As December begins, this signals not only the countdown to Christmas but the most expensive time of year for many. Christmas consumerism has continued to grow, encouraging each of us to spend more to have a bigger and better holiday than the year before. While this might be the norm, this approach has detrimental effects on the environment – whether that be from packaging and food waste, meters upon meters of wrapping paper or ordering everything online from Amazon. Here, we outline some of the most significant problems with Christmas consumerism as well as the steps you can take to have a more sustainable festive period.
The cult of Christmas consumerism
Our lifestyle in the Global North is undoubtedly underpinned by a culture of boundless consumerism. In theory, consumerism is based on the premise that an increased consumption of commodities is ‘economically desirable’. In practice, it’s built a culture of excessive materialism where we buy things for the sake of buying them, and not because we actually need them. This practice is merely an inevitable consequence of an economic system that relies purely on continually generating profits to maintain itself. If goods and services aren’t sold, the system falls in on itself. The solution, then? Rampant consumerism. This phenomenon has been wired into the very core of contemporary society, with perhaps the most pervasive exploitation of consumerism occurring during the Christmas season.
With the holidays around the corner, a lot of us have many things on our minds: festivities, carols, family, warm fires, shopping… UK households spend, on average, an extra £800 in December. That’s the equivalent of a whole month’srent for many. Initially faith-based and concerned with spending time with loved ones, consumerism has transformed Christmas into extravagant monetary spending season instead — from the gift-giving to the feasting. What does this mean for the environment, though? From the packaging, the turkeys, the Christmas trees and decorations, the wrapping paper, the cards, to the gifts with that infamous obsolescence built into them… It’s estimated that the UK produces 30% more landfill waste during the festive season. One thing’s clear: the common festive overindulgence that is fuelled by Christmas consumerism is at odds with the continued fight against climate change and environmental destruction.
Sustainable shopping choices
While the holidays can be an incredibly waste for time, they don’t have to be! When it comes to shopping, you can easily incorporate sustainability by thinking about what you’re shopping for and where you’re doing it so that you can have the biggest positive impact.
Instead of shopping on Christmas Eve for something that they might not use (we’ve all been there!), try to think about what they actually might want. Maybe you could buy your artist friend a sketchbook or that stressed-out relative a weighted blanket? Thinking about what your gift recipient might want and use in the long-term can be tricky but makes your gift more meaningful and less likely to be thrown away shortly after. Buying higher quality items (and less of them) can also help to increase the gift’s lifecycle and still doesn’t have to be wildly expensive.
If you are the craftier type, try making a gift out of things you already have. You can find a quick hot chocolate blend here, or find the ingredients for a tasty mugcake that they can make any time here. Alternatively, some of the best gifts aren’t tangible! As lockdown restrictions begin to ease, you can book them a pampering experience at a spa, a cooking class or a visit to their favourite racetrack. You can find some great inspiration for practical and sustainable gifting here!
Where you choose to shop from can also make all the difference to the sustainability of the holiday season. Remember to help support local businesses who may have struggled during the lockdowns to continue producing their incredible products. As many small businesses tend to use local goods and regional supply chains to produce their items, this is a great way to help your local community.
Finding local retailers is easier than you think – try Googling or look up hashtags of your region, along with the words “business” or “retailer” to find people you can support. The best part of using local retailers is that you can talk to them and actually speak to a real person. This means you can also ask them to package things sustainably by using recycled paper if you’re sending it directly to someone. You can even ask them to let you pick it up from their storefront – saving unnecessary packaging and that anxious feeling of waiting for your order to arrive!
Reducing Christmas waste
Even when we’re looking to be more environmentally-conscious with our choices around Christmas, some things about the big day are non-negotiable – like wrapping paper and the tree. Luckily, you can still make choices that are better for the planet without missing out on these things, don’t worry!
Every year in Britain we use around 227, 000 miles of wrapping paper. That’s the equivalent of driving from John O Groats to Lands End and back again over 136 times! A lot of this paper can’t be recycled, including glittered paper, along with ribbons and Sellotape. Instead, opting for recyclable paper can make a huge difference to your environmental impact. Sometimes this can be plainer and have no patterns, but this is a great opportunity to be more creative and make your presents more personal at the same time! Pretty twine, dried flowers or even some cuttings from the tree can make your presents pretty and individual, as well as more sustainable.
More environmentally-friendly choices are also available now when choosing your Christmas tree. Many companies now offer a tree renting service, where the tree is taken back and replanted at the end of the festive season. Or, if you’re set on buying, you can look for trees with an FSC certification which shows it has been sustainably sourced. After Christmas, you can use recyclenow to find local drop-off points for your tree to be recycled. Also, switching to LED lights as tree decorations instead of incandescent lights can help save up to 80% energy!
Food waste is also a significant problem at Christmas-time, with an average of 227,000 tonnes of food being thrown away across UK households. In fact, the UN state that if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world! Recognising this, it’s more important than ever to use up your leftovers, only buy what you need and to donate any surplus. For dried goods, you can donate to your local foodbank and for fresh produce, you can often find a local Surplus Food Network or similar organisations that will accept these donations to make fresh meals. With a simple Google search, you can find a convenient collection point in your local area and you can give back to your local community.
This year, you can make a conscious decision to oppose this unsustainable narrative whether that be by opting for homemade gifts or shopping locally, switching to recyclable wrapping paper or by renting your Christmas tree. Whichever you choose to do, it will have a positive impact on the environment and might even inspire those around you to follow in your footsteps the following year – contributing to a shift away from Christmas consumerism to a more environmentally-friendly festive period.
By Elisa Emch, Rhea Kamath and Lucy Bremner
Edited by Charlotte Beardwell