The Ecologist guide to greening Christmas

green christmas
From food to fun, we've got the skinny on how to make this year's festivities the greenest ever

With just two months to go until December 25th, the next few weekends will see high streets across the country gearing up for the annual spending and feasting frenzy that is Christmas. But the annual festive jamboree is seriously bad news for the planet with the week long celebrations producing around 5.5 per cent of the UK’s total annual carbon emissions. And it isn’t just emissions that are a problem. Royal Mail will deliver 150 million cards every day over the Christmas period – the equivalent of 17 for every man, woman and child in the country – but up to a billion will end up in landfill.  50,000 trees will be cut down to produce the 8,000 tonnes of wrapping paper needed to brighten up the gifts we hand out to our family and friends.

The average Christmas dinner, says the Soil Association, involves 49,0000 extra food miles, while of the 10 million turkeys reared for the Christmas dinner table, 90 per cent come from intensive units. And it isn’t just the planet that pays either. This year the average British adult will spend approximately £813 on festive celebrations – down £55 on last year – and will wolf down a staggering 7,000 calories on the big day itself.  Like Halloween and Easter, Christmas is a gift for children but not so much fun for the planet, your bank balance or your health. But it doesn’t have to be consumption central; there are plenty of ways to make the festive season green for everyone.

Christmas Present: what you can do now

Cut down on cards
One of the biggest sources of additional (and unnecessary) waste over the Christmas period; paper cards are sent in their millions and end up in landfill in their millions too. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) estimates that 10.4 million hectares of tropical forest are permanently destroyed each year, which is the equivalent of almost 80,000 acres a day, so the last thing the planet’s beleaguered forests need is another reason to chop them down. Instead of buying box-fresh cards, try sending an e-card or making your own from recycled paper. Use old-fashioned potato stamps and poster paint to brighten them up or get creative with stencils. Ebay has thousands in a huge range of designs with prices starting at as little as 99p. If you really don’t have time to make your own, choose recycled cards picked up from a charity. Make sure you save any cards you receive – you’ll need them next year.

Present power
Not only are gifts among the main Christmas polluters, they are also the biggest expense. Plastic toys, cheap clothes and mass market beauty products are among the most popular presents, with an annual $4.6 million spent during the Christmas period on cosmetics alone. Along with the tonnes of plastic and toxic chemicals used to make many Christmas presents, packaging – toy boxes and so on – put even more pressure on overstretched forests. Most recently, Mattel – the makers of Barbie – fell foul of Greenpeace for their use of dodgy paper supplier Asia Pulp and Paper's products in their packaging. Minimise the problem by searching around for eco-friendly alternatives such as handmade wooden toys made from sustainably sourced wood, cushions and clothes made from local or recycled textiles and organic beauty products. Particularly good is the wonderful French perfume brand Honoré des Prés, which has just launched ‘Les Verrines’ – a range of perfumes (£49 each at Selfridges) that come in recycled glass jars and are 100 per cent organic. Also worth looking at are charity gifts, most of which come with a cuddly toy to keep the children happy, and give back to the world as well as to the recipient. Top picks include polar bear adoption with the WWF, guide dog sponsorship for World Vision and tree planting plus some yummy Fairtrade chocolates with Tree Aid. See for a comprehensive list of options. Alternatively, two online shops have teamed up with Friends of the Earth, so head to the Natural Collection for beautiful, eco-friendly fashion, beauty and home gifts. Friends of the Earth will receive a donation of 10 per cent of your order. For bookworms, the Book Depository donates five per cent of every sale to Friends of the Earth.

Eat local
With just two months to go, growing your own isn’t an option so shop local and organic. By the end of December, the British Brussels sprout season will be in full swing while beetroots, parsnips, leeks, swedes and turnips are also on the menu. In the hedgerows, you’ll find a free feast of chestnuts (no need for imported Brazil nuts), walnuts and mushrooms, and there’s also plenty of game – including rabbit and wood pigeon – around. Local fruit is a bit thin on the ground, with only stored apples and pears available, so try organic if you really can’t bear to miss out on a festive satsuma. There’s also plenty of seasonal fish to be had in place of salmon – most of which has been doctored with a chemical food colouring called astaxanthin. Without this artificial pigmentation farmed salmon would look drab grey since farmed salmon’s diet doesn’t include the crustaceans that gives them that natural pink colour in the wild. If you must eat salmon, choose line caught, wild Scottish salmon – it’s more expensive but it’s better for both you and the planet. Better still, choose line caught mackerel, turbot, pollack or crab; all of which are in season and not endangered by over fishing. Finally, choose locally made English sauces to accompany your festive feast. According to a Manchester University study, the average Christmas dinner for eight generates around 20kg of CO2 – well over half of which comes from imported cranberry sauce.

Power down
Since the average Christmas fairy light display produces enough CO2 to fill two double decker buses and can cost up to £100 to run depending on how long you leave them on, cutting down on the sparkle is good for both the planet and your bank balance. Instead, try putting vegetable wax tea lights in brightly painted old jars around your front door and on your windowsill for a festively green glow.   If all 26 million UK homes swapped one string of standard fairy lights for the LED version during the 12 days of Christmas alone, collectively they would save enough carbon dioxide to fill 188,000 double-decker buses (over 26,000 tonnes of CO2). Financially, it would save nearly £9.7m – that’s enough to pay the weekly energy bills for 400,000 homes. Try Eco Creations solar powered fairy lights, £41.99 for 100, either outside or on your tree.  Speaking of trees, choose a real one and turn it into compost when festivities are over. According to the Carbon Trust, the average six foot fake fir creates a whopping 40kg of CO2 during its lifetime from production to landfill. A real tree on the other hand, creates a relatively small 3.5kg if it’s chipped and composted properly.

