

I mentioned above that once I started on my journey of minimalism/zero waste, I really started reevaluating what the holidays meant to me, and where I wanted to put my focus. This became even more important for my son, because I wanted to showcase what I value as the true meaning of the season, and that is being thankful, spending time together, and giving back. 

I loved doing advent calendars as a kid, but the ones we used were one-time use and filled with waxy chocolate. In light of my new ‘reduction based lifestyle’, I didn’t want to fill the advent calendar with more stuff. So, I decided to create different activities to do throughout the month that celebrate our traditions and give back to our local community. It honestly has become one of my favorite holiday activities, and one I look forward to each year. 

For busy older kids/teens (or even adults), I would just suggest picking out a handful of activities that fall in line with their individual or family values and just do those instead of trying to pack them all in. Or, for some of the smaller craft activities that will be donated to charities that are more suitable for younger kids, find charities in your local area to replace them with. For example, maybe instead of coloring bookmarks to leave in library books, you do a mitten or hat collection at your school or with friends and family and donate them to a local homeless shelter. 

I created the activities for my family’s calendar with a lot of things that we would have done anyway – because the purpose of the calendar was not to add even MORE onto our plates. The activities are very fluid, and will even likely change for my family as my son gets older. Choose activities that fit your schedule and family’s values!

  1. We love that you make the connection between clutter and anxiety. How does this idea relate to the holidays? On a related note, what are your best tips for simplifying the season?

Reduce, reduce, reduce. Honestly, it’s all about reducing. Statistics show that physical clutter has a major negative effect on our mental health. I’m going to guess that it’s not a surprise that constantly being ‘busy’ does the same thing. 

Let’s take a look at gifts again as an example. By reducing gifts, even if just with your immediate family, you have less shopping, less money spent (bonus if you’re on a budget, less worry), less wrapping, less overall stress – and not to mention, less waste and clutter which have their own set of resource bank. More stuff means more cleaning, maintaining, and more energy spent on getting rid of the waste and item once you’re done with it. It may not seem like a lot, but all these decisions and actions we do throughout our day add up. 

Less stuff = more time to make a donation to a food shelf or relaxing by the fire with mint hot chocolate watching a Christmas movie with your family. 

Hosting an event? I used to be the person that would have to make everything from scratch. But then I took a hard look and asked myself if that was necessary. Were my guests coming over JUST because I made home cooked food? While the food may have been good, it was more about spending time together. I realized that some store bought alternatives were just as good. The same goes for house cleaning, by the way. No one cared if I deep cleaned my blinds. 

It may be hard and uncomfortable to say no, especially at first. But if you keep your values at the forefront, and lead with that, it becomes easier. One trick that was beneficial for me was to schedule time on my calendar for my values. For example, one of the advent activities (and something we would do anyway) is to get together with my mom, make lefse (a Norweigan dessert) and watch The Muppets Christmas Carol. We would schedule a time, and I would put that on my calendar, right? So why wouldn’t I do the same for other things that were important to me even if it was just internal?

I started putting family time on the calendar and treating it like any other commitment. If something came up against it that wasn’t imperative that we were there, I would say no. If the commitment involved someone close, I was honest and said it was family time. But if it wasn’t, I just said I wasn’t available and asked for another option (if it was something I needed to say ‘yes’ to eventually). If it wasn’t something I needed to say ‘yes’ to eventually, I would just say ‘no’. ‘No’ is a complete sentence after all, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation if you don’t want to give one. 

  1. What have you found to be the most useful or effective ways to spread the word about a more eco-friendly holiday/ lifestyle?

Lead by example. You could talk to people until you are blue in the face, but leading by example is much more powerful because change can be scary and hard. But if someone sees all the benefits you’re experiencing, they may be more likely to hop on board. 

Also, communication. Be open with why you’re making the choices you are. Be available for questions if people have them. 

Finally, as I mentioned above, know that these changes aren’t going to happen overnight, and that’s OK. We are all learning, all starting from different places, and all have access to different resources. No two journeys will look the same. But it’s important to be supportive and encouraging for anyone trying to make any changes, because that’s where it starts. 

Be sure to check Laura out over at Reduce, Reuse, Renew and on Instagram.

Interested in learning more about making sustainable changes to your holiday traditions? Take our Eco Holiday Challenge and commit to doing better this year. Register to receive tips and inspiration in your inbox here.

Need a bit more guidance in making this change? Use our Badge Guide and earn the Eco Holiday Hero Badge. The badge walks you through three steps that will get you well on your way to being an Eco Holiday Hero!

For Step 3 of the Eco-Holiday Hero Badge we took action by making DIY Christmas gifts! We’ll share what we made and how in our next post. 

We want to hear from you! How do you keep your mental health strong during the holidays? How will you reduce your stress and waste this holiday season? Message us on Instagram or Facebook or drop us a line here.

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