Giving beyond gifting in the pandemic: The socially responsible buyer


The pandemic has had a profound impact on the world. We became a global community as we lived through shared grief, fear, and isolation. 

Like all suffering, the experience has forced many of us to turn inward and re-evaluate many aspects of our lives. Not being able to be with some of our most dear family members and friends, and having to miss out on important celebrations and events have brought home the utter necessity and preciousness of the people in our lives and the beauty of the fragile world we live in. 

The pandemic has accelerated online shopping, and work from home has become a reality for many, but one thing has not changed: giving gifts. During the pandemic, people kept spending money, some spending more than they would have normally, to make up for the fact that they couldn’t attend a special celebration in person.

Global search figures show that the need to give presents did not abate during the pandemic. In 2020 the search term “online gift” increased by 80% compared to 2019, reports Google. People were not only searching for gifts for the typical special occasions like birthdays and weddings; they were looking for random gifts at random times, sometimes for people not in their immediate social circle. 

Photo by Mr.Autthaporn Pradidpong on Unsplash

Meaningful giving

Due to the radical adjustments the coronavirus pandemic has brought about, forcing people into isolation, people realised anew how precious their relationships are and needed to express this realisation in giving gifts that are enduring. Also, we shared a common anxiety, facing uncertainty that was almost unbearable, and giving soothes some of our own and the recipients’ anxiety. 

That people were suffering could clearly be seen in the spike in searches for “loneliness,” and “having trouble sleeping,” and “depression.”

The pandemic has spurred a need for meaningful giving. From Google search results, it was clear that people were aware of the hardships others were going through and that they wanted to find a way to help. 

The keywords “volunteer opportunities near me” saw a 50% increase globally, and searches also grew globally. Even birthday celebrations had a search term that read “how to celebrate birthday meaningfully”.

One solution to the inability to host guests for birthday parties has been the emergence of “drive-by birthday parties,” which I don’t think even existed before the pandemic. For the uninitiated, this is not a party in the strict sense of the term, but it’s a very special way to acknowledge someone’s birthday. It takes the form of family and friends driving past the home of the person whose birthday it is to wave and drop off gifts.

Etsy’s 2020 Christmas trend report showed that people were looking for thoughtful gifts to show their love and care for those far away. Personal care hampers customised to the receiver’s tastes and needs were very popular. 

The DeBeers Diamond Insight ‘Flash’ Report came out in the thick of the pandemic in June 2020, with the finding that 56% of people felt gifts should be “meaningful, over and above being practical, functional or fun”. In addition, the primary reason for giving diamond jewelry was to express a sense of gratitude and acknowledgment for partners and mothers, letting them know that they’re important and valued.

Many times, people came up with meaningful gifts to lighten the spirits of others during lockdown. Charlotte Bredael from Gosforth in Newcastle, England, is one of them. She dressed up as different Disney princesses, then made personalised videos of herself and sent them to children who needed cheering up.

In addition to the preference for meaningful gifts, there has been a shift to essential and useful goods like food, medications, and groceries. Research shows that there has been an increase of 90.69% in spending on essential goods and only an increase of 36.11% on non-necessities products. Many people, realising that others were struggling, gifted groceries to them.

Gift ideas that don’t add to the clutter

Another trend that the pandemic has intensified is the shift to decluttering. The hardships of the pandemic have highlighted the extravagance of having a lot of stuff. People don’t want too much stuff, and they also consider this fact when they plan to give someone a gift. Consumers are increasingly spending their money on experiences rather than things. Gifting experiences have become very popular as people see more meaning in that and like the idea that it doesn’t add to clutter in the home. Here we mention just three examples.

  • Let’s Roam scavenger hunts
  • Let’s Roam offers scavenger hunts through cities in more than 400 locations around the world. In Melbourne, you can give a bar hunt, in Canberra, an art hunt, or even a cultural and historical experience in Hobart as a present.

  • A biography written about that special person 
  • We all know someone whose life we feel warrants a biography. What if that person won’t do it, though? Here is a most unusual gift idea that won’t add clutter, but will bring lasting and meaningful enrichment to the lives of friends and family members: gifting a biography to be written about the life of someone special.

    LifeTime Memoirs puts the gift recipient in touch with an interviewer and after 12 interviews, a ghostwriter writes the biography. The interviews happen in person or virtually. The end result is a bound, published biography of up to 45,000 words. The gift is quite pricey, so an entire family could contribute to making it a reality.

  • Spa day at home
  • The stress caused by the pandemic is very real. As much as people would love to go to a spa to relax, it was not possible during lockdowns. People found a way around that, though: gifting a spa day at home. A hamper of bath salts, face masks, exfoliators, deep conditioners and a special sweet treat with a bottle of bubbly became the perfect pandemic present.

    Photo by Jess @ Harper Sunday on Unsplash

    The environment loomed large in people’s minds

    The experience of social and economic upheaval during the pandemic has transformed people’s attitudes about consumerism. Covid-19 has made people more aware of environmental issues as it afforded them time to hear the birds in the absence of traffic noise and marvel at images online of wild creatures venturing into urban areas. We all saw heartening images on the internet of the earth bouncing back as air pollution and sewage and industrial effluents in rivers decreased.

    The experience brought the plight of the environment home, and it has been translated into changed consumer habits, with many people making sustainability a priority in their lives.

    Soonkwan Hong, associate professor at the Michigan Technological University College of Business, remarked in a paper published in the journal Markets, Globalization and Development Review that the pandemic has “escalated desires for safety and connected individuality,” a shift toward buying local — connecting with local makers or providers — and buying in a way that has a positive impact on one’s community.

    Whether ethical and environmental consumerism is here to stay though, remains an open question. 

    Socially responsible gifts that give back to nature and communities

    Here are a few ideas for gifts from socially responsible companies that give back to nature and people.

  • Shop for a gift at Surfrider
  • Surfrider has been cleaning up beaches and the oceans for more than a decade, hosting 2K + clean-ups and removing 650K + pounds of trash. Buying a gift on the platform supports Surfrider’s efforts to get off-shore drilling banned. You can also give a Surfrider membership, which entitles the recipient to a 20% discount at the Surfrider online store, a newsletter and a member T-shirt. 

  • Buy a humble pair of socks and donate a whole range of worthy causes
  • Sydney Socks makes and sells brightly coloured socks that customers absolutely love. For every item bought the company makes a donation. So far, Sydney Socks have made 28,000 donations to support the  homeless, bee conservation, disadvantaged children, domestic violence victims, mental health campaigning, and many more causes.  

  • Donate a Zambrero meal
  • The popular Mexican food franchise, Zambrero, is on a mission to stop world hunger. So far, the company has donated over 52 million meals to those in need through their Plate 4 Plate initiative. Every time someone dines at Zambrero, the company donates a meal to someone in need on their behalf. Gifting a few Zambrero meals to someone is a great way to do your part in alleviating world hunger.

  • Buy from Sukin and help clean the Great Barrier Reef
  • Sukin makes and sells natural skin care products. The eco-conscious brand works with Greening Australia through its Reef Aid to  stop pollutants from reaching the Reef. For every Sukin x Reef Aid product you purchase,, 20c will go to the Reef Aid project to help support the regeneration of the Great Barrier Reef.

    Final thoughts

    The pandemic has affected every sphere of life, even the simple act of choosing and giving a gift. The time of introspection brought about by being forced into isolation has caused many people to reassess what they value in life. One outcome has been that people are looking for gifts that are high-quality and meaningful, and don’t harm the environment.

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