Just like that, it’s the week after Thanksgiving. It’s as though as soon as the dust settles from the hustle of back-to-school in September, Q4 kicks off the year-end holidays with Halloween and is over in a blink with New Year’s Eve. Time flies when you’re having fun celebrating with parties, travel, decorations and gift exchanges, but these traditions tend to have something in common: overconsumption.
While materialism has in many ways obscured the original intents of many observances, all holidays, be they cultural or religious custom or national law, have some economic aspect at their foundation. Even in ancient times, commemorations large and small had close ties to the marketplace, as any gathering of people was cause for eating, drinking and general use of resources. These are the rituals that bind us, and are not inherently bad.
The problem with holiday consumerism today lies with its excessive nature. In a market flooded with mass produced, inexpensively-made goods, gift giving is more about gesture than need, and we more readily buy new costumes, party clothes and decorations than reuse or repair them. The high-value things like smartphones, gaming systems, toys and household appliances consumers clamor for on Black Friday are designed to break or become obsolete, driving purchases year-round.But around the holidays, when gifting, entertaining and stocking up puts purchases at the year’s high, the convenience of being able to buy things online with the ease of a click or tap of the smartphone takes things into overdrive. In the U.S., November and December drive 30% more e-commerce revenue than non-holiday months, and the days from Black Friday through Christmas pull in 50-100% more revenue than shopping days throughout the rest of the year.
The societal pressure to have the biggest and best birthday party, housewarming gift, Thanksgiving dinner, Halloween costume and Christmas light arrangements are the norm, and the “most wonderful time of the year” takes waste, the collateral damage of a commerce-driven society, even further from mind. We buy twice as many material goods today as we did 50 years ago, and during the holidays between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, household waste increases by more than 25%.
Deluxe wrapping paper, e-commerce shipping material, single-use packaging and dining disposables, and an excess of foods are acquired in surplus and tracked for the trashcan. Of course, we keep recycling bins next to the garbage at gatherings for the empty cans and bottles. But recycling is only a drop in the scheme of the real issue: the buying culture and the perception that products are disposable.
Changing this paradigm around special days comes down to one thing: shop differently. Think quality over quantity during today’s Cyber Monday sales, focusing on what those on your list need and on products that enable positive consumption. For examples, TerraCycle’s recycling boxes might make a useful gift or reduce excess holiday waste in the home or office, and many brands, like S’well (a double good buy for reusability), are offering discounts alongside donations to good causes peak shopping days.
Planning ahead eases demands on time and resources that slip us back to convenience and impulse buys, as the most sustainable purchases are the ones you don’t. Staying conscious and connected can help prioritize responsible consumption for last-minute holiday prep as we race to the end of the year, and as a resolution for 2019. Q4 can and should be for good, and even small changes in habit can have an impact.