Sustainable Gift Giving This Holiday: Ideas + Inspiration

With the recent snow this past Friday, we were reminded that winter is approaching. Along with winter comes the holiday season: a time for family, friends, great food, and gifts!

Sometimes the holiday season can be tough for a sustainably-minded person, so we decided to share some ideas about how to give more sustainable gifts.

Experiential Gifts

When thinking of gifts for friends or family, the mind usually pictures material items, possessions, or even money, when you really don’t know what to get that person. The best gifts are not usually things, they are usually ones that come with human connection and emotion.

With a little bit of insider information on the recipient’s hobbies or interest, selecting an experience (like a pass to Climb Iowa) for a particular person can become less daunting. If that still seems too difficult, a gift that is a material item could be one that is meant to encourage more experiences, like hiking shoes from Active Endeavors, a locally-owned store in Clive.

We love the idea of a camping gift or planned trip for someone who enjoys hiking, or renting bikes in a new city and exploring local restaurants. 



Gift Exchanges

White elephant gift exchanges are a great example of a sustainable holiday dilemma. These gift exchanges are intended to be fun, humorous, and inspire good times. However, typical purchases for these types of gift exchanges are something cheap on the wallet and not cheap for the environment.

Usually this comes in the form of a “gag” gift. Once gifted, these gag gifts usually sit on the shelf or get tossed in the trash.


Instead of gag gifts, you could try creating or cooking a gift from materials found around your home. To still achieve the humor from a gag gift, a reference to an inside joke within the friends or family gathered for the exchange can be incorporated into the gift.

Raygun provides great examples of how to incorporate humor into gifts while still feeling polished and homegrown. If you are not the creative type, a gift certificate to a company such as The Grateful Chef ensures your dollars are well-spent on local and organic products.  



Charitable Donations

Another option instead of material gifts would be a donation to a charity or nonprofit. These types of gifts have nearly no impact on the environment, except the electricity required to process the transaction or the paper on which they are printed.

Identifying the gift again becomes a little easier when you begin to think about the recipient’s interests. A donation to a charity that aligns with the recipient's values or life experiences can be a really powerful way to give.

Going a step beyond gifting a charitable donation would be requesting donations to an organization in your name. This way, not only do you reduce the carbon footprint of gifts you give this season, but also for gifts you receive.

To help others understand why this might be important to you, try sending an email or letter expressing why you support the organization and the benefit they provide to the community. This year, that organization might just be named Urban Ambassadors.

Support us this year with a donation to help with our 2018 goal of acquiring a part-time Executive Director.

Our Present: An Interview with UA President Emily Steele

Urban Ambassadors will celebrate its 9 year anniversary later this year, so we thought it was a great time to look at where we've been (check out last months blog with founder Adam Hammes), what we’re up to now and what we dream for UA in the future. 

In our second installment in this three part series, we'll explore where we're at today with UA President Emily Steele. Emily is the Client Relationship Manager for Think Digital, a digital marketing company. Her work stretches beyond the office into community transformation on many levels, from launching POP UP YOGA DSM to overseeing FemCity Des Moines. Originally from Pella and a Drake graduate, she is interested in bringing various sectors together to make significant impact. 

Emily Steele.jpg

What is UA's current mission? 

Our mission is to inspire & empower individuals to be more sustainable in their home & in their community. 

How does UA fulfill its mission?

Our board and fellow "ambassadors" are amazing connectors in the community. As a "hub" for sustainability, we are here as a one-stop shop for resources and relationships. We also host monthly meet-ups (second Tuesdays of the month!) to offer our community education on sustainability-related topics. These have ranged from learning how to compost to looking at a variety of electric cars (picture below). 

We're constantly posting sustainability events in the metro through our Facebook page and our Facebook Group. It's fascinating to see how many people live sustainably in many different ways.

What need do you see UA filling in DM? 

Urban Ambassadors does a lot of intangible work. We find that a lot of newer people in our community get plugged in to meet like-minded people and learn how they can be sustainable in our city. Connections are absolutely invaluable and we find that because of our wide net, we're able to touch many lives on a variety of focus areas for sustainability.

I love our social media presence and how frequently we are sharing other organization's upcoming events. Our all-volunteer board works hard to lift up the businesses and organizations in town that are focusing on sustainability. The last three years we've hosted an event that celebrated our local "eco-heroes;" many of the individuals are grassroots, neighborhood people who are trying to make an impact. We find that these people typically do this without praise or acknowledgment (even though they absolutely deserve it), so lifting them up is something we're all really proud and excited to do.

What is the makeup of the organization? 

Right now, we are an all-volunteer board of 8 people. We have committee chairs of people who focus on marketing, meet-ups, finances, and so forth. The picture below is the powerhouse of women that serve on our board! (Not pictured Zack Valigosky and Jeremy Moore)

What inspires you to be involved with Urban Ambassadors? 

