It's that time of year again, and you may be starting to think about gifts you’d like to get your loved ones for Christmas. Perhaps you’re eyeing the latest Apple watch for your significant other. Or you've seen our silk travel set, awesome for your jet-setting sister. Or perhaps the latest Super Mario LEGO set, the perfect gift for your nephew.
Christmas time is the most wonderful time of the year—for human beings. But, sadly, it is the worst time of year for our environment (1) as the US holiday season contributes to 25% more waste. One product that is particularly wasteful is advent calendars—in this article's case, we're talking beauty advent calendars. These novelty gifts are often housed in excessive packaging, most of it usually plastic, which is an enormous problem for our environment.
In this article, I’ll touch on the history of advent calendars; I’ll highlight the environmental problem with beauty advent calendars; and I’ll show you some sustainable gift alternatives to beauty advent calendars.
The History of Advent Calendars
Advent calendars have become a popular staple at Christmas time. Not just to Christians, but to children who wait for Santa Claus, and for many of us who count the days to when we get to see our families and friends on Christmas Day. But where does the advent calendar concept originate from?
“Advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming”. In the 4th and 5th century Spain and Gaul, advent was considered a religious ritual where preparation for a succession of events took place, beginning with the baptism of new Christians at the January feast of Epiphany, and ending at God’s first miracle at Cana (2). Then in the 6th century, and the Middle Ages, advent was then linked to the coming of Christ.
Advent is the four-week period beginning after Thanksgiving, and in modern times became more commonly associated with Christ’s birth on December 25th. It has gradually evolved into different kinds of rituals for people to celebrate Christmas in their own way—regardless of whether or not you’re religious. So when did advent become a commercialized symbol of consumerism?
In the early 1900s, a German newspaper created the first advent calendar as a free gift to its readers. This was just a simple calendar with 24 colored pictures on a piece of cardboard (4). Today, we know advent calendars to be much more than just a piece of cardboard. There are now advent calendars being manufactured for chocolates, toys, technology, condiments, cookies, tea, and cosmetics and skincare, just to name a few.
Most advent calendars today hold no real religious meaning. They are simply a promotional product in which brands can profit from.
The Environmental Cost of Beauty Advent Calendars
Before we dive into the world of beauty advent calendars, let’s first look at original advent calendars you probably remember from when you were a kid. The calendar itself was normally made from cardboard or plastic, with 24 little doors for each day that opened up to reveal a piece of chocolate, often wrapped in foil.
What you may not know is that the amount of cardboard, foil, and plastic used to create these still popular chocolate advent calendars creates an enormous amount of waste every year (5).
Now, you’ve probably heard or read about statistics on just how destructive the beauty industry is to our environment. From the manufacturing of ingredients—overharvesting and overconsumption of natural resources, water waste, etc; to the excessive packaging that creates mountains of waste—and microplastics—every single year.
Beauty advent calendars contain products that are especially produced just for the purpose of fitting into an advent calendar that sits either on a tabletop, or one you can hang. This means that the products you reveal on each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas Day are a lot smaller and lighter than the standard product sizes. They only last a few uses, and then they are discarded, along with the calendar.
In 2019, Sephora received backlash by some for selling their advent calendars for $45 and filling them with samples that customers normally get for free (3). So not only were Sephora creating more landfill waste with single-use samples—which is a whole other topic I touch on in this article— but they were pretty much ripping their customers off. Don’t you just love that Christmas Spirit.
A few years ago I worked for French skincare brand, L’Occitane as a Beauty Advisor. Every year they produce a Christmas advent calendar. When I worked there, they had three to choose from at different price points. I was only working there for a few months over one Christmas season, but I recall there were many customers asking when their advent calendar was going to be in stock so they could buy “some”—not just one.
According to a study in 2018 (8), 55.6% of UK consumers planned to purchase at least one advent calendar that year—up from 53.4% the year before. Beauty advent calendars are big business—they top the list for the most popular advent calendar buy. But this is precisely why it’s a problem.
But look, I understand the appeal. You’re buying one thing, and getting 24 things in return. So it can be an impressive gift to give someone. But while customers were thinking of all the different products they get included in their L’Occitane purchase, all I could think about, when we received the mountains of advent calendar boxes, was just how much waste it was producing.
