How to Go Green: Holidays


Photo credit: kevindooley/Creative Commons

No time of the year is more emotional than the holiday season, whether you're bursting with the joy of baking and caroling or overwhelmed with the stress of shopping and wrapping. But even with all those other factors weighing on your mind, it's possible to put a green spin on your holidays; simple tips and easy substitutions mean you can come through this season of indulgence without leaving a massive carbon footprint.

Start with your gift list, where going green can mean anything from simply buying fewer gifts (the too-cluttered shelves at your giftee's house will thank you, we promise) to finding Fair Trade alternatives to holiday classics. Look for recycled paper goods, like cards and wrapping, or get creative and make your own versions of both. Green your Christmas dinner with seasonal, local ingredients and organic turkeys, and stock your bar with organic bubbly and other green cocktails. Then look for green greens for your home by choosing fresh wreaths and pesticide-free trees trimmed with energy-slashing LED lights. Put the money you saved on your electric bill toward a donation to environmental charities and let your greenbacks support green projects.

But most importantly, keep in mind that the holidays are not about the gifts, the errands, the trimmings; they're about celebrating with your family and friends and appreciating the blessings in your life. We happen to think Mother Earth is one of those blessings, so put these tips to work to help keep it that way.


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Top Green Holidays Tips



  1. Trim the Tree
    For some families, chopping a fresh fir from the Christmas tree farm is as much as annual tradition as hanging stockings or baking cookies. And while we know it's more work (and, eventually, more money) than setting up the same plastic one year after year, the benefits are countless; real trees provide oxygen to the air and habitats for animals, plus, in some cases, can be replanted after the holidays. Plastic trees, on the other hand, are often made of PVC--the reasons to avoid PVC are too numerous to list here--and the carbon footprint of their production is massive. Make sure your natural tree was grown without pesticides, and that it's from a local farm so your tree doesn't have to travel as far as Santa does to get to your door. Decorate it with vintage ornaments-either from thrift stores or from your grandparents' basement-or make your own out of fabric scraps, paper, and non-toxic glue.

  2. Lighten Up
    When it comes to outdoor decorations, the greenest lights and decorations are the ones you never buy, but, if you can't imagine going without making your corner of the holidays twinkle a little brighter, at least tone it down so Santa can't see your house from space. Lower your electricity bill even more by using energy-efficient outdoor LED lights, which pull almost 90 percent less power and are several hundred times brighter than traditional lights; your wallet, and your neighbors, will thank you. Oh and please: no inflatable two-story vinyl Santas. We're begging you on behalf of the environment and good taste.

  3. Share the Love
    While sending holiday cards may be the simplest and least time-consuming way to wish all your friends and family a happy season, the paper, envelopes, and postage can wallop your December budget-and your loved ones' recycling bins. The most eco-friendly way to go is an email card, but if you'd rather go traditional, try making your own (out of recycled paper, of course). Best case scenario: send cards that double as ornaments by getting inventive with a little ribbon. Not the DIY type? Look for cards handmade by artists in your area, or for mass-produced ones made of recycled materials. And as for all the cards you're getting, try these five ways to put them to good use.

  4. Check it Twice
    Where to even start with the shopping issue, when so many parts of the holiday mass consumption need an environmental overhaul? Here's an idea: start by buying less stuff. Don't buy gifts just for the sake of buying them; if you really can't show up at dinner without a treat for Uncle Rich, make him a batch of your famous cookies or tie a ribbon around a bottle of wine. (We know a man who once gave his cousin a fresh Stromboli for Christmas and, no lie, it was the most popular gift of the day.) For the family and friends that you actually want to buy for, choose experiential presents like concert tickets, yoga classes, spa services, restaurant vouchers, or weekend getaways. If you're faced with a roster of picky giftees with specific requests, choose green items that fit the bill-check TreeHugger's gift guide for options that will save you (or them) money while being good to the earth. And if none of these will satisfy your hard-to-please crowd, at least look for items that don't come in miles of plastic packaging (or remind them that it's the thought that counts and get them started on a greener path.

