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6 ways to enjoy a more sustainable Christmas

Claire Thew Claire Thew Sustainability Lead at Venture Zero

Black Friday; an American phrase coined by the police in Philadelphia because of the chaos that ensued as large numbers of suburban tourists came into the city to begin their holiday shopping. It‘s now synonymous with huge discount deals and often takes place over several days and even weeks in November in the run up to the festive period. 

The commercialisation of Christmas is nothing new. At the start of the Victorian era, presents were typically small items, like fruit, nuts, and handmade gifts you could hang on the tree. But being a nation of manufacturers, industrialists and shopkeepers, it was not long before Victorians realised that Christmas could be exploited for commercial gain.  

With the rise of the department store in Britain from the 1870s, the scene was set for the Christmas shopping experience we know today. 

So, with all the efforts that brands and retailers put into making us spend and consume more over the festive period, coupled with the pressure for things to be perfect, how do we kick back and make Christmas more sustainable and less stressful? 

Below are my 6 tips towards helping you be a little bit greener this Christmas – and you might even save some pennies in the process. 

1. Being in the present

According to a 2022 survey, over 32 million of us receive at least one unwanted gift at Christmas, at an estimated cost of over £1.2 billion. At best, many of these will be passed on to charity, but at least 1 in 10 will end up in landfill. 

But gifting to someone you care about doesn’t have to cost the earth. Research commissioned by Haven Holidays in 2022 found that over half of Brits would prefer to be gifted an experience – or a contribution towards an experience – rather than a material gift at Christmas.  

There has been a huge increase in the number of companies catering to the rise in demand for experiences - think food and drink tasting, nights away, learning a new craft, outdoor fun etc. There are other options to consider too: 

  • Buy second hand: try Facebook marketplace, eBay and more recently, Vinted. There is a huge amount of good quality, sometimes unused or second-hand toys, books and clothes that can be picked up for a fraction of the price of new. 
  • Experiences: where possible buy local (it’s not overly sustainable if they have to travel long distances to take part) – your local businesses need your support. 
  • Consider a charity subscription such as adopting an animal through the WWF: the recipient will get regular updates on their animal and helpful advice on how to live more sustainably. 
  • Secret Santa: ideal for families or group of friends/colleagues plus this is the ideal way to curb the amount you have to buy. You can even set some limits, such as how much, only second-hand or to shop locally.
2. Real tree vs artificial

This isn’t a straightforward answer as it will depend on the specific tree, where it has come from, how it was grown, what it is made of, if you plan to re-use it, and for how many times, and ultimately how you dispose of it. 

To find what would work best for you consider the following: 

  • An artificial tree used over multiple years (7-20 times depending on the weight and different materials in the tree) is better for the environment than buying a new, commercially grown tree every year.  
  • For real trees, those that are slow-grown and use no fertiliser are preferable to those intensively grown. Check to see if it is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures minimal fertiliser is used.  
  • Potted trees (with roots) can be re-used, spreading the carbon footprint over multiple years and potentially avoiding transport emissions, making them a more sustainable option if you’re after a real Christmas tree. 
  • Some councils offer collections as part of their garden waste service or suggest that you can take it to a local tip, where it should be shredded into chippings to be used locally. Alternatively, you can often book a charity to collect your tree – for example, here in Newcastle, St Oswald’s Hospice collect your tree to be recycled for a suggested donation of £10. 

Image credit: Omni Calculator and Treehugger

3. Food waste

Food waste is a big problem. All year round. And we do it spectacularly at Christmas, with an estimated 54 million platefuls of food thrown away over the festive period.  

Put simply, the best way to reduce food waste at Christmas (or any other time of year) is to plan your meals, write a list of what you need and check your store cupboard so you don’t double up on items you might only use in December, like nutmeg, chestnuts, etc. 

