Learn how to make your Christmas more sustainable, including sustainable gifts and other eco-friendly Christmas ideas.
For many people, the festive season is a time to eat, drink, and be merry. Families travel to reunite, veritable feasts are planned, and all kinds of gifts are exchanged. But what is the environmental impact of Christmas? And how can you make the holidays more sustainable?
Here, we take a look at some sustainable Christmas gifts, as well as other ways you can have a more eco-friendly festive season. If you celebrate Christmas and want to reduce your environmental impact, we’ve got some top tips on how to think more sustainably.
The environmental impact of Christmas
In many households, Christmas is a time of excess. We spend more, eat more, drink more, and see family and friends more. According to figures from the Bank of England, the average household spends £740 more in December, 29% more than in a typical month. Yet with this increased spending comes more waste.
One study found that the amount of waste the UK produces increases 30% each Christmas. This includes things like unrecyclable wrapping paper and around 1 billion Christmas cards. What’s more, fast fashion Christmas garments, many of which contain plastic, are purchased and barely worn.
There are other issues to consider when it comes to the environmental impact of Christmas, too, including:
- The UK alone uses around 8 million natural Christmas trees each year, with around two-thirds of households opting for artificial trees.
- In the US in 2018, consumers purchased 32.8 million natural trees and 23.6 million artificial ones.
- Around 10 million turkeys are consumed each Christmas in the UK, accounting for over 3,000 tonnes of turkey packaging and more than 4,500 tonnes of tin foil.
- Figures from 2018 show that the UK wastes an estimated 270,000 tonnes of food each year, with a big spike coming over the Christmas period.
- A 2017 survey found that families in the UK travel an average of 302 miles during the holidays, with 116 of those miles going to see friends and family.
All of these factors contribute to an increase in the carbon footprint of Christmas. One study from the US found that each person produces an additional 0.64 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions during the holiday season.
Why be more sustainable?
So why is it important to be more sustainable at Christmas time? As you can see from the figures above, it’s a time when many people create more waste than usual. Combatting that waste can help to reduce your overall impact on the environment.
COP26 highlighted the importance of making sweeping changes to address climate change. And, as we explore in our blog post on sustainability, we’re at a time where our actions are directly impacting our natural environment. Collective social change can make a big difference in tackling the climate crisis.
Having a more sustainable Christmas can also help you spend less money, produce less waste, and raise awareness of the issues around climate change and sustainability.
Our course on learning for a sustainable future gives you the chance to explore why sustainability is so important, and how you can live a more sustainable life.
Sustainable Christmas ideas
There are many ways you can make your Christmas more eco-friendly. Small changes in the way you approach the holiday mean you can still enjoy the usual festivities, but in a more sustainable way. Below, we’ve highlighted some of the ways in which you can have an environmentally friendly holiday:
10 sustainable Christmas gifts
Searches for sustainable Christmas gifts are on the rise. People are starting to think about the impact that their purchases can have and choosing to buy eco-friendly gifts instead. If you’re looking for some inspiration, why not consider some of the below when buying gifts for your nearest and dearest:
A digital gift subscription can be the ideal sustainable Christmas gift. As well as being entirely plastic and packaging-free, it can also give someone longer-term enjoyment. There are plenty of choices out there, but we think the gift of FutureLearn Unlimited is pretty special.
With an Unlimited subscription, you can give someone the whole year’s worth of unlimited online short courses from top educators. Help them start 2022 in the best possible way with flexible learning, limitless access and endless possibilities. What’s more, this year, you can buy on, gift one free when you buy an Unlimited subscription.
Not only can the recipient access unlimited learning for the year, but they can also discover more about topics related to sustainability, such as the science behind climate change.
Many of the everyday items we use are fairly unremarkable. But replacing a disposable item with a reusable and sustainable equivalent can make for a thoughtful and practical gift. Some reusable gift ideas include:
- Reusable coffee cups
- Plastic-free water bottles
- Reusable sandwich bags or fresh produce packaging
- Stainless steel straws
- Reusable grocery bags
There is a whole industry based on handmade, recycled gifts. These often innovative products take an existing item and transform it into something unique. Whether it’s jewellery, stationery, art, accessories or homeware, you’ll find all kinds of thoughtful and sustainable gifts for sale.
As well as companies specialising in recycled products, you can also use marketplace platforms such as Etsy to find more bespoke items.
If you know someone who loves tech, why not consider a gadget that’s a little different and good for the environment. There are all kinds of devices that can save power, increase efficiency, and help with sustainability. Some energy-efficient tech products include:
- Solar USB charger
- Eco shower timer
- Smart LED lightbulbs
- Smart plug adaptor
We’ve all been there; you receive a gift that isn’t quite to your style or taste, and the sender doesn’t have a gift receipt (or you’re too awkward to ask for one). Although it might not be right for you, someone else may well enjoy it. Regifting can be an environmentally friendly way of making sure an item doesn’t just get thrown away and gets put to use.
If you know that someone has a particular interest in a cause or organisation, you could make a donation in their name instead of buying them a gift. There are many worthy charities and initiatives out there, many of which are environment-focused, and a donation in the name of a loved one can be a nice gesture.
There are several initiatives that allow you to purchase a climate-positive gift for someone you care about. As well as organisations that plant trees with your gift donations, there are also those that will offset a person’s carbon footprint through a variety of initiatives.