Big brands are known to greenwash. They’re like “look over here, natural and non-toxic ingredients! Packaging you can recycle—Ooooh! Aaaahh—Look how great we are!”. But what they fail to mention is that only 9% of our trash (on average) gets recycled. So, to me, “recyclable packaging” means nada! But instead of being more responsible, hundreds of brands keep bringing out advent calendars every single year that are adding to our waste crisis.
Advent calendars may not seem like they’re all that wasteful—after all, they’re so small, so tiny, how can such little objects create such a big issue. But many times, small plastics end up in our ocean (7). And for the small plastics that we do send to recycling, they often end up in landfill instead. This is because many recycling facilities cannot recycle plastics that are too small (6).
The problem with beauty advent calendars—and many consumer products these days—is that they are designed to be consumed quickly, and then discarded. Brands don’t design the products or the packaging for advent calendars to last forever, because then it wouldn’t be a profitable promotion every Christmas. And this is the problem with consumerism.
I could go on and on about how terrible advent calendars are for our planet, but I think you get the point. So let’s move on.
Sustainable Alternatives to Beauty Advent Calendars
Instead of purchasing a conventional advent calendar that has been designed for the masses, here are four thoughtful and sustainable gift ideas that you know they’ll get good use out of.
Sustainable Accessories Kit
Get a reusable accessories kit that replaces the usual disposable items you find in the bathroom.
Marley’s Monsters: Organic Reusable Facial Rounds replaces cotton rounds, and is reusable—just throw them in the laundry.
The Last Swab: Beauty Reusable Swab replaces cotton tips and is made from sustainable silicone.
UpCircle: Beauty Safety Razor is their best selling accessory, and replaces plastic, disposable razors.
Sustainable Beauty Kit
How about a beauty kit that is formulated with thoughtful ingredients and no plastic packaging.
Āthr Beauty: Ametrine Crystal Quad is a fully-recyclable paper eyeshadow palette—with no mirrors or magnets!
River Organics: Blush Stick in Bloom is 100% natural ingredients in a cardboard tube.
Axiology Beauty: Balmie in Sorbet formulated with hydrating ingredients, and comes wrapped in paper.
Fait avec Coeur: 100% Silk Mask in Dusty Pink is made from sustainably sourced, durable high-quality silk that is super soft on the skin.
Sustainable Skincare Kit
If you really have your heart set on skincare as a gift, my best advice to you is to handpick a skincare ritual that your gift-receiver will actually love and use. I’ve selected a ritual for all skin types that are created by truly sustainable beauty brands. These products are high quality without the hefty price tag.
This bar is perfect for face and body cleansing. It contains 99% natural ingredients, all sourced sustainably, and it comes packaged in cardboard.
Earth Harbor: Tidal Rose Crystal Hydration Toner
For a refreshing and hydrating spritz, add this toner after cleansing. It works to hydrate, balance, and can also be used as a makeup setting spray.
Boost skin’s complexion with a lightweight coffee serum. It contains 98% natural and sustainable ingredients, one of them being salvaged coffee grounds.
This glow oil is perfect as a final step in a ritual. Nourish and protect the skin from the elements with a perfect arrangement of seed and fruit oils.
Creating your own kit as a gift is so much more thoughtful and meaningful than buying a pre-made, mass-produced advent calendar. Especially when you consider the environment in your buying decisions.
The equivalent of 30 million trees are used to wrap gifts every year (1), so a great way to wrap your gifts is to use fabric—known as Furoshiki—instead of wrapping paper. You can also repurpose an old box, postage parcel, or newspaper and decorate it with dried leaves from your garden, like Seeking Lavender Lane does.
The future of beauty is dependent on what we do today. Continuing on the way we are going—using up resources as if they’ll never run out, and living a wasteful existence—is completely and irrevocably unsustainable.
Advent has evolved from being something meaningful to Christians, to becoming a consumer product that companies use as a means to make bank every holiday season. Let’s make more mindful buying decisions this Christmas and buy something people will really use that won’t harm the planet.
Emma Masotti is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.
Some of the products promoted in our blog are from our online store. Many others are brands we have researched and found to be great examples of sustainable, ethical, and innovative brands in their field, and we don't make any profit from mentioning them in our blog. #CollaborationOverCompetition