I'm a huge advocate for community building and creating a vibrant city of people who care about sustainability. Every person I've met has a different sustainability journey; no person is better or worse than the other person, we're all just trying to do the best we can to make sure our planet is taken care of. Some people are leading efforts to pick up trash in their neighborhoods, while other people are installing solar panels. It's all great & progressive, so we want to celebrate and share those efforts.

I've also found that UA has helped me meet some pretty remarkable people that I'm not sure I would have otherwise met!

How can people get involved now? 

Since we are a nonprofit, it takes volunteers to make events and other monthly activities happen. If you find a passion in sustainability, we'd love to chat with you! From joining our board to helping with an annual event, your time and talent can be put to good use. We know our community is filled with amazing & generous people as well, so if you feel inspired to give to Urban Ambassadors, you can support our mission by donating here.

Our History: An interview with founder Adam Hammes

Urban Ambassadors will celebrate its 9 year anniversary later this year, so we thought it was a great time to connect back to our roots!  In this three part blog series, we’ll highlight where we came from, what we’re up to now and what we dream for UA in the future.

Up first, check out this great interview between current UA Board Member, Amy Luebbert and UA founder Adam Hammes.  Adam Hammes is an author, speaker and consultant in Des Moines who helps businesses tackle sustainability – from local restaurant chains to international media companies. He founded and staffs the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, and sits on the Solidarity Microfinance marketing committee. He coaches other sustainability professionals around the world and is a motivational speaker at sustainability conferences.

Adam Hammes, Founder Urban Ambassadors

Adam Hammes,
Founder Urban Ambassadors

Amy: Hey Adam, thanks for taking some time to stroll down memory lane with us! I'm so curious to hear about the origins of Urban Ambassadors. What was the inspiration behind starting Urban Ambassadors?

Adam: I was working as a Community Outreach Coordinator for the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program (CELP) on Santa Catalina Island in 2007.  It is the pilot of a worldwide program and curriculum created by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Richard Murphy called Ambassadors of the Environment.  

Jean-Michel and “Murph” were both hanging out with our staff one evening in a cabin on the beach after training and we were discussing their vision.  After starting CELP, they had been targeting their programs in places like Ritz Carlton of the Cayman Islands, and it rubbed our staff the wrong way since we targeted diverse clientele that included inner city schools.  Their answer was that they thought children would go home and influence their parents with what they learned, and so they wanted to influence big decision-makers around the world.  When we asked if it was working, they said not really.  Parents more often than not determined the extent the children would stick with lessons they learned or implement ideas based on those lessons at home, school, or in the community.

Murph said something like, “We can’t just wait for a whole generation to die and hope their kids feel differently than they do.”

I asked, “So, how do we target adults with sustainability education?”

Murph said, “That’s a great idea.  I don’t know, I’m a marine biologist who runs camps!”

And that was the origination.  We talked quite a bit that night brainstorming ideas for how to reach adults on environmental and social issues.  There were many ideas.  I personally had the conviction previously that I would like to move back to Iowa and make a difference.  From all my travels, it was clear to me that real change came from local leadership, not outsiders.  Although my traveling was very fun, for the first time, I saw an opportunity to move back to Iowa and “educate adults about sustainability.”

Adam with Jean-Michel Cousteau on Santa Catalina Island in 2007

Adam with Jean-Michel Cousteau on Santa Catalina Island in 2007

Amy: What need did you see UA filling in DM?

Adam: When I showed up in Des Moines, I tried to learn as much as I could about the local sustainability movement.  I volunteered, I went to workshops and conferences, I researched to find any groups that I could… and it was difficult and took way too long.  My experience was that if someone like me who was super-passionate about sustainability had such a hard time, the average adult that I wanted to reach probably didn’t think there was anything going on.

My first thought then was to save everyone the time and share my research through a directory specific to Des Moines.  I wanted to create a one-stop-shop for anyone interested in sustainability, where they could show up and choose one of several categories and find 3-5 organizations they could connect with to get involved (donate, volunteer, learn from).  Those became the 7 focus areas: financial security, volunteering, waste reduction, local food, alternative transportation, renewable energy, green building. We had carbon-neutral as an eighth originally but later decided it was covered by all the others.

I also loved starting projects, so I began immediately working with Drake University to plan a Sustainable Spring Break for the Drake Environmental Action League – our first seed project.

Sustainable Spring Break 2009

Sustainable Spring Break 2009

Amy: What 1-3 main goals did you hope to accomplish starting the organization?

