- Eirini Sampson & Aretina Stefani
Holiday Special: Greening Your Holidays
Today, the meaning of holiday cheer has evolved alongside capitalist trends which have fueled a culture of overconsumption, and which has been upheld by a system of clever marketing and greenwashing. So, how can you dodge greenwashy products when buying gifts, decorations and food, while also reshaping and detaching your understanding of ‘Christmas’ spirit?
Different factors playing into our unsustainable holiday season
There are several factors that brand our holiday season as ‘unsustainable.’ Research shows that our annual waste increases by 25-30% during the holiday season. This comes from wrapping waste, cards and food waste. Roughly 63% of Americans have received unwanted Christmas gifts in the holiday season according to a survey conducted in 2019 - these gifts have been valued at around $15.2 billion. Statistics show that in 2020, 23.5% of people who were given unwanted gifts, kept them, while 6.13% of them threw them away and 4.68% of them gave them back.
Many factors can be cited as evidence against the unsustainable development of the holiday season. To mention a few characteristic items: gifting (including the gifts and their wrapping), our decorations and our food.
We have already talked about the three Cs this holiday season: celebration, capitalism and consumerism. I know my love language is giving - and many can relate to this - I take any opportunity I can to show my love with gifts. Yet, a lot of the holiday cheer has come to be defined by spending money on new things. The ways that holidays have been intertwined with consumption is obvious throughout this thread, nevertheless, I am a strong believer that a lot of it is very obviously shown in the way we treat gifts.
A lot of the discourse around gifting has evolved to include buying ‘ethical’ products, yet our definition of ‘ethical’ has been blurred by greenwashing techniques, so how can we avoid greened products this period? Has the time come for us to reconsider the way we perceive the holiday cheer and detach it from buying new stuff? How can we include circularity in our traditions and celebrations?
To avoid buying unwanted gifts, this year you can try asking your friends what they want for this Christmas. You can personally create a wish-list that you can send out to your friends and family with things you want or need for the coming year. This is a win-win situation since you and your friends will get what you want and you won’t have to personally buy new stuff.
Statistics show that despite the new movement for buying from small businesses, according to the recent American Express Shop Small Impact survey, 78% of small business respondents said that, "holiday sales will impact their ability to keep their doors open in 2022." That’s an awful lot of entrepreneurs depending on the outcome of the holidays for their survival.
Apart from asking people what they want, you can buy them products that will last them. For example, you can never go wrong with a reusable cup if you know your friend is always on the lookout for good coffee. Other examples include books, which can always be swapped or resold.
Other ideas include:
An experience: for example, a cooking class or a massage.
A museum/theatre subscription card for the year.
Making them something: if you are a creative or know how to make stuff (like scarfs for example), why not make your loved ones something. This is a very unique and personalised way to show your love.
Make a donation to a charity for a cause they support in their name
If you feel scrapy and find it necessary to wrap your gifts, why not reuse magazines or newspapers lying around in your house instead of buying new wrapping paper? You can also consider wrapping your gifts in cloth - the Furoshiki method is an example of gift wrapping using cloth or fabrics. Check out the video below:
The holidays are not a magical time where we can suddenly eat a lot more that we usually do. Instead, many get carried away by buying too much and then throwing it away. To Rob Percival - the Soil Association’s head of food policy: “it only lasts a couple of days so don’t shop as if you are under siege for a month.” Food waste and loss causes around 10% of global emissions, while 1 billion tonnes of food are wasted each year according to UNEP. The combination of growing food, packaging it and transporting it, as well as the period of time it spends in the land files produces methane - a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2. In the UK, 5 million Christmas puddings, 2 million turkeys and 74 million mince pies are wasted each year.
There are several ways to make your holiday dinners more sustainable. For example, you should consider serving plant-based alternatives. Many turkeys produced to be eaten in December are mass produced and are fed soya - which is linked to deforestation. You can check out vegan christmas and holiday dinner recipes here. You may also consider using seasonal vegetables.
