In considering gifts and companies to list, I used the following criteria, which I altered and expanded from a list by Alicia Daniel found in the Nov/Dec 2003 issue of Mothering Magazine. The article was No More Junk Toys: Rethinking Children's Gifts by Judith L. Rubin.
Will this eventually turn into dirt -- i.e., could I compost it?
This is really a question about natural materials. You can't compost rocks, but they make a great gift! No, that wasn't a joke! Just tonight we were playing with some beautiful, smooth, flat rocks that my brother brought the boys several years ago from the coast of France. Those rocks sit in a wooden bowl in our living room most of the time, but they can be stacked G0ldsworthy style, or used for any number of other things. Tonight we didn't have any nuts or candies to play dreidel with, so we used the rocks instead. It was lovely and satisfying to slide them in and out of the "pot" in the middle.
As you are considering this question, think Beavis and Butthead: Bread, good. Clay, good. Some wood, good. Metal, okay. Plastic, bad.
If not, does it reuse or recycle something that would otherwise go straight to landfill?
I know some people have issues with used gifts -- I'm not one of them, especially if you find something that was really nice quality to begin with and is still in great shape. This probably works best when getting gifts for younger kids and teens or adults who share your values. I've never seen a 3-year-old turn up his nose at wooden blocks simply because they were "preowned," and one year I gave my siblings and parents all books from the library book sale. There may be some older children/younger adolescents who will reject a used gift, but if you find just the right thing, even they may not care.
What are the hidden environmental costs of the production, transportation, and disposal of this gift?
When we buy cheap plastic toys from overseas, we are not paying the true cost of the poisonous, oil-dependent manufacturing processes, the plastic packaging that may well end up in the Pacific, the trees that were cut down to make the cardboard packaging, and the cost in global warming from transporting these "cheap" goods from the poorly regulated factories to the store. We also aren't paying for the cost to our bodies from living with them, or the cost to the environment that comes when we try to throw them away.
Do I know who made this? Are they well-paid and well-treated? To whom is my money going? Is the CEO of the company getting rich while workers are starving?
Rubin's article has some frightening information about this topic, as well.
Is this gift beautiful?
Beautiful doesn't always mean perfect, it can mean the grace of something made by human hands. In fact, many of the gifts in this guide can be made by your hands! I know you're busy, and maybe you don't think of yourself as crafty, and that sometimes handmade gifts seem like they're just, um, useless or lame, but these ideas are so jammin' and easy that I hope you'll try at least some of them.
Will this gift capture the imagination? If it's a toy, can it be used in many ways, or is it self-limiting? Will it foster the child's natural inclinations? Will it help him more fully engage in life? Does it help her reach her goals?
So often, the best toys are ones that don't represent any one thing -- ropes, sticks, playsilks, those rocks I just told you about...