Adam: I really wanted to start somewhere and grow to serve a great purpose in the metro as we learned.  Mapping was going to be just a place to start.  Seed projects came next because people saw that we had cool ideas and were aware of many of the organizations/groups doing work already – so we weren’t competing with stuff already happening.

My overall goal was to figure out how to create a sustainable city by educating and energizing adults.  Des Moines was the playground to test out ideas, but I was clear that the world population now lived mostly in cities and that trend continued.  So, if we could figure it out in Des Moines, then we could share with everyone else.  We also targeted young professionals, because it became clear that cities were really beholden to YPs and trying to cater to them in policy choices, business recruitment, etc.


  • Engage a groundswell of young professionals into the sustainability movement by finding one area they care about
  • Once they join, they will naturally get introduced to 6 other areas of sustainability
  • Connect the 7 different industries together to make one large sustainability movement in Des Moines

Amy: How many people were involved in the early days?

Adam: I did all the paperwork, the website, and our first seed project alone.  But quickly realized that would never go anywhere.  Suzet Nelson, Lee Wagner, Nick Martin, and Nick Donovan were our first board of directors.

Suzet Nelson, Adam Hammes and Lee Wagner. Not pictured Nick Donovan and Nick Martin

Suzet Nelson, Adam Hammes and Lee Wagner. Not pictured Nick Donovan and Nick Martin

Amy: What audience were you hoping to target/influence?

Adam: Young professionals in the city were a big target, but anyone interested

Amy: Why the name Urban Ambassadors? Any special meaning behind the color blue or tree logo?

Adam: Urban Ambassadors was a play off of “Ambassadors of the Environment” – the program in Catalina.  And I wanted to do that kind of work in the city, so “Urban Ambassadors.”  Nick Donovan mocked up several logos trying to combine sustainability and the city.  The tree was the result of several attempts.  I chose the electric blue to be uplifting, positive, and exciting.


Amy: We’re so grateful for your vision and hard work with Urban Ambassadors over the years! We hope to continue moving the mission forward and educating adults. Thanks for your time Adam!

Celebrate Holidays in a Sustainable Way

The holiday season is upon us! For die-hard sustainability ambassadors this can be a frustrating time of year as we watch our friends and families (and possibly ourselves) indulge in shopping, rich or highly processed foods, and an increase in trash and plastic around our homes.

The holidays can be enjoyable and an opportunity to make new sustainable habits. We asked some of our favorite Urban Ambassadors how they plan to make their holidays a little nicer to the environment this year.


Make Conscious Food Choices

“I am cooking LOTS OF PLANTS! I will be composting my veg scraps and using cloth napkins. Though I eat plants, compost and use cloth napkins everyday so I suppose that's not unique to Thanksgiving. Though I am also not traveling this year so I am cutting down on pollution!”

-Shauna Fessler

“I try to buy common holiday foods like sweet potatoes, turkey, and ham from local producers I trust. I use the Iowa Food Cooperative, where I work, or LocalHarvest and Facebook to find producers who sell products I feel good about putting on the kitchen table.”

-Ash Bruxvoort

Recycle Holiday Decorations & Wrapping Supplies

“We've used the same gift boxes (and often, ribbon and tissue paper) in my family for about 20 years. We used Iowa Food Cooperative-sourced ingredients to make 600+ cookies last weekend, too.”

-Alexson Calahan

“We use a homemade advent calendar from my childhood, which my mom gave me last year.”

-Kathie Gonzales

Find more recycled holiday crafts here!

Shop Local for Gifts

“I have done personalized gift baskets with local ingredients from the Iowa Food Cooperative, including:  local meat and cheese; popcorn, candles, (& a movie); soaps, bath salts, & lotions; towels, pasta, (& a strainer); coffee (& a mug); vinegar & oils; or I’ll pay someone’s membership for the first year!”

-Kim Riemenschneider Jackson, winner of the Iowa Food Cooperative Golden Okra award this year. Congratulations Kim!

“Shopping local is so easy to do with all the incredible options in our community. There are so many benefits to shopping local, where do I even begin? You can peruse Valley Junction or make a day out of the East Village. Choose local, Ambassadors!”

-Emily Boyd, Urban Ambassadors Vice President

Think outside the box for your gifts as well. Consider giving children opportunities to learn about and appreciate the outdoors by giving them a Science Center Membership or a membership to the Blank Park Zoo. Or give them a live plant they can care for! You can also give gifts you make yourself or skip gift giving altogether!

Thanks Ash for writing this blog post! 

Iowa Prairie Heritage Week

Iowa Prairie Heritage Week

If you’re an Iowan (lifelong or transplant) you probably know that our state is a prairie state. You might even be able to identify a Black-eyed Susan or Big Bluestem when you see a prairie planting. Or maybe you enjoy tallgrass prairie flowers, but couldn’t name a single one if you tried. Wherever you are in your journey of learning about Iowa’s native prairies, Iowa Prairie Heritage Week is the perfect time to learn a little more. The celebration begins on September 11 and goes through September 17. Who knows--maybe you’ll spark a love for the prairie that will last all year!

