We've normalized overconsumption at the holidays
Ah, the holidays, the most wonderful time of the year.
A time to enjoy family, friends, traditions, laughter,
the search for the perfect gifts,
delivery trucks at every door,
ever more plastic and packaging,
an abundance of opportunistic advertising,
and overstuffed bellies (and trash cans) of animal meat.
It's wonderful having something to celebrate, but holiday celebrations today are often centered around excessive and even harmful traditions worth examining.
How do we celebrate in ways that don’t include overconsumption and waste production so we can enjoy holidays that cause less harm for the planet, people, and other animals?
A brief history of how we commercialized holidays
This post focuses on traditional American holidays, which have become a mecca of overconsumption. Holidays did not start as such, though. Many holidays are rooted in religious dates or figures, historical events, and movements. If religions advocate for piety and historical events often celebrate liberty, how did we come to celebrate with a surplus of stuff?
The commercialization of holiday celebrations began in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century when industries reshaped traditions to make their products relevant and heighten demand for goods.
For example, the greeting cards, florists, and chocolate industries all helped shape Valentine's Day—a holiday of love—into a holiday of notes, flowers, and sweets. This sort of product and emotion coupling was done over time with the help of focused window displays, artful marketing messages, public relations campaigns, and today, advertisers with pocketbooks as big as Santa's sack.
We’ve also seen the electronics industry pair itself with Thanksgiving week’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the textile industry pair itself with Halloween, the sugar industry pair itself with just about every holiday, and, well, just about every industry pair itself with Christmas.
Today, winter holiday sales over November and December amount to over $7 billion and increase, on average, by 3.5 percent each year according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). The amount of spending on holidays throughout the calendar year continues to increase for industries that have associated themselves with a particular celebration. For example, the jewelry industry and Mother's Day...
More consumers than ever are buying jewelry as a Mother’s Day gift. Forty-one percent of consumers plan to purchase jewelry this year, compared with 34 percent in 2021, and these shoppers are paying a record $7 billion to gift their mom some glam.
- National Retail Federation (NRF)
So what’s the problem here? Doesn't mom deserve some bling for the holidays??
First off, yes—please acknowledge how wonderful your mom is on Mother's Day.
And yes—we’re clearly enjoying the layer that these industries are adding to the holidays if we continue to buy what they’re selling. We’re not encouraged to think about the true cost of splurging during the holidays, though, or how our splurging impacts the environment, people, and other animals. Of course, that's what we're doing here...
How consumer holidays impact the environment
Holiday waste and emissions
Material waste and food waste both increase over the holidays. Americans throw away 25% more trash during the winter holiday season compared to averages the rest of the year. The extra waste amounts to 25 million tons of garbage over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s festivities alone.
Think about how many classic holiday items are single-use: plastic easter eggs trashed after one hunt, cheap Halloween decorations and costumes trashed after one wear, paper plates and plastic cups after one Memorial burger, confetti and poppers after one NYE countdown, and, of course, every gift you've ever gotten at a Secret Santa.
A chunk of that trash increase also comes from food waste from over-estimated meals and eyes-too-big for our stomachs. Food waste is not only uncomfortable because of all of the people who go hungry when food is being trashed, but also because it has environmental implications like wasted resources and increased methane emissions from landfills.
Speaking of emissions, let’s talk about carbon. Of course we see an impact from holiday travel, but here we’ll focus on material consumption. We see increased emissions from gift-buyers going to the store to purchase goods or having goods delivered.
Recent studies are undecided on whether online shopping, which increases each year, is actually more carbon efficient than brick-and-mortar shopping. It's complicated, and you can read more about those studies in this rockstar Politico article. What we do know is that online shopping increases each year, and online purchases are more likely to be returned. In fact, 15% - 30% of online purchases are shipped back (sorry grandma, that sweater was heinous), which can increase carbon emissions of a single product by more than 30%.
Basically, we increase all the burdens we put on the environment with holiday consumption, and we need to think about if that’s really how we want to celebrate.
How consumer holidays impact people
Cheap labor and personal psyche
Whether you’re splurging on luxury accessories and electronics or love a holiday bargain, it’s worth looking into the labor required to produce the item you're gifting or receiving.
