Christmas, for many, has undoubtedly overtaken its religious dimension, representing one of those rare moments of the year in which, in spite of the latitude, age or religion, we forget for a moment about our worries and reconnect with our families, friends and loved ones. However, consumerism and globalization have also made it an opportunity to boost consumption and global trade and, thus, its environmental impact.
We all are very familiar with all the Christmas dynamics we so much love (maybe not all of us). Decorating the house or the office, choosing the tree and the decorations, choosing the presents and doing the packaging. The dinners with friends, coworkers, family. And then that magic moment of unwrapping.
But have we ever considered the environmental impact that this festivity has on the environment?
According to a study made in 2019 by Deloitte , the average European family spends 466€ during Christmas festivities, with values varying from 347€ in the Netherlands up to 639€ in the UK. Most of the expenses, 42% and 28%, are allocated respectively on Gifts and Food, followed by Travelling (18%) and Socializing (12%). While it’s not easy to associate these expenditure habits with environmental impact data, a few studies provide some insights on what the impact could look like.
For example, a study conducted in 2007 by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI-Y), based at the University of York, calculated that three days of Christmas festivities could result in the emission of as much as 650 kg of carbon dioxide per person, or about 6% of the yearly budget. Therefore, using the emission data from Eurostat and making a few proportions, the carbon emissions of the average European citizen are around 500kg Co2 equivalent.
Moreover, increased consumption has also a negative effect on waste generation. For example, Biffa, a UK based waste management company, reports an increase of 30% of waste generation during Christmas festivities. From wrappings to unwanted gifts, food leftovers and single-use tableware, the composition of these wastes is the most diverse.
Considering all these worrying statistics, is it really possible to make Christmas more sustainable?
With the demand for sustainable products on the rise, we already have all the elements available to give Christmas and eco-friendly twist. From the “Christmas tree” to the presents, we will have a look at some of the alternatives for our Sustainable Christmas. But before going into details we want to provide you, taking inspiration from the Anatomy of Action designed by the UN and the Unschool, with a simple toolkit to help you make sustainable choices (or simply evaluate the impact of those already made).
This is an evergreen dilemma. A few years ago the Carbon Trust evaluated the carbon footprint of the two alternatives. A real Christmas tree has a significantly lower carbon footprint than an artificial tree, especially if it is disposed of properly. The organization calculated that for a 2-meter-tall Christmas tree the Natural one has associated emissions varying between 3.5 and 16kg CO2eq while the Fake one has estimated emissions of 40kgCO2eq.
While it seems that the natural version is the best solution we should not forget that carbon emissions is not the only environmental damage we should look at. In fact, as reported by the Guardian , Christmas trees are heavily farmed in monoculture fields with potential negative effects on biodiversity loss and soil degradation. To make sure at least some of these additional factors are accounted for, we could choose a tree farm that has an FSC certification.
Something many of us are already familiar with is the environmental impact of the food industry, with most of this impact coming from intensive farming of meat and poultry and the waste generated along the supply chain (read our blog post - How to Eat Sustainably). During Christmas festivities, with all the dinners and parties, things tend to get a bit worse than normal. In fact, across many cultures, we tend to overconsume meat and exaggerate with meals preparation increasing the rate of waste generation.
A wiser planning on our Christmas dinners can drastically reduce the environmental impact of our food. Our suggestion is to minimize as much as possible the meat consumption, be realistic on food needs and use up or donate the leftovers.
From wrapping waste to unwanted gifts, it’s quite long the list of effects of the hysterical consumerism of festivities. However, while some holiday gifts fill a practical need and perhaps need to be bought new, many gifts are really gestures of thoughtfulness and, therefore, with a bit more creativity and ECo thinking we could easily mitigate the environmental impact of Christmas shopping.
The unwrapping moment is filled with wonder and excitement and we definitely don’t want to miss that. Though, as all the logic behind sustainable consumption and the circular economy is to maximize the life of products and materials, we should definitely try to avoid single use wrapping materials. The best option is, of course, to repurpose or reuse something we have at home and that could do the work of wrapping gifts. If we have to buy new wrapping material we would go first for fabric wrapping as it can definitely be used multiple times and for different purposes. If we want to use paper at all costs, we should then look for recycled, FSC certified or plantable wrapping paper. The same exact suggestions read for gift cards.
As the Anatomy of Action tells us, Reduce is always the most sustainable option. This doesn’t necessarily mean to not give anything to our loved ones but the dematerialization of the gift could be a great strategy to achieve that. How? Spending time together on a day-trip or gifting an experience such as a concert, ticket to an exhibition or a festival, could all be viable solutions. Then we have the Reuse & Repurpose options. If you have unused items at home, think of gifting them to people that may make good use of them. When it comes to buying a new product, going local and choosing sustainable brands is the best way to support your community and the environment while keeping the Christmas vibes high.