When I think of Halloween I groan and roll my eyes; not another commercialized holiday that exploits people, fucks up the planet, and quite frankly, makes having fun a chore. Yea, I'm not a huge fan of being told that I need to buy candy that's half chemicals and the other half grown by child slave laborers while dressing up in something wildly unique and simultaneously drinking myself silly. Just, no.
Of course, Halloween didn't always illicit such a jaded response in me. I spent my childhood looking forward to walking around my neighborhood in the dark, in a cool costume, eating tons of dessert with my family, just like any other privileged suburban American child probably did. While learning about the issues behind candy and costumes (and, admittedly, an unwillingness to party all that much) has soured my taste for Halloween, it definitely does not need to sour yours. Halloween costumes and Halloween candy can be done in some pretty awesome, sustainable ways.
My basic rules of thumb are to not be wasteful and to try to avoid giving your money to corporations who actively ruin the earth or exploit people. Get creative and pull a costume together only out of items you already own, or that you can borrow or buy secondhand. Don't buy a brand new costume or one-time-wear-only item from a fast fashion chain or plastic covered party store. Ditch the whole candy thing (unless you want to spend loads of money on fair trade chocolate and palm-oil free gummies for your neighborhood kiddos) and go for something home made. Breads, cakes, cookies, and caramel apples are all awesome treats to offer up to friends, family, and neighbors. Or heck, just treat yourself for that kickass costume you dreamt up!
Check out how some of my Ethical Writers & Creatives friends do Halloween the sustainable way:
MEGHANN PERCY, KISS THAT WORLD -
Halloween is. my. jam. It is mostly the costume part that gets me hot under the collar. Since I was a wee tot I would daydream for months about crafting an elaborate costume, which usually turned into some semi-recognizable, Pinterest fail version. I still really enjoy the daydreaming and as my motor skills have improved - creating has also gotten better.
I love the challenge of turning the ordinary into extraordinary and whenever I can wear a mustache - even better! Aside from a few sexy (and probably insensitive) times in college, I have managed to find the most comfortable, cost effective costume by using things I already own. Last year, a sheet turned into a Whacky-wiggly-waving arm guy. Honestly it’s amazing what you can do with duct tape and a dedication to make believe.
If you don’t have all you need - borrow! What’s the point of having friends if you can’t raid their closet? And check out thrift stores. They have gotten extremely good at curating for the holidays.
As far as individual wrapped candy goes- my house does not get many Trick-or-Treaters. Bulk is best- but unfortunately those poison candy rumors ruined it for everyone… So I am going to convince my SO to look for organic brands we trust wrapped in cardboard. (Which might be raisin’s but hey, they’re nature's candy right?)
ELIZABETH STILWELL, THE NOTE PASSER -
I tend to go with the flow for Halloween, so each year is a different event. Some years I’ll go to a friend’s costume party. Other years I’ll go to the hair-raising Halloween Extravaganza at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine — yes, it’s really a church! They show a silent movie accompanied by live organ music followed by a procession of ghouls right down the aisle. Another year, I checked out the big parade in the village. But the constant the last few years has been my costume: Little Edie Beale. After I watched Grey Gardens, for whatever reason I loved her and thought she was just the best character. I put on tights and a turtleneck topped with a bathing suit, add a scarf and voila — the best costume for today.
It’s dead simple to create a costume from clothes you already have or thrift something you will keep wearing. Combine a trend of the season with a topical costume and you win Halloween. This year, I’m loving the red trend and Carmen Sandiego or 60s inspired and The Love Witch.
With your costume sorted, you can keep the ghastly waste of Halloween to a minimum by decorating with natural materials like pumpkins and paper, switching to bio glitter, and serving up homemade party treats with real plates and glasses. I don’t have kids or get many trick-or-treaters in my building, but if did, I’d definitely look for palm oil free, vegan candy to pass out. It’s gonna cost me more, but it will cost the environment less.
