Tackling holiday consumerism and environmental impact

Many Americans participate in the yearly mass consumption, spending, shopping, and traveling that come with holiday festivities. Unfortunately, this annual spree causes 23% more household waste than in other months according to a 2023 study conducted by the Center of Biological Diversity. In particular, wrapping paper, gift bags, tissue paper, and plastic packaging are major culprits of waste during the holiday season, since most of them are only used once before being thrown away.

While important to acknowledge, this issue of environmental consequences of consumerism do not mark our doom. There are plenty of ways that each of us can do our part to care for the environment while also enjoying the festivities. The study conducted by the Center touches on alternatives which include giving gifts of time or skill, giving secondhand gifts, giving handmade gifts purchased from a business, giving handmade or DIY gifts, or even donating to a nonprofit as a gift. 

In addition to these solutions, Olivia Julian ’24, head of the Green Action Committee, says, “I think the easiest suggestion would be that if you have a Christmas tree, unplug the lights when you’re not in the house and during the night time. For presents, at least what my family does, is use gift bags so you can reuse them more effectively than wrapping paper. I also know there are also places where you can shred your Christmas tree and it will be turned into compost. There’s also a place where you can  recycle your tree and turn it into fuel instead of it going in the garbage.”

In addition to the environmental cost, consumerism also takes its toll. In particular, large corporations tend to capitalize on the social pressure of buying gifts and mass consumption in order to gain more revenue from buyers. According to the study conducted by the Center, when given the prompt “I feel pressured to buy material gifts due to expectations from others the media, and/or society,” 26% strongly agree, 37% somewhat agree, 18% somewhat disagree, 17% strongly disagree, and 2% don’t know.

The Center’s study also dives into the public’s perceptions about the environmental and consumerist impact of the winter festive season. Some key findings of the study include:

  • 90% of Americans agree that they wish the holidays were less materialistic. This is up from 78% in a study conducted in 2005.
  • 88% of Americans agree that the holidays should be more about family and caring for others.
  • 84% of Americans agree that giving and receiving gifts is awarded too much importance. This is up from 74% in a study conducted in 2005.
  • 67% of survey respondents reported that they are very likely/likely to consider the environmental impacts of a gift before purchasing it.
  • 3 out of 4 survey respondents (76%) said they are very likely or likely to shop at a local small business for gifts.

It’s clear that many Americans yearn to change the way the holidays are overtaken by gift-buying, as shown in the 88% of people in this study who want to focus more on “family and caring for others.” Despite this, the oversaturation of advertisements, sales, and trends still tightly grasp the wallets of many. This then turns into a vicious cycle in which people consume, companies profit, and the planet suffers. 

In any case, whether it’s through the production of popular toys, wrapping paper, or ads that constantly change across social media, the environment seems to always pay the price for the overconsumption and waste that occurs throughout the holiday season. But we have control over how we respond to these pressures.

The Center’s report is available here.

Chart source: The Center of Biological Diversity. Image Source: The Mercury

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