  5. Wrap It Up
    So maybe you're no longer 7 years old, but you can't deny: there's something about a pile of brightly wrapped gifts that's always exciting (the colors! the mystery!). But creating a festive Christmas morning doesn't have to mean stocking up on rolls of non-recycled wrapping paper that are basically fancy trash. String magazine pages or newspapers together for homemade paper, or use brown paper bags or scrap paper decorated with non-toxic paint and ink for an even more personal touch; we have tons of ideas thanks to our Green Delights of Junk Mail series. Better yet, find a gift that can double as wrapping-a messenger bag for a computer, towels for a collection of kitchen goodies, a washcloth to disguise your mom's favorite bath products-and dress it up with a simple bow (you kept the ones from last year, right?) or ribbon. Spending a little extra on wrapping that won't end up in the trash is better for your wallet and the earth.

  6. Give It Away
    Trust us: there are people, animals, and organizations that need your support more than Aunt Liz needs another wooden fish to add to her collection of tchotchkies-especially when the economy dips and charitable contributions get cut from personal budgets. Convince your family to draw names so everyone gets one gift and the rest of the funds go to support the Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, or another non-profit that gets you excited--we've got a pretty excellent list in Planet Green's NGO partners if you need some ideas. If you absolutely have to put something under the tree, try symbolic animal adoptions-many of which come with toy versions of the real deal. Then politely tell Aunt Liz that it's up to her to purchase any future wooden fish.

  7. Bake Organic
    It might not be how Nana always did it, but we're pretty sure her classic sugar cookies would taste just as good (if not better) with organic ingredients as a base. Check natural food stores or online markets for fair trade cocoa, organic flour, baking chocolate, and flavor extracts, or indulge your sweet tooth with organic Christmas cookies like those from Beautiful Sweets. Bonus: homemade cookies work like a charm as gifts for your dogwalker, mailman, boss, babysitter, neighbors.need we go on? Package them in a recycled-paper box and you've just made one less person find a spot for a snowglobe they don't need.

  8. Eat Your Fill
    As a food holiday, Christmas often pales in comparison to Thanksgiving, but that doesn't mean the spread isn't important. (Where would A Christmas Carol be without the Cratchits' Christmas goose and pudding?) Look for an organic turkey (or goose, if you prefer)--Local Harvest can help you find one-for the centerpiece of your meal, and fill it out with homemade stuffing, year-round vegetables like mushrooms, carrots, squash, and onions, and winter-friendly fruits like apples, cranberries, and oranges.

  9. Raise a Glass
    If you're the type who thinks liquor is always in season-since it's always available at the store, of course!--then it may be time to rethink the greenness of your cocktail selection. You're not wrong about the availability, but you can make your toasts more eco-friendly by looking for organic wine, champagne, and liquor; using organic juice as mixers; and topping it off with seasonal fruits as garnish. Drop some organic dried cranberries into a glass of Serge Faust and the carbonation will have them bouncing off the glass to delight your guests.

  10. Make the Trip
    We talk all year about trimming your traveling to cut your carbon consumption, but we know that, if your family is even slightly spread out, that's nearly impossible during the holidays. It's part of what George Monbiot calls "love miles"--of course you're going to make a point of seeing your loved ones, you just have to balance it with your environmental responsibility. Check a carbon calculator to find out, based on how many people you're traveling with and how far you're going, if it's better to fly or drive (you might be surprised by the results) and purchase carbon offsets to counteract your usage whenever you can.


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Green Holidays: By the Numbers



  • $431: Average amount that individual U.S. shoppers are expected to spend on holiday gifts in 2008, compared to $859 in 2007.

  • 43 percent: Shoppers who plan to purchase gifts through catalogs.

  • 30 percent: Shoppers who plan to purchase gifts over the Internet.

  • 20 percent: Number of toys, out of 1,500 tested by the Ecology Center, that contained lead.

  • $24.9 billion: Total amount gift-givers are expected to put on gift cards this year, down $1.4 billion from 2007.

  • 132,903: Number of plastic Christmas trees imported from China in 2006 alone.

  • 10 years: Time it takes a Christmas tree to mature enough to be cut.

  • 2,000: Christmas trees planted per acre on average at Christmas tree farms.