NATH FEDEROVA, BEAUTYCALYPSE -
Halloween is a favourite in la case BEAUTYCALYPSE. Even my blog’s name lends itself beautifully to an Ecogothic/Ecohorror theme. So of course there is a whole collection of articles dedicated to making Halloween (or Samhain) greener, including recipes and entertaining tips – a Healthy Halloween Best Of!
Several articles about toxins lurking in the “conventional” decorations and costumes, among which Beware of Toxic Halloween, are the darker but much needed part of the story.
And because I don’t feel like supporting the “sexy ____” costume trend, I tend to pick obscure and majestic figures, for example a Celtic goddess, Helen of the Ways.
To share a few helpful links:
My favourite to send out paperless party invitations is definitely Paperless Post, for all the look and feel of exquisite stationery with no actual paper or printing or shipping involved. And the website Take Back Halloween is a great source of information for women who, like me, want their costume to celebrate a goddess, a queen, or an awe (or fear) inspiring mystical creature.
ALDEN WICKER, ECOCULT -
Halloween is my favorite holiday, because A. I love Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and B. I love dressing up in costumes! I don’t really participate in the candy aspect anymore – all that sugar and disposable wrappers are not my style – but I do love a good costume. There are a couple things I keep in mind when planning my outfit.
The outfit is not culturally appropriative or offensive to a marginalized group.
Sexy Pocahontas, sexy genie, sexy Egyptian goddess, sexy soldier – all of these costumes reduce real groups of people who already suffer from elevated rates of sexual assault – American Indian women, Indian women, Egyptian women, female soldiers – to a sexy trope. That sends a message to dumb men that these women are for having sex with, and nothing else. Please avoid.
I wrote a Refinery29 article about this, if you would like to learn more about when a costume crosses the line from cute to not OK.
2. The outfit is sustainable.
The amount of cheap polyester manufactured to be worn once and discarded in the name of Halloween makes me shiver. If you really must go with mass-produced Halloween costume, there are plenty of places to rent one! StyleLend has the most chic costumes, but Costumes Galore will hook you up with something warm and fuzzy, or just plain fun.
Otherwise, I’m always the most impressed and engaged with interesting, creative costumes that someone made using things right in their closet. The guessing game is half the fun! If you have to buy something to complete the look, try eBay, Etsy, or a secondhand site or store first. And aim to buy something that you’ll wear again, or that you know you can resell afterward. Last year I bought an American Apparel velvet dress and striped black leggings, then borrowed a lace-up bustier from a lady friend to make my goth costume. I ended up getting appendicitis that weekend, so I have no pictures for you. But I’ve worn the dress and leggings several times since!
TAHIRA HEROLD, BEAUTY BY TAHIRA -
I have always loved Halloween and have rediscovered my joy of it via my son. Keeping it ethical and sustainable is easy for me because I will not put anything on my son’s skin that makes me feel uneasy.
There are may water based non-toxic, cruelty free makeup brands out there to use and even natural face paint. For the grown ups, Cruelty free makeup abounds and liven things up with biodegradable glitter from shops like Eco-Sparkle Fun or Eco Stardust perfect for festivals and holidays. True Glue offers all natural lash adhesive and ethical lashes.
Costumes are always some sort of upcycled outfit. Last year cleverly placed bandanas and some clothes we already owned became a pirate outfit, and this year the DIY outfit is a painted cardboard box.
We also have a birthday party close to Halloween so I am always conscious of the footprint our party will make. Festive accessories that are biodegradable are easy enough to find online. There are even some specialty shops for eco children's parties, with natural latex balloons that are biodegradable. Out party favours are always useful and somehow sensible like fun pencils rather than small plastic toys. This year we have the added bonus of making our own piñata out of recycled free newspapers and a recycled cardboard box.
