The environmental cost of Christmas

The inconvenient truth about the festive season

The Christmas period in the western world highlights one of the most serious environmental challenges of our time – rampant consumerism. Advertisements begin well in advance of the occasion, with retailers aiming to keep consumers’ focus on their products for as long as possible. The underlying message is that consumers ‘need’ whatever product it is being advertised and that the sooner they get it the better, with the promise that it will bring them happiness directly, or in the case of gifting, indirectly. From food to clothes, retailers encourage consumers to buy as much from them as they possibly can, and from an environmental perspective, this is completely unsustainable.

Our insatiable desire for more can be attributed to our evolutionary heritage and is common across many animals. When resources are scarce and have a high survival value, it is necessary to avoid complacency and find the motivation to gather and maintain as many resources as possible. In the modern western world however, this trait can be detrimental to the wellbeing of the environment and indeed, to our own wellbeing, since it can be easily exploited for marketing purposes.

“Opting for paper packaging and wrapping is by no means a perfect solution.”

Our high rates of consumption at Christmas have clear environmental implications. Between gifts and food and all their packaging, there is an enormous amount of consumption associated with Christmas. Opting for paper packaging and wrapping is by no means a perfect solution. While it is biodegradable, the energy and water required to produce it usually exceeds that of plastic. The same problem applies to subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix, which on the surface appear to be the perfect alternative to DVDs. However, services like these carry a large carbon footprint due to the energy required to run the servers.

Food waste is also a problem. According to the Department of the Environment, food waste peaks at Christmas time, with the equivalent of thousands of Christmas meals going to waste each year. For substantial changes to take place in the way people shop for food, retailers themselves will need to make serious efforts to dissuade customers from buying more than they really need. As individuals, we should avoid being won over by appealing advertisements and consider whether we really need the product in question.

The problems of waste and overconsumption extend to most Christmas products and stem from an often superficial throwaway attitude. For example, despite the fact that Christmas jumpers are only worn over a few days, a quarter of Christmas jumpers in the UK were not re-used in successive years. Explanations for this include not wanting to wear the same jumper in different years and the low price of the jumpers justifying the purchase of a new one each year. The environmental cost of clothes manufacturing is huge, from the energy and chemicals used, to the carbon footprint of transport, which makes this kind of attitude is incompatible with any notion of sustainability.

“Polyester…carries a carbon footprint over double that of cotton.”

When it comes to tech items and clothes, a common trend is that we always want more, so we can replace that which is “old” and “outdated”. The fashion industry is infamous for its high environmental cost. For one, cotton is produced mostly on irrigated land and almost 10,000 litres of water are used on average to produce just 1kg. Polyester is the most commonly used fabric and requires less water than cotton to produce, but because it is derived from crude oil, it carries a carbon footprint over double that of cotton, with a single t-shirt estimated to have 5.5 kg of CO2 emissions. The tech industry requires many rare minerals which drives huge mining industries particularly in the developing world where environmental practices often leave much to be desired. Chemical pollution is one of biggest problems facing these developing mining industries, with waterways being at high risk. Societal problems such as poor and dangerous working conditions are also common in both these industries.

Buying toys for children is obviously the main focuses when it comes to gifting, and the highly popular Late Late Toy Show is testament to this. The new toys showcased during the programme provide toy sellers with a huge audience of young viewers who are easily impressionable and will persuade their parents to buy whatever toy it is they liked the most. Studies have shown that reduced exposure to ads on TV lead to a direct reduction in the requests on parents to buy them toys. Over in the UK, the British Toy and Hobby association reported that in 2015, children received on average 38 new toys, 11 of which they received at Christmas. Because most toys are made from a variety of materials, they are often not recyclable. Poor build quality is another common problem which means that many toys are essentially destined for landfills or incinerators from the very beginning. Toys will even end up being thrown away even when they are in perfectly good conditions when kids outgrow them or parents consider they cause too much clutter.

“Given the environmental cost behind each product we buy, it is essential to keep these questions in mind.”

One of the first things we need to ask ourselves is whether we really need something or if it simply something we want. How long will it be before the gifts we give and receive at Christmas will end up unused and replaced by yet another product which promises happiness? Given the environmental cost behind each product we buy, it is essential to keep these questions in mind.

Ultimately, we consume far too much of everything throughout the year and a massive shift towards a far less consumerist society is required if we are to make any real progress towards sustainability.

Spending time with those closest to us during the Christmas holidays is one of the best aspects of Christmas, but not because we are told so in an advertisement promoting a commercial product. The exchange of gifts may play an important role in our celebration of Christmas but what we need to realise is that it is not the gifts themselves that give us substantial happiness but rather the sentiment behind the gift. Buying something minimal, but which has meaning, is better that buying something showy but pointless. It is worth keeping in mind that the most invaluable gift of all is to be ourselves a positive presence in the lives of others.

Ciarán Ó Cuív

Ciaran Ó Cuív is the Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Zoology student.