By Anthony Cox, Deputy Director, OECD Environment Directorate
Type “Christmas and environment” into Google and you will get page after page of tips on how to have a sustainable festive and holiday season. Running the whole gamut of topics from the Christmas tree to sustainable gift-giving to eco-friendly Christmas food to holiday cards to gift wrapping, there is no shortage of news articles, websites and blogs providing useful advice on how to reduce the environmental footprint of the holiday period. These are often packaged up with advice on how to have an ethical Christmas so that it is possible to ensure there is a nicely holistic warm inner glow to one’s year-end celebrations.
That Google search will also throw up a handful of articles on the environmental downside of Christmas. It does not take much imagination to see why this is the case. The increased spending over the Christmas season is quite enormous and leads one to suspect, rightly, that the environmental footprint is potentially significant.
Consistent and reliable data on holiday season expenditures are hard to come by, but a quick survey indicates the magnitudes involved. In the US, for example, one survey estimates that the each US citizen will spend USD 920 on gifts alone in 2019 and that the country as a whole will spend around USD 1 trillion over the Christmas period. The Bank of England calculates that the average UK household spends an extra GBP 800 in December, with purchases of food increasing by 20%, alcohol by 30% and books by 85% over the average month. The annual Deloitte’s survey of Christmas spending estimates that the average UK consumer will spend GBP 567 in 2019, while the average European consumer will spend an average of GBP 409. In Australia, one survey projects that the average household will spend AUD 969 on Christmas in 2019, while Canadians are estimated to be spending CAD 1706 in 2019.
So, with this annual orgy of spending and consumerism, what is the environmental impact of the holiday season? Concerns have been raised over the economic deadweight loss of Christmas, and gift giving in general, with a famous economic paper published in 1993 arguing that most typical gift giving actually destroys economic value. However, there has been limited attention paid to the very daunting task of calculating the overall environmental footprint of Christmas using life cycle analysis. One, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, infographic estimates the carbon footprint of Santa’s operations (including toy production and distribution by a sleigh pulled by reindeer) at around 70 million tonnes of CO2e. A more serious report in 2007 by researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute, based at the University of York, calculated that the three days of Christmas festivities in the UK could result in as much as 650 kg of CO2 emissions per person.
However, more recent, comprehensive studies have not been undertaken, due primarily to the fact that such a task would require heroic assumptions, detract from more pressing data and research needs elsewhere, and would run the risk of the author being labelled a “sustainability Scrooge”. Nevertheless, there are interesting data available on the more serious environmental dimensions of the festive season, that also relate to the broader issue of the sustainability of our current production and consumption patterns.
So, Christmas trees – real or artificial? While most people prefer the aesthetic of a natural tree in the living room (except, perhaps for those with allergies), the carbon footprint of the options differs significantly. The Carbon Trust reports that a 2m tree that is felled from a forest that ends up as wood chips or on a bonfire after Christmas has a carbon footprint of 3.5kg of CO2e. If that tree is sent to landfill, then the carbon footprint increases to 16kg of CO2e. In contrast, the same size artificial tree (usually PVC and metal) has an estimated carbon footprint of 40kg of CO2e. So an artificial tree must be used for 12 years to make it greener than a natural tree that is chipped or burnt.
What about Christmas wrapping paper and cards? The UK is estimated to use about 227,000 miles of wrapping paper each Christmas, enough to stretch nine times around the world, and some 1 billion Christmas cards (equivalent of 33 million trees). In the US, around 2 billion holiday cards are sent each year, enough to fill a football field with paper stacked ten stories high. Canada is estimated to use 540,000 tonnes of wrapping paper each festive season and to send 2.6 billion cards. With 1kg of paper generating 3.5kg of CO2 during production, the global carbon footprint of wrapping and cards is significant. The overall environmental impact will depend, of course, on how much of this material is recycled. The recycling rate for paper and cardboard for the UK and the US is 79% and 65%, respectively, so there is scope for further reducing the environmental footprint.
Food waste is another major environmental issue over the festive season. What happens to all the food that we don’t eat? According to one estimate, around 54 million platefuls of food are thrown out in the UK each Christmas. Food waste along the supply chain is a major source of CO2 emissions, with the IPCC’s recent report on Climate Change and Land estimating that wasted and lost food accounts for as much as a 10th of all our greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU alone, it is estimated that around 80 million tonnes of food is wasted every year. The economic costs of that are also considerable with some €143 billion lost in the process.
And what happens to all the packaging waste that is generated over the holiday season? According to the GWP Group (a UK packaging company), the UK generates each holiday season some 7,000 tonnes of turkey packaging, 125,000 tonnes of plastic wrapping for food, 500 million canned drinks in addition to baseline sales), and 13,350 tonnes of glass bottles. Then there is the excess packaging from online sales in an ever-increasing digital world, travel associated with mass travel to visit family and friends over the holidays, and the electrical waste (LED lights, batteries, etc) that is generated.
The need to take a holistic look at our production and consumption patterns and behaviours lies at the heart of the circular economy concept that has gained increasing traction around the world in recent years. A circular economy is intended to replace the traditional linear economy and create a system of resources utilisation where reduction, reuse and recycling of materials, resources and products prevails. It is good for both the environment and for business.
The OECD has been developing data, analysis and policy guidance for OECD and non-OECD countries on how to implement policies and programmes that promote the sustainable use of materials in order to reduce their negative environmental impacts, encouraging resource efficiency, and hasten the transition towards a circular economy. Examples of recent outputs include the Global Materials Resources Outlook to 2060, business models for a circular economy, strengthening recycled plastics markets, and enhancing extended producer responsibility schemes. Reducing the carbon footprint of consumption and production has been an integral part of this work, with the latest OECD report on climate mitigation focusing on how to address emission reduction by taking a well-being lens to policy development.
Such guidance can help governments implement policies that will ensure more sustainable consumption patterns, contributing to a healthier planet and our overall well-being, the best gift we can give each other during the holiday season.
Waldfogel, Joel (2009), Scroogenomics. Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.
 According to the survey, the UK spending is divided between gifts (52%), food (25%), socialising (11%) and travel (11%). Europeans spend a smaller proportion on gifts (41%) compared to the UK and more on travel (20%).
 With the largest proportion being spent on travel (48%) followed by gifts (39%).
 Waldfogel (1993) argued that most typical gift buying at Christmas destroys economic value because, unless you know someone incredibly well, and know exactly what they want, your gift will be worth less to the recipient than what you paid for it. At best the exchange might break even. In economic jargon, there would be a deadweight loss. Based on a survey of Yale undergraduates, the gift mismatch was estimated to lead to a deadweight loss of between 10% and 33% of the value of the gift. This idea was expanded by Waldfogel in a 2009 book on “Scroogenomics”. Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays” (which ranks #4 in sales of books on macroeconomics on amazon.com!). Of course, there are other rational but not necessarily economic reasons for gift-giving. For example, gifts are very useful for strengthening social capital by signalling regard and demonstrating and building social ties. Also, if people give and receive gifts, it can be taken as revealed preference that it makes them happy.