HOLLY ROSE, LEOTIE LOVELY -
Big urgent orders for cheap Halloween swag result in garment industry workers being forced to work long hours for very little pay. To add on to the horrors, most costumes are made out of polyester which is derived from the oil industry and is non-biodegradable. Americans spend 6.9 billion on halloween alone, most of which ends up in our landfills, so doing your own DIY, upcycling second hand, or swapping with pals are sustainable alternative to purchasing new.
Before I moved to Europe, Halloween was an event I’d start preparing for as soon as summer had ended. My mum had always encouraged us to make our own costumes as kids and I got really into making my own costumes out of second hand clothing over the years.
I’ve got a few DIYs online for some of the costumes I made in the past if you’re looking for some costume upcyling inspiration (they’re from way back so forgive the formatting/photos):
My pride and joy, an OWL COSTUME I made out of an old body suit and some funky printed fabric which I cut into feathers. I’ve also got a separate DIY for the OWL MASK which you can find here.
I made a CLOWN COSTUME out of an upcycled oversized shirt I got at a second hand store and a blouse which was stained and in their $1 bin.
I also made a DISCO COSTUME out of a second hand blouse.
OLIVIA GOSSETT COOPER, TODAY WE WILL NEWSLETTER -
With my birthday two days before Halloween, I always have a Halloween/birthday party. And, I love it! Well, I love putting events together and dressing up, so double yays.
For the party, here are things I do to stay sustainable:
Reusable decorations that are not made from plastic but things like fabric banners, metal pumpkins, etc.
Serve only finger food on non-industrial compostable plates and napkins...and I actually compost them
Serve all plant-based foods
For costumes I use a mix of things I already own and vintage at a local store and for candy I give away Dots. They come in a cardboard box and are vegan.
KAMEA CHAYNE, CONSCIOUS FASHION COLLECTIVE -
Ever since I graduated from university, I haven't been very festive. That's probably out of sheer laziness for the most part, but also partly from thinking about all the cheaply made, possibly toxic and non-biodegradable waste that's generated from all of these single-use decorations and accessories. But actually, I'm thinking I should start participating in such events again -- just with all of the green knowledge I've acquired over the past years to prove where there's will to do things greener and cleaner, there's a way.
For treats, for example, we can buy healthier ones in bulk and serve them in large wooden bowls. For costumes, we can get creative and make something out of our old clothes or even trash (e.g., old newspaper, cardboard boxes, food wrappers, ...etc.). Or if we're lazy and don't want to D.I.Y., we can go treasure-hunting at second hand stores to buy done-for-you costumes passed on from their previous owners -- costumes that honestly have only been worn once before. We can even make a pre-Halloween party out of this treasure-hunting process.
ANNIE ZHU, TERUMAH -
I’ve never been big on Halloween. For the last couple of years, the vibe of the holiday have really creeped me out, and not in a good way. Celebrating demons and death is not my thing. Haunted houses are—pardon my French—scary as fuck. So I’m making my Halloween sustainable by not participating and doing something else. I’ll be going to a classical music concert. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra will be playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. That’s kind of scary, right?
While I’m eschewing Halloween, I still like costume parties. I usually get creative by reworking what I already own or by borrowing clothes from people. In the past I have rented costumes. Recently, I dressed up like a nerd by borrowing clothes from 5 real-life nerds.
FRANCESCA WILLOW, ETHICAL UNICORN -
I get the feeling that a lot of EWC members are based in the US, however I am English. Because of this I get a little weirded out by how intense the American love for Halloween is. We do celebrate, but why get so excited when you have Bonfire night just 5 days later? I mean, you get to celebrate a foiled attempt to blow up Parliament by blowing up loads of fireworks in the sky instead, and that is fun.
