1) Don't buy anything that requires a throwaway battery. Batteries leak cadmium, lead and other heavy metals when they're thrown away. They usually come wrapped in plastic and cardboard, creating more trash as soon as you buy them. Plus, you have to keep replacing them; in some cases, the cost of batteries over the life of a product ends up amounting to more than the product itself. Solution? Avoid toys, gadgets and appliances that require short-lived, throwaway batteries. If you must give a battery-powered gift, include rechargeable batteries and the recharger to go with it. One of my favorites is a reuseable AAA battery you can recharge in the USB port of your computer.
2) Buy solar- or hand-powered. Among your options: hand-cranked flashlights, coffee grinders, blenders and juicers. Vintage-style razors with replaceable razor blades. A French-press coffee pot. More interested in solar? Try solar-powered chargers for cell phones, flash drives, and radios.
3) Don't buy synthetic fragrances and air fresheners. Ironically, even though these products are supposed to make things smell better, they actually make it more difficult for many people to breathe, especially those who suffer from asthma or other respiratory problems. Want your home to waft Christmas? Simmer a small pot of water, cloves and cinnamon sticks over the stove. Need to smell better yourself? Dab a drop of essential oil from your favorite flower (mine is lavender) behind each ear and on the inside of each wrist.
4) Buy phthalate-free. Phthalates are often the building blocks for synthetic fragrances. They're also found in nail polish and many other personal care products. The downside? They're nasty chemicals considered a reproductive hazard in Europe and the state of California. Luckily, you can find a wonderful variety of phthalate-free nail polishes, perfumes, make-up and other personal care products in stores like Whole Foods and the Body Shop or online here.