According to an online holiday shopping survey carried out in the U.S., the top Christmas gift categories in 2021 were apparel and accessories, toys, gift cards, food, and electronics.
Not to be a downer, but the textile and electronics industries rely heavily on forced or exploited labor in many other countries, and much of the waste from these industries ends up in sacrifice zones in marginalized communities’ backyards. One of the most popular food gifts to give during the holidays is chocolate and, as hard as it is to accept this truth, the cacao industry leans on exploited labor, too.
I'm not saying we should never buy these items, but keep in mind that whatever you're gifting has a history, and in the spirit of celebration and love, check into how kind that history was to others.
In addition to considering the increase in unfair labor practices to support increased holiday demand, consider what we teach ourselves and our youth with traditions based on consumption…
That things will make you happy.
Many parents work to make holidays a time of wonder for their children. But holiday traditions may relate that feeling of wonder to overconsumption of food, gifts, things, more, and more—this is a lesson we carry with us into adulthood. And I'm sure we're also creating feel good-emotions around love and gratitude and gathering, but what if we're then attributing some of those sparkly feelings to things, too? Holidays leave an impression, and our current holidays may be setting impressionable minds up for a things dependency.
Last thing here: Consider the children who have been told the narrative that Santa brings toys to good boys and girls and then their parents can’t provide these items? Assigning value to material goods can be harmful and lead us to seek fulfillment in the wrong places, but it can also influence how we assign value to ourselves. Yikes.
How might it be better for us all in the long-term if we can create that buzz around family, kind food, and presence over presents?
How consumer holidays impact other animals
Animals killed for the feast
Now think about how many animals are at the centerpiece of traditional holiday meals: turkey at Thanksgiving, roast at Christmas, and hotdogs and hamburgers on the 4th of July. Just how many more animals are killed to satiate increased consumption at these events?
We killed 46 million turkeys for Thanksgiving alone in the U.S. in 2019. We eat around 150 million hot dogs in the U.S. on the 4th of July according to the National Hotdog and Sausage Council (yes, that’s a real thing). That’s enough hotdogs to “stretch from D.C. to L.A. more than five times,” and a lot of pigs (or pigs and other).
And yes, most of these pigs and turkeys are factory farmed—they are not wandering around farmer Joe’s pasture but contained in a tight cage of their own feces before they make it to the centerpiece of our celebrations. Over-consuming these animals can even make us feel ill, at odds with our compassionate values, and have long-term health implications…none of which sound like a great way to celebrate.
So, if you're online shopping for a snowflake sweater for your pup next holiday season, consider extending some of that animal compassion towards the many animals with a similar capacity to feel and fear as your pup—don't put them on your plate.
How do we celebrate in a ways that cause less harm?
I know, this is probably the biggest downer someone could write about the holidays, but we're working through it to get to a lovelier place! Because celebration is lovely, and I’m not advocating that we don’t do it, but let's do it without such a cost to the planet, people, and animals.
If what we seek is connection and comfort, let’s take part in traditions that provide this while benefiting the livelihood of people, the planet, and animals instead of causing harm.
A couple of kind holiday ideas include:
Regift something you've already enjoyed or that someone else has better use for—it keeps the good energy flowing.
Gift something you grew in a garden or art you created
Buy second hand gifts from materials that are already in circulation
Gift a donation to an environmental, human, or animal cause that aligns with your recipient's values
Ditch paper and plastic decorations and wrappings for recycled DIY materials and a Pinterest-chic look!
Swap single-use Easter egg hunts for painted rock hunts, single-use Halloween costumes for more creative closet dives, and single-use plates for a sit-down meal
Try a plant-based holiday menu, you will love it
What other ideas do you have or what have you tried for kinder holidays? Share with us in the comments so we can grow this list of recommendations! Reading from somewhere outside of the U.S.? We'd love to hear about how kind (or not-no-kind) your local holiday traditions are.
And, of course, check out the resources on the Consumer Solutions page to help you make informed, most-good-least-harm purchases when you do buy.
Other Influential Sources:
Schmidt, L. E. (1991). The commercialization of the calendar: American holidays and the culture of consumption, 1870-1930. The Journal of American History, 78(3), 887. https://doi.org/10.2307/2078795