  • 18: People who get their daily oxygen requirement from one acre of Christmas trees.

Sources: American Research Group, Inc., Industrial Design Consultancy, CNN, US Department of Commerce, Pick Your Own Christmas Tree.

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Green Holidays: Getting Techie


Green Christmas Trees
Though the use of pesticides on Christmas trees has declined by 50 percent over the last decade, many of the firs, pines, and blue spruces that traditionally host ornaments are still sprayed annually. Look for trees certified organic by the Department of Agriculture, or grown on farms that are members of Certified Naturally Grown, a 500-member strong organization that supports small farms who can't pay the DoA's licensing fee; both of these designations mark trees that were grown using sustainable methods (like erosion control) and without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

Love Miles
"Love Miles" is the term environmental author George Monbiot coined to refer to the distance you'll fly to be with your family and friends--for your sister's wedding, maybe, or Christmas with Grandma. The problem, as he puts it, is that those miles have the same carbon footprint as the miles you travel for business or vacation, so it's unethical to go--and also unethical to stay home. He advises saving all your carbon use for these trips--no more tropical holidays, unless of course Grandma lives in Maui--and limiting your travel.

How do LED lights work?
Instead of creating light through the traditional heating of filaments, LEDs (or light emitting diodes) allow electricity to stimulate a chemical compound, which then gives off light. While regular lights use 110, 120, or 240vac power lines, LEDs require as little as 12vDC; using this fraction of the voltage that other lights draw means lower energy bills and less electricity waste.

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Where to Get Green Holiday Supplies


Dig deeper into green holidays with these ideas from the archives at Planet Green and TreeHugger.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Check out TreeHugger's holiday gift guide and Planet Green's green holidays tips to suss out the rest of your green holiday plans.

Stock your bar with these ideas for green cocktails, vodka, and champagne.

Put your vacation time to good use with eco-friendly vacations, maybe some outdoor ice skating, and even a visit to far-away family.

Get your home into the holiday spirit with fun flat-packed trees or, if you're more of a Christmas purist, study up on choosing a green Christmas tree and recycling it once the twelve days of Christmas are over.

In charge of the office holiday fest? These 10 Holiday Party Dos help you do it up right; but if you're working from home, follow our lead on avoiding the holiday home office blues.

The holidays are a great time to get your creative juices flowing. Even if you're not usually a do-it-yourself, these easy instructions show you how to turn a sweater into a stocking, make a mosaic table, reuse last year's holiday cards, and green your gift-giving.

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Green Holidays: From the Archives


Dig deeper into green holidays with these ideas from the archives at Planet Green and TreeHugger.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Check out TreeHugger's holiday gift guide and Planet Green's green holidays tips to suss out the rest of your green holiday plans.

Stock your bar with these ideas for green cocktails, vodka, and champagne.

Put your vacation time to good use with eco-friendly vacations, maybe some outdoor ice skating, and even a visit to far-away family.

Get your home into the holiday spirit with fun flat-packed trees or, if you're more of a Christmas purist, study up on choosing a green Christmas tree and recycling it once the twelve days of Christmas are over.

In charge of the office holiday fest? These 10 Holiday Party Dos help you do it up right; but if you're working from home, follow our lead on avoiding the holiday home office blues.

The holidays are a great time to get your creative juices flowing. Even if you're not usually a do-it-yourself, these easy instructions show you how to turn a sweater into a stocking, make a mosaic table, reuse last year's holiday cards, and green your gift-giving.

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Further Reading on Green Holidays


Check out these other worthwhile sources for further reading on green holidays.

HowStuffWorks has the goods on holiday foods, holiday crafts, holiday cooking tips and more.

Dig deeper into the roots of your Christmas tree with articles on organic trees and growing processes. Then finish your decorating with eco-friendly DIY crafts and homemade wreaths.

Green your shopping with gift ideas from the Environmental Defense Fund or skip the shopping all together and instead print out coupons for quality time from No Christmas Gifts This Year, a site inspired by the shopping and spending statistics compiled by the American Research Group.

For more green holiday tips, check The Sierra Club's list of ideas or take your cues from the people that started the green Halloween movement at Celebrate Green.