Arguably, the greenest gift is the one you don't buy, since, as we've been taught, conspicuous consumption breeds waste. Of course, a hug and good intensions won't necessarily suffice at your family's holiday fete. Well, here's a good compromise, along with some guidance for everything from gag gifts to life-savers.
Automatic is a small device that plugs into a car's data port (cars manufactured since 1996 have them – it's the same port mechanics use to run basic diagnostics). It tracks driving behavior and, through a Bluetooth interface with the driver's smartphone, the Automatic app coaches the driver toward more gas-conscious habits when it detects behavior such as abrupt breaking, speeding and punching the gas a bit too hard from a dead stop. Lest your recipient find this too draconian, there are perks: fuel costs may be cut by up to a third, and the app remembers where the car was last parked and guides the mall-weary driver back to it. If the device's accelerometer detects a crash, it will automatically send a report to local authorities. Automatic for iPhone (iOS 6+) is available now, support for select Android phones rolls out in December. $99.95
2. One word: Swants.
Here is what you need: One sweater, one tapestry needle, around 10 safety pins, yarn, and vision! A good sense of humor won't hurt, either. We can thank Stephen West, an Oklahoman, knitter and pattern maker living in Amsterdam, for this most awesome reuse for thrift-shop sweaters: turning them into pants. Thus, swants. You'll need the full tutorial. (Pro tip from West: "If you want to get super professional, you can use a serger or sewing machine to reinforce the seams.")
3. Fix it and give it.
Patagonia is tops when it comes to making compelling, transparent messages about the externalities (carbon emissions, resource extraction, water consumption, etc.) attached to gear manufacturing, and the virtues of making things last. Its resident surfer-filmmakers, the Malloys, even made a half-hour film praising the people from whose cold, dead hands you'll need to pry that ancient Capilene. In this spirit, consider giving the gift of repaired, regifted gifts. Did your friend bust a zipper on her favorite shell during a hut-to-hut trip last spring? Did you stumble upon a vintage-but-tattered camera your photographer uncle would love? The folks at iFixit have crowdsourced specialty repair guides for everything from outdoor gear to cameras to electronics to toaster ovens.
4. Clean undies.
Not all possessions are endlessly repairable. Among them: Unmentionables. Pact makes underwear, socks and t-shirts that start with organic cotton from small farms, are woven at factories that use renewable energy and where workers are treated and compensated fairly. Pact also partners with other organizations to support microloaning programs, urban gardens, and social welfare programs. Prices vary.
5. Energy harvesting FTW!
For the more than one billion people in the world who lack access to grid electricity, off-grid Americans must seem like a curious bunch. But beyond the novelty of, say, running your laptop on pedal power, there are some "energy harvesters" that have moved beyond the prototype stage and are ready for prime time. One is the nPower Personal Energy Generator (PEG), which can charge mobile phones or other small electronics by harvesting kinetic energy we produce while running, walking or biking. You'll find it at REI and other outdoor specialty shops. $130. A startup called SolePower has developed an energy harvester integrated into a footbed. It plans to start delivering this product in late 2014, according to its successful Kickstarter campaign. In the future, we are likely to see batteries and tiny solar energy collectors woven directly into fabric, which would allow us to power electronics without external devices.