The holiday season is upon us, which means people are buying stuff and companies want you to be buying stuff too! At Imago, we are trying to figure out ways to curb consumerism this holiday season which is pretty tough considering we’re being inundated with commercials and emails about “Sales!” and “Free Shipping!” It’s so easy to buy something online and get the super fast (and free!) 2-day-shipping and not even have to leave the comfort of our own home. Plus, if you’re trying to buy gifts for a lot of people, it makes sense that you’d want to get the most bang for your buck.
I’m definitely struggling at the intersection of convenience and sustainability right now. Rather than spiraling into a hole of sadness about the state of our planet and the insurmountable issue of consumerism, I decided to try and educate myself about what the environmental effects of holiday shopping look like and what I, as an individual person, can do to curb my own contributions to those environmental effects.
Holiday Consumerism By the Numbers
Let’s start with the cold hard stats: in 2018, the United States Postal Service (USPS) delivered 6.2 billion packages, and of that 6.2 billion, 900 million (14.5%) were delivered between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. So that means a whopping 14% of all USPS deliveries are done in essentially a month long time span. That is a crazy statistic! All those deliveries mean a lot more delivery trucks on the road and more delivery trucks on the road means more carbon emissions. According to the EPA, CO2 accounted for 82% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. Of those CO2 emissions, 34% came from the transportation sector, meaning transportation alone accounts for nearly 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US each year.
And it isn’t just the trucks dropping off our online orders that are doing the polluting. As you may have noticed in the pie chart above, light-duty vehicles, aka the cars most of us drive, are responsible for a majority of CO2 emissions each year. Unfortunately, individually driving to the store and buying your gifts can actually have a larger impact than online shopping (the trucks deliver stuff to the store, then you drive to and from the store to pick up the gifts).
So what the heck are we supposed to do? There is no right or wrong answer, but below I laid out some of my thoughts on options we have if we’re trying to become more responsible consumers.
The Sustainable Consumer’s Holiday Options
Option 1: If you’re considering a no-buy or no-gift holiday season
Not gonna lie, this option is TOUGH. People might think you’re just being cheap or rude and trying to get out of buying them gifts. If you have kids, it can be super hard to explain this one when they hear about their friends or cousins getting lots of toys over the holidays. However, I think this can be the option where creativity can really come into play and some really strong bonds with family and friends can be made. If this is where you think you might be leaning this holiday season, consider:
- No-buy vs. no-gift
- I just learned about this distinction myself. From what I’ve gathered, participating in a “no-buy” holiday season means you don’t buy anything. So you can re-gift something or make something out of materials you already have. A “no-gift” holiday season means you give no gifts at all, maybe opting instead to spend more quality time with one another, go on a trip, volunteer, etc. These definitions are really loose and based on what has worked for other people’s individual circumstances, so please don’t think they are the only options. Check out this article from The Atlantic for a peek into what some folks are doing instead of buying new things for each other if you want to get your own brain turning.
- The “Four Gift Christmas”
- This might be good if you have kids and want to buy them gifts, just fewer, more useful gifts
- Can you donate your time?
- If you are fortunate enough to have free time around the holidays, consider giving some of that time back to the community. There are many who are unable to give gifts to their families, not out of choice, but out of financial difficulty. Consider working with a local organization to make the holiday season a little brighter for someone else.
- Check out Michael Norton’s interesting TED Talk “How to buy happiness” (spoiler alert: money buys you happiness when you use it to help others).
- Local holiday volunteer opportunities:
Option 2: If you want to be more sustainable, but are still going to be doing some shopping and like the convenience of buying gifts online
For many, buying gifts online is simply the most convenient and economic option. We get that. If eliminating online shopping is not a possibility for you, use the knowledge you just acquired and consider:
- Do you really need the quickest shipping option?
- When you order something online, opt for the longer shipping method. It’s often cheaper, and, when you give companies more time to ship your item, they can figure out the most efficient way to send it out, which will, hopefully, result in a slightly smaller carbon footprint. It’s the one- or two-day rush shipping that leads to trucks being out on the road longer, emitting much more carbon than they would if companies were given longer to send out orders.
- Can you consolidate your orders?
- Are you planning on ordering gifts online for everybody on your list? That’s cool, just try to combine those orders. Maybe order everyone’s gifts in one sitting so the online retailer can put everything in a single box and you just get one delivery to your house instead of twelve separate deliveries to your house.
- Can you purchase carbon offsets to go along with your gifts?
- A carbon offset is essentially an investment in an organization that is working on environmental projects to help to reduce the impact of carbon (tree planting, clean power rollouts, etc). So, in theory, you go to a carbon offsetting organization’s site, calculate the amount of carbon your online shopping trip produces, and it will invest in projects to offset the effects of that carbon. (**Full Disclosure: There is a lot of controversy surrounding carbon offsets, both in relation to the legitimacy of carbon offsetting organizations themselves and in terms of the fact that some consider it a way for us to appease our guilty conscious’ while continuing “to fill up our SUVs and fly round the world without the least concern about our impact on the planet.” I would encourage you to check out this well-rounded, super helpful and in-depth article from The Guardian if you want to learn more about carbon offsets, I personally found it very helpful**)
- Calculate your footprint
- Accredited carbon offset organizations:
Option 3: If you want to be more sustainable, but are still going to be doing some shopping and like going to brick and mortar stores
People like buying gifts at a place where they can see and touch and hold those potential purchases in person. Totally understandable! If you want to be a little more conscious with your in-store gift buying this year, consider:
- How are you getting to the store?
- As mentioned above, the biggest problem associated with shopping at stores is the emissions our cars create as we drive to get there. So, can you carpool or ride your bike/walk/take public transport? The easiest of these options would be to carpool, maybe make a pact with a friend or family member to do all your shopping together and get it done in one day. I know it’s much harder to bike/walk/take public transport if you’re not comfortable with it, but if you’re familiar with an alternate transportation method, try it out this holiday (and even if you’re not comfortable, maybe make it a resolution to try one of those things in 2020?).
- Can you shop local?
- City Beat has done a few local gift guides you can check out: Here and Here
- Upcoming local gift/craft events
- Did you remember your reusable bags?
- Maybe you bring them to the grocery store, but try getting in the habit of bringing reusable bags to any store you walk into. As long as I keep one in my car or my purse, I can generally remember to bring it into the store.
By no means is this an exhaustive list of options. The options are just that, optional. We just wanted to provide some info to help you get your brain turning on what might work for you this year. Please let us know if you have any cool, sustainable holiday traditions, we’d love to hear from you! Tag us on Facebook or Instagram, #curbingconsumerism, and check out our Curbing Consumerism Hub to see all the other resources we have available.