Although commercialization and rising popularity of Halloween has definitely crept into the UK over the years, when I was growing up if you went trick or treating you were just as likely to get tricked with a water gun in the face than you were to get candy (for real, this actually happened to me about 10 years ago). I grew up with parents keeping it a bit more fun, chill and eco-friendly, and this is how I’d like to celebrate when I’m older. We used to play games and have fun at home as a family, doing things like bobbing for apples, hangman, and baking. My parents were never anti-Halloween, they were just English, so a lot of my early memories associate it a lot more with time spent together being silly. It’s just nice to know that you can still get spooky, dress up and participate without having to buy into consumerism of a. unsustainable costumes or b. way too many sweets (disclaimer, I did still get some sweets).
However, if you are planning on going all out for Halloween, please don’t culturally appropriate!
JEN PANARO, HONESTLY MODERN -
Although I don’t have an exceptional affinity for Halloween, I have two young boys who think Halloween is pretty sweet. I don’t mind getting into the holiday spirit on their behalf, but I’ve built a few parameters around our plans each year in an effort to be a bit more intentional about how we celebrate.
For costumes, we buy solid colored everyday clothes (a new pair of sweatpants or long sleeve shirt, for example, if needed) that provide a base for a costume. They wear these pieces many times after the holiday. We finish the costumes with things we already have around the house. Last year, they dressed up as Elmo and Captain America. This year, they plan to be ninjas. My boys are only 5 and 3, but I don’t think they know yet that stores sell pre-made costumes. Eventually, they’ll figure it out, but I’ll keep that section of the store a secret as long as possible.
When collecting candy, I’ve intentionally provided the boys with small containers or bags so they fill up quickly. Not only do we run out of space for more candy, but they’re happy that their bags are “full of candy”. Two years ago, we used pint-sized Halloween buckets that we reuse for other purposes. We’ve also upcycled old t-shirts into trick-or-treating bags using a sewing machine and using fabric tape instead of sewing.
CANDICE BATISTA, THE ECO HUB -
I grew up in South Africa in the 80’s and 90’s; Halloween was something we saw on American TV shows and movies. We never celebrated halloween at all (they do now), so I find the whole concept of halloween to be quite strange. My husband on the other hand LOVES it, all of it, and calls me the Halloween Grinch. I’ve come to terms with this label!
A good DIY costume is key, and in most cases you can create something fun with items you already have. But the bigger issue is the consumption of chocolate from brands that don't have the best track record when it comes to human rights and environmental stewardship.
The documentary film The Dark Side of Chocolate is a very revealing and disturbing look at child trafficking in the Ivory Coast and how that relates to the harvesting and purchasing of cocoa beans. As the film illustrates, the cocoa bean business is competitive and the desire for cheap chocolate in first world nations like Canada and the USA only increases the demand placed on these countries. In the USA alone, people spend $2 billion on Halloween Candy. A few years ago a lawsuit was filed against Hershey, Mars and Nestle claiming that they were “duping consumers into unwittingly funding child slave labour trade in West Africa, home to two-thirds of the world's cocoa beans." Another film, Slavery: A Global Investigation depicts children as young as 11 years old, working 80 to 100 hours a week to harvest cocoa beans.
This is a much larger issue for sure and one that calls for open dialogue between the companies that make the chocolate and the local government who accept large kickback from the same companies.
There are things we can do. First off, buy ethical chocolate. It's more expensive, but at least you have peace of mind that no child was hurt in the process. You can also check out THE GOOD GUIDE CHOCOLATE GUIDE, World Vision’s guide to ethical chocolate. Also look for third-party certifications like Fair Trade Canada, Fair For Life, Fair Trade USA and Rainforest Alliance Certified.
Here are a few brands that I like:
Endangered Species Chocolates
Annie’s Homegrown Snacks
Fair Trade Chocolate Balls
I realize this is a hard sell for some as most people don't want to preached to, especially during a “holiday” like this. But hopefully this will open people's eyes to the issues of overconsumption during a “holiday” that, in my opinion, has become even scarier. Bottom line, I make my Halloween more sustainable by being mindful of the items I buy and the impact they have on the world.