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Business and Finance

Gifts and their meaning

Debbi Evans
As the festive season draws near, we unwrap the deeper significance of gift giving with Olivia Knight, founder of Patchwork Present.

In his book, Debt: the first 5,000 years, LSE professor of anthropology David Graeber draws a parallel between the emergence of almsgiving in religious teachings and the invention of coinage, arguing for the former as a deliberate attempt to retain a human-centric system of exchange displaced by market systems. Of course, gift giving and charity are often motivated by self interest, especially when there’s a place in heaven up for grabs – but Graeber’s argument serves to illustrate the fundamental role of gifts in human society.

“There’s a strong argument that the original form of economic life for people was based on gifts’, says Chris Knight, retired anthropologist and Olivia’s dad, who provided some of the inspiration for Patchwork Present in the first place. “In many societies, the whole point of having something is to make a gift of it – the point [of the exchange] is to make a relationship. We have the opposite logic now, which is that the whole point of owning something is to make a profit.”

He cites the seminal work in economic anthropology, 1925’s The Gift by Marcel Mauss. “Christmas cards are evidence that you remember others – you don’t buy Christmas cards and put them on your own mantelpiece. Or buy a box, wrap it up beautifully and give it to yourself. But in some ways the whole point of capitalism is precisely those things, rather than gaining from the relationship of giving to others.”

I spent it on myself

Cue the 2013 Harvey Nichols Christmas ad, a tongue-in-cheek reflection of contemporary consumerism if ever there was one. It’s either incredibly funny, or downright tragic; it reminds us that this fixation on monetary value – on stuff – eclipses the true meaning of the gift, which is thoughtfulness and time. Research from August 2013 found evidence that making a charitable donation directly to someone you know in a way that builds social connection creates much more happiness than donating anonymously.

Yet reducing gift exchange to its monetary value leads to economic disappointment: in a study by Waldfogel, recipients perceived the value of their gift at around 20% less than its actual worth. By his calculations, the giver could have made the recipient far better off by just handing over the cash and letting them buy their own gift. Non-cash gifts from extended family were found to be the least efficient presents, economically speaking.

Present buying is an art form, requiring a subtle understanding of someone’s character and sharp attention to detail which delights and surprises in equal measure. In Gardener’s World by Julian Barnes, a long-married couple favour practical gift giving over grand gestures, and delight in finding just the right thing.

Reviving the ritual of gift giving is the driving force behind Patchwork Present, which launched in a small Brockley shopfront in May 2013. Founder Olivia Knight first had the idea creating her wedding list; she’d been with her partner for years, they had kids and were cohabiting – they had everything on a traditional wedding list. So she built the demo for a service that would allow every member of her family to contribute to their dream trip to Cuba, breaking the holiday down into everything from a cheap drink to a stay in an expensive hotel. “Families and communities have come together for generations to chip in for something,’ Knight says. “Everybody wins. That’s not where we’ve been in the last 50 years. But the recession makes it so much more important.”

More need, less waste

The site works a bit like Pinterest. After you’ve selected the corresponding template you break the present down into a ‘patchwork’ of smaller gifts – a saddle, a bell, a helmet, a wheel, a frame. Each of these has its own description, price and image, which can then be published to create a private URL for friends and family members. The company take a 3% commission of funds raised.

“It was really going to kids’ birthday parties that made me see it vividly. You’ve got 15 parents who turn up at your door, the mum hands over this present and says ‘Sorry’ when she gives it to you. She knows she’s not sure if the child wants it, she’s bought it ten minutes beforehand. Most of the time, the kids end up with 25 bits of tat [rubbish] that’s going to go straight in the cupboard, go to a charity shop or go to landfill. It’s a conspiracy in branding that kids are fickle. They tend to fixate on one thing: like a bike, or the new bit of Star Wars lego.”

In fact, the first child to make a Patchwork got far more than the playhouse she asked for. For one happy Saturday afternoon, several generations of her family – including her divorced parents – came together to build it.

Olivia loves this story and is charming and sunny in the retelling, punctuating particularly emotive points with a grasp of the nearest arm. Reminders of the company’s values are peppered around the shop: pink and white lightbulbs spell out their motto, ‘Want not Waste’. Photographs and postcards (including one of Olivia’s nan, who refers to the service as a digital ‘whip-round’) hang on washing line. The messageboard in the kitchen prompts guests for notes of encouragement – taking the plunge was scary, taking her mind off the business is worse. But bootcamp has helped, she says. “Running from one tree to another feeling like I’m going to be sick in my mouth is a great way to switch off.”

Your presents not your presence

“The idea that we can help people get one thing they want is massively powerful. I tend to buy everything second hand; I don’t think we need all the crap we’re being sold. That’s what I loved about [starting Patchwork Present] – I could use all the skills and creativity from [my career in] marketing and create something really useful. It’s stealth environmentalism; it’s really about celebrating the things we want and reducing the amount of waste in the world. The fact that it might also make some money would be brilliant, but I didn’t want to start a business that was just about the money.”

Has she found any cultural differences in attitudes to gift giving? “Definitely. In America there’s culturally no shame in saying “I want this!” Or in Greece, you do give money for a wedding but there’s a ritual to that as well – whether it’s pinning it on a dress or putting it in a little envelope. Different cultures have different attitudes to giving money, I think what’s important is that you create some ritual around that. Saying ‘here’s my bank details’ doesn’t really work.”

Nonetheless, selfie culture has meant that there’s less of a taboo in declaring what you want. People’s interests are on their Facebook wall or, even less subtly, pinned to a board on Pinterest.

“We’re much more comfortable sharing our politics, our intimate bikini moments, ‘ Knight says. “The one reason we don’t do what Patchwork Present is about now is that if your mum calls asking what you want for Christmas and it’s a £300 coat, you’re not going to ask for that. You’ll say, ‘Oh, those M&S vouchers are fine.’ We don’t want to be seen as greedy so we say we don’t want anything. Or we’ll say we don’t mind when we always do mind!”

Cold hard crowdfunding

The other thing the internet has done, of course, is accelerate the culture of sharing and fostered an environment more conducive to a gift economy. Not too long ago, supermodel Lily Cole launched impossible.com, the social network which encourages people to do good deeds for others – for free. In 2012, Danish chocolatier Anton Berg opened ‘The Generous Store’, where confectionery was paid for in good deeds: visiting the parents, bringing a loved one breakfast in bed.

Giving gifts builds community because of the expectation of reciprocity; the exchange opens a dialogue between people that’s about more than simple exchange of commodities. It’s interesting to note that principles of exchange have been increasingly attractive to small businesses in the recession, with formal barter networks in the US estimated at 12 billion dollars a year.

The real cleverness of Patchwork Present, however, is that it bypasses the awkwardness of gifting money – which, let’s face it, is often the most practical solution in difficult times. “While I’m happy to put cash in a bank, I feel a bit awkward about asking for money. In the past, I’d also felt compelled to give more than we could necessarily afford. If somebody asks for cash there’s only one value there, which is what’s written on the note. You don’t say, ‘I love you so much, here’s £10’. You put at least £50 in. I didn’t want my friends to feel awkward about it.”

So, besides a reduction of gifts ending up in landfill, what’s the one thing Olivia wants for Christmas? “A new bathroom – or at least a decorator to paint over the mould before my friends come ‘round.”

Collaborate on your own gift at patchworkpresent.com. Image credit Ryan McGuire.

Different cultures have different attitudes to giving money, I think what’s important is that you create some ritual around that. Saying ‘here’s my bank details’ doesn’t really work

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