Challenges of the cost of living, rising inflation and increases in energy bills, may inadvertently make Christmas more sustainable in 2023. It is believed that fewer Christmas lights and light-up displays will be on show this year as households become increasingly conscious of rising electricity bills. Many will also be having to cut back on gifting and travel. Whilst this can all feel a little depressing, there is an upside for the planet.
Our combined UK carbon footprint greatly increases around the festive period and, given the accelerated pace of climate change, this is perhaps a cost we cannot live with. But, does prioritising the planet by cutting back our usual Christmas celebratory habits feel like a hardship too far? Especially with all the other pressures households are facing.
Although making Christmas more sustainable may appear to be taking the joy out of it, I've found that eco-friendly living can, in fact, bring back the true joy of the holidays. Take the pandemic lockdowns for instance. They were awful, of course, even outside of the context of fear and illness and, in many cases, dreadful loss of life. Having much of our usual outside activity and socialisation taken from us left us feeling anxious and lonely. With shops, restaurants, bars and offices shut, many of us struggled. And yet, nature started to thrive again. Then, after a time of mourning what we had lost, we began to notice nature again. We started walking out in the countryside, the woods or even appreciating our local parks. We talked to our neighbours and found ourselves treasuring the important things in life. Many of us found this enforced somewhat back-to-basic living brought us back to what really mattered. It’s funny how going without (aside from essentials obviously) can often teach us more about what we need most. It can even make us happier.
So, if you’re thinking about making your Christmas more sustainable in 2023, I hope you won’t see it as a sacrifice or a struggle but instead as an opportunity.
The good news? I’m here to help you do just that, with a few ways to make Christmas more sustainable that won’t make your festivities any less enjoyable but will reduce your carbon footprint a little.
Pre-loved And Vintage Decorations
A huge problem for the environment is the amount we produce. Especially those things that are not made to last but also take years, and sometimes decades, to decompose. Some never - namely plastics. Yet, many of our short-term-use products are made from plastic and other non-biodegradable materials.
During the holidays we are surrounded by these types of items. We even have pop-up shops that appear over the Christmas period dedicated to selling Christmas decor and decorations that are made to be used only very occasionally. Many are not made well but that doesn’t matter - they are cheap so we can replace them, right? Only, this creates a huge amount of waste, not to mention the carbon footprint of mass production and manufacturing.
Often made from some of the worst materials in terms of being non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, Christmas decorations often end up in landfills. Partly because they are not made to last and also because many households crave a new 'look' each Christmas.
Now, I love a Christmassy home. After a couple of cold dreary months, I’m craving the colour and sparkle that festive decorations offer and I’m not about to opt for bringing in branches and pinecones and calling it holiday decor. If you’re like me then you'll be looking for ways to decorate your home (and your tree) for Christmas, without buying a load of cheaply made tat year-on-year (half of which will be broken by January):
- Look for pre-owned Christmas decorations at boot sales, on online marketplaces and in charity shops. Many people give away decorations because they’ve gotten tired of them, not because they don’t still have life left in them.
- Seek out vintage decorations which are particularly striking and will give your home a unique festive makeover. Vintage decorations can be a beautiful way to decorate your home and Christmas tree particularly as they tend to come in a wider range of colours.
Organise a Christmas decoration swap party with friends and/or neighbours. People can bring decorations they’ve used before and swap them amongst each other so everyone gets new decorations for their home without having to buy anything new - saving money as well as making Christmas more sustainable!
Ditch The Wrapping Paper
So many people don’t know how bad gift wrap is for the environment, which is probably why 227,000 miles worth of wrapping paper is thrown away every year. Whilst regular paper breaks down reasonably well in landfill, due to the treatment gift wrap receives - films, glitter, embellishments, etc - much of it cannot be recycled and a fair amount contains microplastics. This all makes it non-recyclable.
Seeing as gifts do really need to be wrapped though (after all an essential part of the experience), we must look for more eco-friendly gift wrap alternatives. Here are a few ideas:
- Tissue Paper - This is biodegradable (mostly) and reasonably cheap. Still colourful and fun, you can make a tissue-wrapped gift more appealing (and disguised) if you use a reusable gift bag. Gift bags are not usually eco-friendly due to the materials they are made from but they are reused, often by the receiver so they support a circular economy.
- Parcel Paper - OK, so it’s brown and boring but it can be dressed up. Ribbon and lace can be used as ties and these can be reused each year and the brown paper itself is recyclable. You can also decorate the paper - or let the kids do it! Stamps work well but be wary of glitter which is most often just pieces of microplastic.
- Fabric Wrap - Fabric has become a popular way to coat gifts in recent years. Patterned scarves and Furoshiki gift wrapping not only negate the need for wrapping paper but also provide an extra gift. Vegan cosmetics brand Lush has been supporting the trend, especially at Christmas, with their scarf wrap option for packaging their products for gifting. Admittedly, fabric wrapping it’s not the cheapest option but you can use materials you already have or buy recycled materials or fabric scrapes.
