Santa Claus pushing a shopping cart filled with wrapped gifts and $ signs floating around it

Illustration by Cici Fang

By Haley Nolde

Welcome to the holiday season! As we look forward to the new year we spend quality time with family, connect, and relax. We also travel, feast, decorate, and shop, but the rate of consumption is not sustainable. Under the allure of holiday lights and nostalgia lies the stark reality that capitalism is stealing Christmas and Santa Claus might be the biggest salesman. 

Consumerism is an ideology that places value on the excessive consumption of material goods and services. We fall victim to Black Friday and Cyber Monday schemes that advertise all the things we “need” or think our friends want but in reality the US spends $8.3 billion on unwanted items. Almost half of all gifts are returned and retailers throw away about 25% of them which leads to almost 6 billion pounds of brand new items in the landfill. The total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) is about 5 pounds per person per day. But that waste generation increases by 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day equating to an extra 1 million tons of waste per week. We must also consider the resources used to produce the 1 trillion dollars worth of total items bought during the holidays. For example, every pair of denim jeans produced requires almost 1000 gallons of water and 130 square feet of land.

In 2022, it’s estimated that 305 million pounds of food, valued at more than $400 million, went to waste from Thanksgiving meals across the US. That’s almost a pound of food per person. Production of this food generates greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, equivalent to driving 169,000 cars for one full year. This number is especially disheartening when you consider the 44 million Americans who live in food insecure households. It also has a water footprint of 104,000,000,000 gallons, which is the same amount of water used by everyone in New York City for three and a half months. 

This begs the question, what exactly are we celebrating? I think most of us will agree that our family and friends are most important to us so I invite you to think about the future environment you want for them… I bet it doesn’t include mountains of trash, litter, air pollution, or harm to other people. So why have we allowed overconsumption to become a central part of our holidays? Remember, when you see something on sale, the discount isn’t saving you money, not buying it is. Consciously consuming and making sustainable choices not only benefits the environment, but it also saves you money. Let’s reevaluate what the holidays mean- shake off the grips of capitalism, connect with our loved ones, and carry a sense of simplicity and gratitude into the new year. 

Avoid the materialistic frenzy

  • Gift an experience such as tickets to an event or class
  • Purchase high utility items  
  • Buy local and/or fair trade
  • Make your own gifts or regift
  • Try out alternatives to retail therapy
  • Give back to the community and volunteer
  • Self reflect on the difference between needs and wants

Sustainable choices

  • Reduce consumption overall
  • Reuse decorations and gift wrapping
  • Recycle and compost when possible
  • Carpool with friends or relatives 
  • Prepare the right amount of food to avoid waste
  • Avoid single use, plastics, and hard to recycle items
  • Encourage others to think sustainably and with gratitude

Please remember that specific holidays and religious observances are not universal. It’s important to respect the history, culture, values, and traditions of other people. Resources: 

An Inclusive Approach to Holidays, Observances, and Celebrations in the Workplace

How to Celebrate the Holidays with Inclusivity in Mind

The Fabric of Society: How Holidays Shape and Define Cultures

Sources

Mansfield, Scott. “Green Your Holiday This Season.” US Environmental Protection Agency. 22 Dec. 2022. https://www.epa.gov/perspectives/green-your-holiday-season 

Lycock, Richard, and Chelsea Gregori. “52% of Americans admit to opening up at least one unwanted holiday gift each year.” Finder’s Unwanted Gifts Report. 29 Nov. 2022. https://www.finder.com/unwanted-gifts 

Hubbart, Sarah, and Sarah Bount. “GIVE A GIFT TOTHE PLANET BY REDUCING HOLIDAY WASTE.” National Environmental Education Foundation. 1 Nov. 2023. https://neefusa.org/story/sustainability/give-gift-planet-reducing-holiday-waste 

Bardos, Christine. “HOW CHRISTMAS CAPITALISM HAS TAKEN OVER THE HOLIDAY SEASON.” Study Breaks Magazine. 14 Nov. 2023. https://studybreaks.com/thoughts/how-christmas-capitalism-has-taken-over-the-holiday-season/ 

Our Changing Climate. “How Capitalism Stole Christmas (And Killed the Planet Along the Way).” Eco Watch. Insights + Opinions. 19 Dec. 2021. https://www.ecowatch.com/holiday-consumerism-climate-crisis-2656063226.html#:~:text=Starting%20with%20the%20celebration%20of,and%20the%20relentless%20drive%20for 

US Environmental Protection Agency. “National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling.” US EPA. Last updated 22 Nov. 2023. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials 

Litke, Megan. “Which is Worse: Wrapping Paper or Gift Bags?.” Insights And Impacts. American University Magazine. Dec. 2022. https://www.american.edu/magazine/article/which-is-worse-wrapping-paper-or-gift-bags.cfm#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20National%20Environmental,paper%20is%20a%20massive%20problem

Rabbitt, M.P., Hales, L.J., Burke, M.P., & Coleman-Jensen, A. (2023). Household Food Security in the United States in 2022 (Report No. ERR-325), U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-u-s/key-statistics-graphics/#insecure 

Asmi, F., Zhang, Q., Anwar, M.A. et al. Ecological footprint of your denim jeans: production knowledge and green consumerism. Sustain Sci 17, 1781–1798 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-022-01131-0