Consumption and the culture of gifts

Diego Horcajada, December 2017

I would like to dedicate this post to a topic occupying lately a great deal of my thoughts: consumption and the culture of gifts.

We are approaching the year-end holidays, a period of festivities when friends and families get together to celebrate. In the western cultures, heavily rooted in Judaeo-Christian traditions, the Christmas (Navidad, Noël, Natal, Natale, Weihnachten…) is supposedly a moment to celebrate and express Love, for many represented by the birth of Jesus Christ.

There are certainly many ways to express Love, and one of them is giving gifts. The tradition of gifting is present in all current and ancient cultures, and since the second half of the 20th Century, not so long ago, it has become extremely lucrative for the consumer goods industries ($1 trillion for the American retailers in three months between November 2016 and January 2017 excluding automotive and gasoline, as per the October 23rd 2017 article; 2017 Deloitte holiday retail survey). That is one trillion dollars ($

I always have a hard time with these big numbers, I get lost with all the zeros. To help me put this in perspective, I checked the GDPs of some countries: US $19.3 trillion, France $2.6 trillion, UK 2.6 trillion, Spain $1.3 trillion. So, I ask myself: how much Love is expressed with $1 trillion?

Let me take a step back…

During the last three months I’ve been able to practice more regularly a very interesting and productive learning method: watching and listening to my kids. My daughter Eva is 5 years old. As a typical five-year-old, she is graciously developing her painting and handcrafting skills, and she is proud of it. She is so proud that she wants to share her pride by gifting her new creations to the people she loves: sometimes mom or dad, sometimes her brother, and may other times friends, schoolmates and relatives. I started to think about it, and I remembered in first grade I gave some of my handcrafts and paintings to my teacher Amparo. I was in love with her. I even remembered one Christmas when my youngest sister (21 one years younger than me) gave my parents, my sisters and I games she invented and even created the necessary cards for all five of us to play together.

I have asked some friends to understand if their kids used to do the same when they were little, and I only received one answer: YES!

It is sad and ironic to realise that when we grow up we learn (or unlearn, I would say) to buy gifts instead of making or inventing them. We learn this so well that it gets ingrained in our culture and becomes a societal obligation. We even convince ourselves we are buying gifts that are needed. If this was the case, why did we not buy the gift when the need arose, instead of waiting until Christmas?

There are certainly many people today practicing the habits of the little ones, make gifts themselves to express their Love. But it is not yet mainstream. Most of us still buy new unneeded stuff to fulfil a tradition that is actually harming the future of our kids.

It is harming our children’s future in several different ways: kids unlearn how create and innovate; they learn a culture of materialism, where happiness depends on the “have” instead of the “be”; they learn to compare and judge the others based on what they have instead of what they are; and last but not least, we are unnecessarily using natural resources that in just a few minutes on the 25th of December become waste in the form of packaging thrown to the garbage and useless goods stored somewhere in the house waiting to be re-gifted or thrown away in the next general house cleaning.

As I mentioned in my post “we have a problem” our planet is not able to support us much longer if we continue this way. In my post “The Paris summit 2015 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) I explain how the environmental sustainability concern has become much more relevant in the agendas of the United Nations, other international organisations, and most of the countries around the world. The SDG n° 12 states: “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”.

The SDG n°12 addresses two distinct players: the ones producing and the ones consuming. I’m addressing here the second group: Lets each take our part of ownership and try to make a difference thinking about our kids. Lets try to protect their capacity to invent and innovate, to be happy and to appreciate the others based on what they are (not what they have), and lets give them the right to do it in a planet and a society worth living in.

I would like to finish this post with the Story of the Hummingbird:


One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest – a raging wild fire suddenly engulfed huge woodlands. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and they were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird. This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up a few drops of water and went into the forest and put them on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, “Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire.” And as the animals stood around disparaging the little bird’s efforts, the bird noticed how hopeless and forlorn they looked. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, “What do you think you are doing?” And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, “I am doing my part.”

So, expressing Love, this is what we will do when giving gifts to our friends and family just two weeks from now. I invite you to remember this post and the Story of the Hummingbird when you decide what to give to express Love to your friends and family.

Have a Merry Christmas and lots of creativity and fun expressing and receiving Love.

Diego Horcajada

PD: check this link for some ideas to buy less while doing more.

5 thoughts on “Consumption and the culture of gifts

  1. Great article Diego. I completely agree. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the level of consumerism that takes place during this season as well as Easter. I grew up in Greece and we received gifts from Saint Nick in early January. My family always gifted us one precious gift and encouraged me and my brother to make gifts. I also learnt to be entreprenurial with carol singing 😉


    1. Thanks Natalie for your comment. We need to find ways to tap into kid’s potential for innovation; they can certainly help bringing relevant and sustainable solutions to the problems we face. And they are absolutely entitle to do so, as they will be here once we are gone.


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