The upcoming holiday season represents a high point for shopping and consumer spending. Lamentably, it also represents a major increase in waste, which is shown to be detrimental to the environment. From Thanksgiving to the New Year, we generate 25 percent more waste than average.
What do we consume over the holidays?
• 125,000 tons of plastic packaging
• 744 million holiday cards
• 8,000 tons of wrapping paper
The wrapping paper alone is the equivalent of approximately 50,000 trees, an indication that holiday waste is nothing to scoff at. With so much of this waste being a by-product of shopping for and sending gifts, let's look at perhaps the biggest culprit of it all: Black Friday.
Before I discuss Black Friday, I think we should think about renaming the biggest shopping day of the year. In recent years, stores have started Black Friday sales on Thursday or even earlier in the week, and deals continue over the weekend and into Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day. Maybe Black Long Weekend would be more fitting.
In 2012, consumers spent $59.1 billion over Black Friday weekend, up from $52.5 billion in 2011. Black Friday spending has its benefits; stores see an uptick in sales, consumers nab coveted items at a fraction of their retail price, and a consumption driven economy as a whole grows stronger from it. What's good for the economy, of course, isn't always good for the environment.
Reducing Black Friday's environmental footprint comes down to two things: reducing impact of our purchasing actions and better managing our waste.
If you are gift shopping, consider giving an experience rather than a thing, as most experiences are completely waste free! Alternatively, to cut down on the environmental impact of shopping, cut out your trip to the mall and replace it with online shopping. According to a report by GigaOm, Black Friday is 50 times more carbon intensive than Cyber Monday shopping. While the report is imperfect, it shows how driving cars to the mall en masse is not an eco-friendly way to shop.
Data from the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions shows that even when using overnight shipping, the carbon impact of buying online is a fraction of driving to a mall or store. A good rule: If the item you covet is available online, stay home on Friday and wait for Cyber Monday's deals. You might even save a few dollars, especially once fuel, tolls and parking are accounted for.
The effort to green the holidays continues once everything's been purchased. According to the EPA, 32 million tons of plastic waste are generated yearly, 14 million tons of which are used in packaging. Most types of plastic are recyclable -- it's helpful to check with your municipality on which types are accepted -- but in the commotion of gift opening and celebration, much of it is thrown in the trash. The same goes for wrapping paper and gift bags, both of which can be recycled or reused if kept in good condition. Wrapping paper that's been crumpled by holiday excitement can still be saved -- try upcycling it into confetti for New Year's Eve before finally recycling it.
Some companies, like Patagonia, have embraced holiday sustainability by advertising a sewing kit for shoppers and urging them to repair worn clothing instead of throwing away and purchasing new. Patagonia's marketing campaign for the kit urges shoppers to "Buy Less, Repair More." It's a message worth keeping in mind amidst the commercial chaos of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and everything in between.
Making the winter holidays more sustainable is similar to any other time of the year -- with a little extra effort it can be done, and the benefits are absolutely worth it. Black Friday may never become Green Friday, but with conscious consumption, reuse and recycling, it's environmental impact can be reduced.