Experience Gifting vs Product Gifting
Traditionally, people have been given physical gifts. Not only for Christmas but for weddings, homewarmings, birthdays and other holidays and rites of passage. This was not only considered a kind gesture but was a practical one since less disposable income meant people would have had to save for items they needed. For instance, newlyweds would move into their first home traditionally after the marriage and would need items such as kettles, dinnerware, clocks, etc as they were unlikely to have lived away from home before.
In the past few decades though, things have changed.It has become more difficult to gift items for the home since most people generally can buy what they need (even if what they can afford isn’t exactly what they’d choose) themselves. We also have fast fashion which means cheaper clothing and we have a reliance on technology which means, for many people, gadgets are not considered a luxury but instead a necessity.
Therefore we don’t wait to receive them but buy products ourselves, even if that means doing so on credit. Of course, subscription services have also reduced the need for physical products. I would often give CDs to friends for Christmas and birthdays back in the 90s but these days most people have subscription services for their music and their films too - so DVDs as gifts are mostly out. Hence, it's getting harder and harder to find presents that people actually need or desire. Of course, many people may want an upgrade of what they can afford but this would usually be unaffordable for friends and family to gift. So what to do?
Many of us ignore the fact that most of us already have what we need to get by and just buy presents anyway. This means a lot of us have too much stuff - not great news for the environment because, as previously mentioned, replacing things before they need replacing or buying novelty items is just adding to the landfill issues. In addition, manufacturing these types of items carries a substantial carbon footprint.
Interestingly though, the gift experience market has been growing in recent years, especially post-pandemic. In fact, 78% of millennials prefer experiences to material goods, according to a survey by Eventbrite.
Gifting experiences encourage friends and family to spend time together and/or to spend time following their interests and immersing themselves in culture, art, sports or other activities. Enjoyable days or evenings out, especially spent doing something different, can be far more memorable than a physical gift and can therefore be more meaningful.
Of course, it does depend on the physical gift and on the experience gift, but often experiences can carry a lower carbon footprint than a product. Furthermore, they help to remind us that it is not ‘stuff’ that makes us happy, but experiences.
Shop Small And Shop Local
Large retailers aren’t inherently bad. Actually, big businesses are generally becoming more sustainable faster because they have the resources to do so. Yet, there is also a rise in smaller businesses that have been built from a foundation of eco-friendly values.
In organisations where sustainability has been a key focus and part of the mission from conception, consumer trust is higher. Therefore, if you are gifting products at Christmas it may be wise to focus on smaller, ethically-grounded businesses that put sustainability first. They also tend to make products that are not only more environmentally friendly but encourage a more eco-conscious lifestyle in general.
Buying locally can also reduce your carbon footprint at Christmas as it saves the need for shipping and/or other forms of transportation. When you buy locally you are also supporting your local economy and the money you spend gets invested in your community.
So, if you’re from Sussex, you may want to check out my products which are handmade in Brighton and Hove - all-natural skincare with ethical values that make perfect gifts, especially for eco-conscious consumers.
Reduce Food Waste
Christmas is so often a time of abundance and abundance is not sustainable. Yet, I do believe in treating yourself to your favourite foods and drinks over the festive season. It aids the celebrations and we need it in the long cold months.
Eating well over the Christmas holidays is a tradition that historically made a lot of sense. Yet, we often overindulge now without the need - most of us are unlikely to starve in the cold winter months. Despite this, many people buy an excess of food over the holiday period and much gets wasted.
To minimise food waste over Christmas, plan your meals. Make a list with your family and ensure you include the treats for everyone but try not to buy more than you can consume.
If you do end up with leftovers, freeze them or donate them to local shelters. However, do attempt to buy less in the first place because producing food carries a substantial carbon footprint and production goes up over Christmas because demand rises. If we all waste less food we can influence how much is produced and potentially encourage fairer distribution.
Promote The Planet
Although Christmas can increase waste and put extra pressure on the planet, the holidays can also be a time for reflection and change. We can even aid this in the gifts we give and the examples we set. For instance, we can help raise awareness about the environment by giving books and gifts that encourage eco-friendly lifestyles or help future generations become champions of the environment.
For adults, there is The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide and other books that help us learn to live more sustainably and we can also give eco-friendly gifts such as all-natural cosmetics, wildflower seeds and bee houses to encourage rewilding.
For children, there are many books to teach them about the importance of protecting our planet as well as activities and eco-friendly craft kits to teach them about nature and how we can preserve our natural world.
Christmas can be a time when we sacrifice the care of our planet for short-term gratification. Or, we can choose to reevaluate, reflect and prioritise what is most essential. This not only results in making Christmas more sustainable but it can also help to make it more meaningful.