5 Ways to Make Christmas More Sustainable – Ranked by Impact

There are many tips to make Christmas more sustainable, but they donโ€™t all have the same impact. So we compared some common tips and ranked them by impact. We also wanted to answer another question: which of those Christmas tips is important throughout the rest of the year?

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Frank Holleman | 12-22-2021

The original story of Christmas is very sober: Baby Jesus – the Son of God – was born in a crib because there wasnโ€™t enough space in the hostels. He didn’t arrive in a royal palace, but right between the hay of dirty animals.

Today, Christmas has mostly lost its humble beginning and has been transformed into an extravagant consumer display of lights, expensive gifts and fancy food.

There are many positive aspects of Christmas but in this blog post I want to look at two things:

  1. What are the most impactful sustainable Christmas tips?
  2. Can those tips teach us something about a sustainable lifestyle throughout the rest of the year?

Ways to reduce the carbon footprint of Christmas

A report from Stockholm Environment Institute looked at this question in 2007.

ways to reduce the carbon footprint of Christmas

Letโ€™s go through them one by one to see which one is most important to focus on. I will give each item a score on how much carbon is saved during Christmas, and how much carbon a comparable action would save in daily life.

Not using extravagant lights

Christmas: very high ๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„
Daily life: low ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ

Thereโ€™s nothing wrong with having a few lights, but do you really need reindeer in your garden that glow all night long? According to the report, extravagant lighting can add a big chunk to your emissions. Thatโ€™s probably because for the whole month of December you have lots of lights turned on non-stop.

In daily life, we use fewer lights and also donโ€™t keep them on throughout the night. So carbon savings are relatively low compared to other things we can do as individuals. Itโ€™s definitely worth replacing inefficient light bulbs with LEDs but eating vegetarian for one year saves 9 times more emissions.

Not buying unwanted presents

Christmas: high ๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„
Daily life: very high ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ

Buying presents is probably the clearest way that consumerism has infiltrated Christmas. Ads and commercials constantly trick us into believing that we need buy presents in order to show our affection.

The reason the impact is so high both during Christmas and in daily life is because one purchase often requires a lot of precious resources, from mining rare metals for electronics to thousands of litres of freshwater to produce clothes.

Giving someone a present is a nice gesture, but why do presents need to be material things? We all have plenty of stuff in our lives. So how about giving an experience, like a camping trip or a voucher for a restaurant.

If youโ€™re giving the Fork Ranger book as a present, it has a similar footprint to the Christmas tree. Just cooking a few recipes from it would probably save more emissions.

One of the most important things we can do as consumers is to stop being consumers. We need to become citizens who find value in life through relationships and experiences. Not in what we buy and consume.

Taking the train (instead of a car)

Christmas: high ๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„
Daily life: very high ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ

Christmas is when we visit our families and that is one of the beautiful things about Christmas. But of course this results in a lot of car trips (or even flights?).

Fossil fueled transport always has a high footprint. Christmas might a good moment to enjoy the luxury of travel and visit family, but the relatively high transport emissions are a good reminder to take more trains and bike rides throughout the rest of the year.

Low waste and vegetarian dinner

Christmas: medium ๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŽ„
Daily life: very high ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ

Are you surprised about the low impact of food? Remember that the Christmas impact is only for one or two meals. The real impact of food comes from eating 365 days of the year. And this number is an average. Beef Wellington is at least 6 Christmas trees worse than our nut roast.

Iโ€™ve always said that meat should be a luxury product for special occasions. So donโ€™t feel too guilty if youโ€™re having meat but maybe buy a high quality and sustainable piece from a local farmer? That said, I will be making a meatless risotto just to show that a festive meal doesnโ€™t require meat.

An even more important topic during Christmas is food waste. Perhaps the carbon savings of not throwing away one meal are not so big, but the mindset matters. Letting food go to waste is one of the biggest problems in the world and eating leftovers is one of the best things we can do throughout the year.

carbon footprint of a Christmas tree compared to food

Not buying a Christmas tree

Christmas: very low ๐ŸŽ„
Daily life: very low ๐ŸŒ

Isnโ€™t it ironic that a lot of sustainable Christmas tips focus on the tree, while its impact is even lower than a Christmas stollen?

Yes, it feels wasteful to grow a tree for 5 years to then cut it down for decoration. But throughout its life, itโ€™s a tree using little space. The fact that a stollen has a higher footprint is a good reminder about the impact of food.

The Christmas stollen or cheese fondue seems a lot smaller than a tree, but it requires quite some space to grow the ingredients, from grasslands for milk to fields of sugar cane.

The daily life version of a Christmas tree might be buying flowers: youโ€™re also cutting down a plant to then slowly die in your living room. But unless youโ€™re buying new roses every week, the total footprint of buying flowers over a whole year is relatively low.

Conclusion: Enjoy Christmas

By comparing the carbon footprint of different actions, and comparing them to how much difference they make throughout the rest of the year, Iโ€™ve tried to show which issues are worth focusing on.

We cannot solve all the sustainability problems as individuals. But some things can only be solved with a change in lifestyle.

We canโ€™t solve food waste if we donโ€™t value every piece of food more.

We canโ€™t reduce the huge environmental impact of farming without eating less meat.

We canโ€™t shift towards a carbon-neutral society without flying and driving less.

And we definitely canโ€™t stop the excessive extraction of resources without buying less stuff.

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year. The focus on family and good meals can help us remember what matters most in life. And the slow days and rest can help us to reflect whether weโ€™re living the life we want to live, or if 2022 is time for some changes.

Merry Christmas dear Fork Rangers! ๐ŸŽ„