To reduce the potential for food waste, buy the right portions for the number of people you will be cooking for. You may find it helpful to calculate your portions using this tool.
Even if you have food leftovers, worry not! There are many ways that you can use your leftovers while preventing food waste. You can experiment with new recipes, or store your leftovers in the freezer to use later in the month. You can also give your guests leftovers as well as share with friends and family.
Extra tip: don’t forget to compost your scraps (if you or your local community have a composting bin available)
Let’s tackle the million dollar question first; Natural or artificial christmas tree? The good news is the options are plenty. Here are a few pros and cons to help you decide your way out of this Christmas conundrum.
Many households swear by faux trees since they are a low-maintenance solution that can be used again and again, letting them off the hook from buying a real tree year after year. However, artificial trees might have a negative environmental impact than real trees, especially if we consider all the stages of their life cycle. Faux trees are often made of petroleum-based materials such as PVC, polyurethane foam or steel, which technically means they require ample energy to be produced yet they are non-recyclable and will take them centuries to decompose in landfills. Also, the majority of them are imported, which skyrockets their environmental footprint.
If you end up going with an artificial tree, invest in a good quality one that will keep your house jolly for years and years or even ask around whether you can borrow a preloved tree from your friends and family. In any case,try keeping it in good condition for as long as possible.
Let’s face it - for many people taking a plastic tree out of storage every year isn't quite the same as bringing home a fresh, live Christmas tree. Apart from their unique festive feeling, most natural trees are grown locally and come from cultivations in mountainous regions. Due to these crops, forests are created in barren degraded areas which will keep reaping the benefits a forest is associated with (less carbon dioxide, more oxygen, perfect habitat for wildlife) for at least 10 years after the crop ceases.
Nevertheless, this is not a hard and fast rule. In industrialised, densely populated countries like the UK, where, according to the Soil Association, natural trees tend to be intensively farmed in industrial standards or even imported. In any case, you should bear in mind that as with most monocrops, Christmas trees are typically sprayed with fertilisers and herbicides, such as glyphosate responsible for pollution of groundwater, degradation of soil and many imbalances in the ecosystem. What gives natural Christmas trees the unassailable lead - like any other natural crop - is that they're completely biodegradable and compostable.
Wanna go natural? Make sure you source responsibly from local organic tree farms and compost afterwards. You can even go for potted trees which can be replanted in their natural environment after Christmas if your space is limited. Renting is also a sustainable alternative worth-considering; trees are cultivated in special pots which allow them to be uplifted, rented in those pots and replanted after the Christmas season.
Plot Twist right? Well, you might be surprised to know that going tree-less is an ongoing tradition for many cultures around the globe. For example, in Greece there is a tradition of decorating small boats adorned with lights to symbolise the sailing towards a new life as well as the gratitude and respect towards sailors dedicating their life at the sea.
If you wish to shake things up, you can DIY your tree with everyday objects while making the most out of your space and creativity. You can get some fantastic ideas here. Christmas decorations definitely make the holiday season magical-and your space a bit more warm and picture-perfect. Here’s how to enjoy your seasonal stables but sustainable!
Prefer LED lights over conventional ones. LED lights are up to 80% more energy-efficient than fluorescent and incandescent lights, which also tends to increase their life span-and your money’s worth.
Whether made by yourself or a local artisan, handmade items will bring a simple, beautiful energy to the place. In any case, choose decorations made from environmentally friendly materials such as wood, burlap and glass.
Do you love a Christmas wreath hanging on your door? Then, opt out of the ones with heavy plastic accessories and glittery decorations. Not only are these made using non sustainable materials, but they can be harmful for birds and wildlife. Go for a real, fresh wreath made using seasonal, natural foliage and adornments.
This blogpost is an ode to the power of small changes making all the difference in reducing your environmental footprint, especially over Christmas, when the potential for waste, overconsumption and mass shopping is high. However, you might not be able to change your Christmas mindset and habits all at once due to your lifestyle, space, budget or simply because it’s too much - and that is ok. This Christmas remember to sprinkle some self-love sparkle and go greener one step at a time.