However, planning meals isn’t always easy and with many of us cooking for larger numbers of people than we’re used to, it’s all too easy to go a bit crazy with the quantities, just in case. Here’s a couple of tips to help reduce your food waste and likely be kinder to your pocket too: 

  • Try and do an online shop – you’re less likely to be tempted to throw in that extra tin of quality street if you’re not cruising the aisles. 
  • Make a list before you go shopping and stick to it.  
  • Let people serve themselves the amount they want to eat rather than dishing it out – food left in a serving dish can be eaten as leftovers the next day, whereas food left on plates will be binned. 
  • Do have some recipes in mind for those leftovers - bubble and squeak and curry are the most searched for recipes on Boxing Day. 
  • Remember your freezer! Potatoes, however they’ve been cooked, can be frozen as can most cheeses. Check out Love Food Hate Waste for more food waste tips. 
4. Cards, crackers and wrapping

Millions of cards are sent at Christmas, and whilst many of these could be recycled (but aren’t), there’s a significant carbon footprint from the delivery of these cards, with Royal Mail estimating that they deliver 1.5 million cards every Christmas.  

On top of this, it’s estimated we use 50,000 trees worth of wrapping paper every Christmas, much of which can’t be recycled due to foil/glitter/plastic additives and sellotape. Consider the following: 

  • Can you send fewer cards? Not missing out those people for whom your annual card with a personal update is likely very gratefully received. 
  • Send an e-card. 
  • Don’t send individual class cards – maybe just one for the whole class.  
  • Make a charitable donation instead – I’ve made around a £30 donation to a charity for many years and let family and friends know this is what I’ve done.  
  • Can you make your own crackers? We do this every year and now have re-usable felt crowns that we source in our local Zero Waste store Buy the Kilo. 
  • Use gift bags, as these are more easily re-usable 
  • Try “furoshiki” - a Japanese tradition of wrapping gifts in fabric. Devon-based WragWrap have devised a scheme where you can rent your fabric for all your wrapping needs. 
  • If you want to use wrapping paper, try using self-adhesive paper tape and check out what types of wrapping paper your council takes here. 

Image credit: How to Christmas Gift-wrap with Furoshiki - Zusetsu

5. Travel

For many of us, the holiday period means catching up with friends and family, which can mean our travel carbon footprint can quickly stack up. Whilst I’m not advocating that you shouldn’t travel (unless you’re looking for an excuse not to go!) there are a few things you could consider: 

  • Can you do the journey by train? It’s not always possible and not always cheap but investing in a railcard can often reap the savings on the first ticket purchase. Check out TrainHugger who plant trees for tickets. 
  • Can you borrow or rent an electric vehicle for your journey? 
  • Stick to the speed limit. This makes for more efficient driving, less fuel used and less emissions – a win-win. 
  • Pack and plan – the more stuff in the car, the lower your miles per gallon will be. Plus, try not to travel when you know traffic jams are a probability. 
6. Watch your wellbeing

At Venture Zero, we talk a lot about Sustainable Wellbeing and so I want to end this with a note to say that for many, Christmas brings a time of great stress, anxiety and loneliness. Finances are stretched, as is our time, patience and family conflicts can often rise to the surface causing a lot of tension. Wherever possible, try to: 

  • Protect your personal and family time – this is your holiday season too. 
  • Set boundaries on present buying – chances are everyone else will thank you for it. 
  • Get out in nature – this is great for your physical and mental health. 
  • Connect with people you actually want to spend time with and maybe drop in on that neighbour who has no one. 

So, there you have it, just a few tips to help you navigate the festive period. All that remains to be said is to have a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. 

Claire Thew is the Sustainability Lead at Venture Zero, delivering training and workshops centred around Sustainable Wellbeing. As a committed environmentalist and mum of two, she’s spent her career working to bring people together and educate on how to reduce our impact on the planet. 

Buy second hand: try Facebook marketplace, eBay and more recently, Vinted. There is a huge amount of good quality, sometimes unused or second-hand toys, books and clothes that can be picked up for a fraction of the price of new. 

Claire Thew, Sustainability Lead at Venture Zero
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