Christmas Future: what to do now, for next year

Grow your own
Two months isn’t long enough to start organising a totally home grown Christmas but the 14 months between now and Christmas 2012 is plenty of time. Start with your tree, which you can buy ready potted for this year. Once the festive season ends, find a suitable spot in your garden and bed it in with plenty of organic compost and water. You can leave it in the pot when you plant it for easy access next year but you’ll need to keep an eye on growth to avoid ending up with an eight footer in 12 months time. If growing space is going to be a real issue, choose a dwarf variety such as a Balsam Fir, which has a maximum height of one metre and smells wonderful to boot. Use any leftover space to create raised beds on which to grow your own Christmas vegetables. You’ll need to plan ahead as most winter veg needs to be planted in June and July, although some species can be planted as late as October. Make September and October your main foraging months, and take advantage of the berry glut by bottling some for a Christmas treat and freezing the rest for berry-based deserts. Also worth picking are sloes, which you can use to make homemade gin that should be ready by late December if you make it by the end of August. Topped up with organic British champagne, it’s the perfect Christmas morning tipple.


Minimal paper
Avoiding paper altogether over Christmas is a tough call but with a bit of planning ahead, you can find ways to minimise the amount you use. First stop should be making last year’s Christmas cards into this year’s by covering up the text inside with some brightly coloured recycled cardboard. Alternatively, get creative and make cards with a mixture of old newspapers, recycled card and last year’s Christmas cards. Brighten them up with some non-toxic glitter (£2.50 per pot) from Jane Asher, which come in a rainbow of colours. Abandon wrapping paper – it’s expensive, can be hard to recycle and is a huge 10,000-ton burden in landfill every year. Instead wrap presents in fabric, wallpaper, posters or recycled wrapping paper. You can also put old newspapers to work by decorating it with potato stamps and poster paint, or a dusting of glitter. Once it’s dry, use it like regular wrapping paper and finish with a reusable silk ribbon. Post festivities, salvage anything that can be reused and compost the rest.

Adopt a new Christmas tradition
Many of the UK’s modern Christmas traditions are American-influenced and revolve around consumption. Instead of the usual Secret Santa, entertain yourself, your family and your colleagues by borrowing a greener tradition from elsewhere. Germany has an entertaining hunt the pickle on the Christmas tree game, while Denmark has the beautiful St Lucy festival mid December that involves eating lots of homemade cinnamon buns with your family. In Mexico, Christmas coincides with El Festival de los Rabanos (Festival of the Radishes) – a whole day dedicated to the humble radish that includes carving them into pretty decorations. Keep some of your summer glut in the freezer and hand responsibility for carving to the younger generation. Not only will you get some unusual decorations, it will keep them occupied for hours. If you don’t fancy looking as far away as Mexico for your new tradition, try reviving an old British one – wassail. Based on the Saxon wæs hæil toast to good health, wassailing was intended to ensure a good cider apple crop in the following year but in practice usually means imbibing lots of cider or real ale punch with friends and family. Particularly lovely is ‘Lamb’s Wool’ – a type of mulled ale simmered with baked apples, sugar and spices.

Make your own gifts
Producing gifts at home doesn’t have to mean foisting lumpy sweaters on your nearest and dearest (although you can if you really want). Instead, create organic hampers containing the chutneys, jams and pickles you made over the summer. Sloe gin, homemade biscuits and some cheese from the local deli also go down a treat, and you can jazz it up by presenting it all in a natural wicker box. has them in a huge range of colours and sizes. Put anything that needs bagging up in homemade fabric containers made from old shirts. Any offcuts can be turned into pretty jam jar covers. You can also try your hand at creating homemade beauty products, candles and, of course, hand knitted scarves, gloves and hats.

Six green Christmas tips from the Carbon Trust

• Buy real Christmas trees, not fake ones. When you take it down, chip it or burn it rather than throwing it in the bin.
• Put the lid on your spuds and sprouts. Covering pans during cooking cuts the carbon footprint by almost half because the water reaches boiling point more quickly.
• Recycling empty bottles from your Christmas drinks party can reduce the carbon footprint of all that alcohol by up to 40 per cent.
• Plan your food shopping carefully to cut down on waste. For example we waste seven per cent of the milk that we buy. Instead of buying two pints today, buy one now and one later. Not only will the extra walk do you good but you’ll waste less too.
• Eat up your leftovers. Most food ends up as waste in landfill where it decomposes and produces methane gas, which is 25 times worse than CO2.
• Wash your Christmas jumper on a cool cycle. A quarter of the carbon footprint of your clothes comes from washing, drying and ironing them at home. Turning the temperature down from 40 to 30 degrees will save 160g of carbon dioxide emissions per wash making a real difference to the impact of your winter woollies.


Add to StumbleUpon
Behind the Label: Christmas turkey
Christmas dinner means only one thing for millions of us: turkey. But the intensively reared and genetically manipulated birds that most will consume this holiday season leave a nasty taste in the mouth
Stuff your face like a pre-Reformation Christian
We've inherited an unhealthy, puritan attitude to food and sensory pleasure, says Tom Hodgkinson. Taking a leaf out of the books of our medieval ancestors would do us all good...
DIY Christmas
Eschew those store-bought baubles and pricey trinkets — get into the holiday spirit with all things homemade. By Matilda Lee and Laura Sevier
Raw chocolate: all your questions answered
Want to know the difference between raw and commercial chocolate? Hannah Corr answers your raw chocolate conundrums and takes a look at whether it really is better for the planet
Ask the Ecologist: Which is best - local or organic?
Green Living Editor Ruth Styles answers your eco-lifestyle dilemmas. This week it’s the question of local versus organic produce under the spotlight

More from this author