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'Tis the season to be sustainable

Well, the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is upon us! The gathering of family and friends and the sharing of wonderful food is what makes this time of year so magical.

Personally one of my favorite aspects of the holiday is season is giving. Shopping and finding the perfect gift for someone and watching the expression as they open it is priceless to me. In the last few years I have tried to purchase gifts locally to support our community and sustain our environment.

Several studies indicate that when we buy from independent, local businesses, rather than nationally owned chains — think big box stores — significantly more of our money stays circulating in our community. This practice helps to strengthen the local economy and supports small business owners in our community.

Another reason to shop locally is to reduce our environmental impact. Making local purchases requires less transportation of goods, thus using less fossil fuel and causing less pollution. Items in our local stores and boutiques are often hand-crafted or refurbished, creating little to no packaging waste.

Two Northland women have mastered the art of shopping locally.

Duluthian Shawna Mullen has made it a priority to practice "local only" gift giving. Shawna said, "Our primary reason for starting this tradition is that we wanted to support local businesses, local artists and craftspersons, promote environmental responsibility and social justice. No sweat shops, please!"

Her favorite places to find gifts are the local arts and craft shows Duluth showcases throughout the year. She enjoys meeting the people who create the work and hearing the story behind it. She sees an economic benefit, too. "Because we are always keeping our eyes peeled for great gifts, we are buying gifts year-round and not all in November and December, so we actually see less of a financial burden during the holidays than we used to before our local only rule," Shawna said.

Instead of using paper, she wraps her gifts with fabric bags or old paper bags that she stamps and accents with newspaper, burlap and re-used ribbon. She also uses pine cones, twigs, acorns, leaves and feathers instead of bows to make the presents beautiful.

She hopes that the practice of local and sustainable gift giving teaches her daughter to be thoughtful about giving gifts. "We hope that she looks forward to the holidays each year, not because she will get gifts, but because it is a special time of year to spend with family and friends and experience things that only the holiday time can offer," Shawna explained.

Another local champion of sustainability is Susan Wolniakowski. Susan held a lengthy position at the Lake Superior Zoo as the director of guest services and found a creative and sustainable way to exchange gifts among colleagues. "As an environmentally aware organization, I was lucky to be surrounded by a team devoted to developing a more sustainable world," Susan said.

She once planned a gift exchange at work where each person received three gifts. One was something made of recycled, reused or repurposed items that included an inspirational quote. The second was a $10 donation to a nonprofit organization on their behalf. The third was to "re-gift" an item that you've been holding onto because it means too much to give away to a stranger.

Susan chose this practice of giving because is sparked creativity and inspiration, kept items out of the landfill and gave money to a nonprofit.

You may not be able to shop for everything locally this year, but can I encourage you to try to make more purchases locally this season and support our community and our environment?

Local gift ideas:

• A growler of craft beer from one of our local breweries.

• A gift certificate to one of our locally owned boutiques like Art in the Alley or Lotus on the Lake.

• As season pass to The Lake Superior Zoo, Great Lakes Aquarium or The Depot.

Cara Overland

Cara Overland is the board vice president of Sustainable Twin Ports, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. She is trained in The Natural Step, a science and systems based sustainability framework.