9 Ways to Celebrate Bike Month

9 Ways to Celebrate Bike Month

May is one of the best months of the year. The weather is warming, the Earth is full of happy green trees and colorful buds, and it's Bike Month! For the past several years the Des Moines Bike Collective has done an amazing job celebrating weekend trail riders, daily commuters, distance rollers and lovers of all things bikes here in Central Iowa. Here are ten ways you can join in on Bike Month fun! 

12 Ways to Celebrate Earth Day in Central Iowa

For Urban Ambassadors members, April is not only a time to celebrate warmer weather and more daylight. It’s a time to celebrate the Earth, participate in projects that support and protect our planet and learn new ways to live a sustainable life. Here are ten fun ways to celebrate Earth month, make new friends and grow your community!


1. Downtown Earth Day Tour

Take a walk or ride a bike between the Science Center of Iowa, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, and the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates to learn about science and conservation in Iowa and throughout the Universe! Take a tour of a LEED-certified building, meet NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson, and participate in a collective art project using botanical and natural materials! This is a great event for kids. Learn more here.

2. Volunteer for a Trail Restoration

Organize a short weekend road trip and join volunteers from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to do important restoration work on the Wabash Trace Nature Trail. The trail is 63 miles of crushed limestone that runs from Council Bluffs down to Blanchard. There are two four hour volunteer shifts available. Learn more here.

3. Trash Bash

This year Iowa’s largest Earth Day event is focusing on what we can do to create a more sustainable community. Join more than 1,200 volunteers to remove tens of thousands of pounds of trash from the city of Des Moines. Register your volunteer team here.

4. Register for Bike to Work Month

Tune up your bike and prepare to ride for Bike to Work Month in May! Sponsored by the Des Moines Bicycle Collective, Bike Month is meant for anyone who loves to ride bikes in Central Iowa. Whether you’re a weekend trail rider or a daily bike commuter, Bike Month brings together bike enthusiasts of all experience levels to celebrate the ride! Learn more here.

5. Learn How to Support Environmental Legislation

Check out resources from the Iowa Environmental CouncilIowa Policy Project, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, or any of these other great organizations who are working to improve environmental legislation and policy in Iowa. Become an informed voter and make sure your voter registration is up to date!

6. Start a Garden

Whether it’s in the window of your apartment or a quarter of an acre in your backyard, April is a great time to start a garden and grow at least one new thing this summer. Learn more about planting flowers and grasses that benefit native butterflies and bees and register your garden with Plant.Grow.Fly

7. Learn About Water Conservation in Iowa 

Visit the Blank Park Zoo to hear about Iowa Conservationist James Pease's lifelong work for water conservation in Iowa. Pease has paddled 1,400 miles of Iowa’s rivers conducting surveys and will provide a unique perspective on Iowa’s waters. The final seminar in the Blank Park Zoo’s Wildlife Conservation Series is Thursday, April 7 at 6 P.M. Buy tickets here.

8. Post in the Urban Ambassadors Facebook Group 

Whether it’s an event we missed or something you want to organize on your own, post it in the Urban Ambassadors Facebook group! This is a great way to make new friends who care about protecting Iowa’s natural resources, just like you. Not part of the group yet? Join here.

9. Start a Seed Project

Have a great idea from an environmental project that’s not in Des Moines yet? Register a Seed Project at our website and find community members to help you make your dream a reality.

10. Attend our Monthly Meetup on Solar Power

This month's meetup will be on April 12 at Smokey Row from 6:00-7:30 p.m. Tim Kruse, owner of Green Light Renewable Services, is a master electrician with 20+ years of experience. He will share his vast knowledge on the different types of solar panels available for your home or business, the installation process, and also the incentives available at the state or federal level. Check out their website for a great list of reasons to consider solar for your home.

11. Attend City Council Meeting about Making Des Moines Carbon-Neutral

A group of organizations (and passionate youth involved in iMatter) are working together to make Des Moines carbon neutral by 2040. By attending the City Council meeting on April 25, the goal is to encourage City Council to create a citizens' task force with youth representation that provides input on how to get to net zero. Join the group from 4:30-6:00 p.m. at City Hall in downtown Des Moines. 

12. Join the Green Runners Group

Green running is a way to better yourself and your community. It is the act of running with a purpose: to make the world a greener place. Runners and walkers of all shapes, sizes and abilities meet in one place to get a workout and make an impact on the earth by picking up the garbage that litters our communities. Join them on April 22 at 6:00 p.m. at Los Laureles.