Many of these gifts allow for immediate and long-term impacts on the environment, making them the ideal sustainable Christmas present for the eco-conscious.
For those who love the great outdoors, it’s only natural that they’d want to protect it. There are various membership schemes in the UK and beyond that have a focus on sustainability.
Examples in the UK include organisations such as The National Trust, English Heritage, Scottish Wildlife, and Cadw.
Buying clothes for Christmas is a popular choice. However, as we explore in our blog on sustainability in the fashion industry, fast fashion is bad for the environment and raises questions around working conditions in the garment industry. However, there are brands out there that focus on sustainability and being eco-friendly.
Clothes made from recycled materials are often a good place to start, as are those made from sustainable fabrics. Check out good on you to find out how sustainable certain brands are before you make your purchase.
Houseplants are increasingly common in the UK and can make an excellent gift for those who are environmentally conscious. However, it’s important to bear in mind the issues of ‘plant miles’ (how far a plant has travelled to reach you) and plastic plant pots (which are hard to recycle).
You can even give the gift of learning about healthy house plants with our course from BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine.
Eco-friendly Christmas trees
We’ve already seen the vast number of trees purchased each Christmas, so is there a way to make this focal point of the festivities better for the environment?
Firstly, the good news is that real Christmas trees have a smaller carbon footprint than artificial ones. You can also find sustainable Christmas trees in England through Forestry Commission sales centres. Those in Scotland can also check out Caring Christmas Trees.
Another issue to consider is how you dispose of your tree once the holiday season is over. According to The Carbon Trust, the average Christmas tree disposed of into landfill produces a carbon footprint of around 16kg of CO2. However, those that are planted, chipped or burned on a bonfire only produce around 3.5kg of carbon dioxide.
When it comes to artificial trees, the Carbon Trust reckons that they have a carbon footprint of roughly 40kg of CO2. So, if you dispose of your Christmas tree properly each year, it’d take 10 years to have the same impact as one artificial tree.
If you’re really trying to make your Christmas tree sustainable, there are other options to consider. You could buy a potted tree that you can care for year-round (and repot once it gets big enough). Alternatively, some companies in the UK offer the chance to rent a living Christmas tree.
Eco-friendly Christmas decorations
Many mass-produced decorations you’ll find use a lot of plastic and other materials that are bad for the environment (such as PVC in tinsel). Many such decorations are used once and thrown in the bin, increasing the environmental impact of Christmas.
There are many eco-friendly alternatives to plastic decorations, and using these can make your Christmas more sustainable. Try using (or even making) a natural Christmas wreath, invest in a reusable advent calendar, switch to LED Christmas lights, and reuse existing decorations where possible.
If you do need to buy new decorations, try looking for those made from recycled glass or wood, or choose a more sustainable material than plastic.
Sustainable Christmas food
Our diet is where we can make a big difference to our environmental impact. Eating less meat and choosing local produce can help to reduce your carbon footprint. Of course, Christmas dinner is often the exception for people to make a feast, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be wasteful.
If you’re hoping to have a greener Christmas, try to plan ahead when it comes to your Christmas dinner. Opt for local food where possible, avoid plastic packaging, and only buy what you need.
You can learn more about sustainable food production with our course from EIT Food and Queen’s University Belfast.
Eco-friendly wrapping paper
Some estimates suggest that in the UK alone, some 108 million rolls of wrapping paper go to landfill each year. The problem is that most foil or glitter-decorated wrapping paper is not recyclable. So, switching to a simple paper alternative can be a good start – try scrunching it up, and if it stays in a ball, the chances are it’s recyclable.
You can even ditch the wrapping paper altogether and use fabric to wrap your gifts (you can then reuse it). Similarly, stay away from sticky tape as it’s generally not recyclable. Try switching to eco-friendly tape, or use (and reuse) string to keep your gifts wrapped.
Environmentally friendly crackers
Another common offender in the festive season is Christmas crackers. For many years, crackers often contained plastic gifts and non-recyclable packaging. Thankfully, there are now plenty of alternatives that use eco-friendly or recycled materials and contain plastic-free gifts.
How to have a more sustainable Christmas
If you’re looking for more tips on how to make your Christmas more eco-friendly, we’ve outlined some quick wins to help you out:
Think about what you’re going to need to make your Christmas an enjoyable one. Which elements can you change to reduce your environmental impact? Where can you switch out parts for more sustainable alternatives?
Plan how much food you and your loved ones will eat, avoid single-use plastics, and don’t rely on quick solutions that are bad for the environment.
We’ve already seen the shocking levels of waste created by Christmas celebrations. Being mindful of how much you’re contributing to the problem can help you to reduce your waste and, in turn, your impact on the environment.
Pay attention to packaging
Whether it’s on the gifts you give or the food you buy, try and avoid plastic packaging where possible. Use reusable or recyclable gift wrap, buy local food and take your own containers, and buy eco-friendly gifts for your loved ones.
Reuse and recycle
Buying less at Christmas reduces the amount of waste you create and helps to keep costs down. Where possible, reuse or regift, and make sure that any waste you do create is recyclable or biodegradable.
There are endless possibilities to decorate your home, give meaningful gifts, or create a more sustainable Christmas day. Let your creative ideas flow and challenge yourself to have as eco-friendly a holiday as you can.