The 6 Hidden Environmental Costs of the Holiday Season

Welcome to the environmental nightmare that is the holiday season.

The Christmas season is many things: a time for family, an indulgence of food, a gifting experience, and a conclusion to the year. But above all else, it is also an environmental nightmare (sorry to put it so bluntly). Between excess purchases, shipping, returns, overworked laborers, travel and exported production, it’s generally just not a conscious season. 

That doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty about the festive season, or start stressing over your purchases, or spiral thinking about carbon footprints. We just want to get you thinking about how everything you do has an impact. So grab a gingerbread cookie (though we’ll see if you still want it after this), and get reading. 

We Love Swiping Our Credit Cards…

“There is something of a moral crime in how much you and I and everyone we know consume, given how little is available to consume for so many other people on the planet,” David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth. 

It should be no surprise that we spend a lot, buy a lot, and think a lot about what we’re going to buy– just throughout the year, on a daily basis. But this oniomania escalates from “treating yourself” to a new pair of pants every week (which Americans do, on average) to buying gifts for everyone you’ve ever met during the Christmas season. All in all, consumers will spend an average of $997 on gifts and holiday festivities this year, while going into debt because of it. 

While you may be thinking that a few socks and some wrapping paper won’t make that big of a difference, you should probably think again. Our carbon footprints are closely tied with our wealth (our ability to travel more, own larger homes, etc). And while we forget it sometimes, America is quite wealthy. Therefore even our “middle class” spenders fall within the top 1-10% of individuals spending the world’s carbon budget. Before you say, “hey that’s gotta be exaggerated,” remember that because of how many people exist in the world (we’re in the billions!) anyone who earns over $109,000 annually is considered in the richest 1%, and over $38,000 is in the top 10%. 

Therefore while we think our actions don’t matter, they do and they add up

The holiday season is an especially sensitive time of the year because we never feel like we’re doing enough, there’s always more gifts, more sales and just MORE. Our issue with consumption is not that we should feel guilty doing it, but that as a society we now have an impulsive desire to buy material goods that has almost surpassed our fundamental needs: food, shelter, safety. I mean, how many times have you known you needed money for the supermarket but then really decided you wanted a new pair of shoes? Just look at Carrie Bradshaw as the media’s IT girl of capitalism over food. 

Conscious shopping doesn’t mean giving up on what makes you happy, becoming a recluse, being 100% sustainable, or wearing burlap sacks for clothes. Daniel Fischer of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University elaborates on this idea, explaining that intent matters above all. That just by thinking twice and not impulsive buying whatever we “feel like,” we can find a happier and higher quality of life. So consider what is sustainable, really consider your purchases before putting yourself in debt for the temporary joy found beneath wrapping paper.

Buy it to Return it: an Online Saga 

The hidden environmental cost of your online purchases are probably in the fine print. Almost all of us are familiar with online shopping, and with the holiday season here at last we’ll all soon be acquainted with online returns. It’s not revolutionary that shipping isn’t environmentally-friendly (both via truck and plane) and contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions. So when items are shipped and then returned you’re doubling your initial carbon footprint. 

In 2021, about 19% of holiday gifts will be purchased online. UPS predicts that a record 1.9 million returns will be processed on January 2. Over 50% of Americans are planning to return their unwanted gifts this year, and most of this is thanks to our love of online shopping. 

But a returned gift is more likely to end up in a landfill than back in a store. Of the 3.5 billion products returned by Americans every year, about 5 billion pounds is thrown away. Clothing being the number one returned item, with a return rate of almost 50%. Much of this is because of the un-returnable nature of some products, such as bedding, underwear and make-up.

15 million metric tons. That is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by landfill waste from returns alone.  

Before you ask why companies don’t just get rid of their return policy or find a way to reshelve the items we return. Well, for one it is unsanitary for some objects to be resold– just think about it. On the other hand, 97% of people look for a positive return experience when shopping and if the company has a tricky return policy, people may just not shop there. 

So what do you do? Well, circle back to the idea of conscious shopping, and really consider what you are buying before buying it. Also, consider a circular economy and other such alternatives to returning your product. Hint: regifting is not taboo. 

That Ugly Holiday Sweater Will Look Good in a Landfill 

Generally we produce more than the average amount of waste during the holiday, as you probably guessed. Most specifically it increases by about 30% in countries like the UK. Waste includes things like 226,800 miles of wrapping paper, 1 billion Christmas cards, 12 million ugly Christmas sweaters, and all your Christmas decorations. These things become waste because you can’t recycle them, and you also don’t want them. Those sweaters? Yeah, they’re mostly made out of plastic. Not exactly environmentally friendly. So maybe think twice about those once-in-a-photoshoot sweaters and flimsy wrapping paper. 

Santa travels the globe, and so do your toys

What is Christmas without toys? We would never consider telling you not to buy the kids in your life presents, but perhaps just think about where they’re coming from and if your son/daughter/nephew/niece will really like, use, and need it. In 2017, in the EU alone, almost €7.4 billion worth of toys were bought during the Christmas season, of which 86% came from China. That’s a lot of miles on Santa’s sleigh, and we already talked about why excess shipping practices aren’t the best. 

Asking for Frequent Flyer Miles 

The holidays are about spending time with family and friends, and that is non-negotiable we know. But just like everything else, we want to give a transparent look that will allow you to step back and go, huh. 

In the US, 4 in 10 people planned to travel during the holidays– only 37.42% deciding not to travel at all (as shown below). About 53.4 million people travelled during Thanksgiving, which was an 80% rise from last year (which was thanks to COVID-19). 

In Europe, about 250 million people will be traveling across the continent, with each person averaging about 320 miles, and about a quarter of them will be flying. All this traveling adds up as greenhouse gas emissions, and for Europe their aviation carbon footprint rises about 4% annually.

It’s all about the tree, isn’t it?

Finally, we talk about the live tree versus the fake tree. Now we know they both look good wrapped in Christmas lights, but compared to an artificial tree, a real Christmas tree has a much lower carbon footprint. Carbon Trust calculated that a 2-meter real tree has a footprint of about 16kg of CO2, as it rots in a landfill. If you burn, replant, or chip the tree then its CO2 drops to 3.5kg. 

Meanwhile an artificial tree has a carbon footprint of 40kg CO2, all thanks to its energy-intensive production. To equate an artificial tree with a live tree, the owner would have to use it for at least ten years to have a similar environmental impact. 

Plus with fake Christmas trees you’re not only missing out on that delicious pine smell, but also you miss out on the opportunity to support the workers of Christmas trees farms who work year-round even though the holiday only comes once a year. 

In conclusion?

You are the champion of your own holiday season and what it means is completely up to you and your traditions. Just because our society says it has to look one way (we’re looking at you Coca-Cola Santa), doesn’t mean it’s the only way. All we ask is that you live a little more consciously and think twice before shopping, traveling, and enjoying the festivities. Now go back to your hot cocoa and family.