State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

How to Make the Holidays More Sustainable

The information in this post was updated in December 2022.

christmas tree decorations
Photo: Flickr/

The holiday season is upon us, and with it a myriad of anxieties, from finding the perfect gift, to braving winter travel, to figuring out how exactly we’re going to pay for everything. It can also be a challenge to balance the excesses of the season with the desire to live sustainably.

Before you give up and drown your sorrows in eggnog, know that you can take steps to celebrate conscientiously but still have the holiday you want. In addition to the general advice you’ve probably heard before (buy local, buy organic, travel via public transit when possible), here are some basic tips for a more sustainable holiday season.

A Green Ugly Holiday Sweater

The fashion industry’s carbon footprint is second only to oil and gas, due to a number of factors including manufacturing processes and the sourcing of materials. It takes 20,000 liters of water just to produce enough cotton for a single pair of jeans, and the process involves harsh chemicals like pesticides and formaldehyde. Polyester is a plastic made from petroleum. The most common leather tanning method is extremely toxic, although some brands are making progress.

It can be hard to make good choices here, especially if you’re on a budget; organic fabrics eliminate chemicals and, in general, use less water, but they also require more labor, driving up the price. If possible, opt for clothing that’s built to last, and choose fabrics that—while they may not be perfect—minimize environmental impacts.

Alpacas in Peru. Photo: Adrienne Kenyon

Common fabrics such as wool, silk, linen, and alpaca are decent options. Other natural fabrics, like those made from bamboo, hemp, and soy, are less common but increasing in popularity. Lyocell is made from wood pulp, so it’s naturally biodegradable. Also becoming more common: fabrics made from recycled materials. Mainstream retailers are increasingly offering items like sweaters made from old wool scraps and shoes made from recycled ocean plastic.

Finally, consider breathing new life into an old piece of clothing by shopping secondhand. Clothing rental services, once the domain of gowns and cocktail dresses, are increasingly offering workwear and everyday outfits. Plus, there are likely plenty of hidden gems at your local thrift shop—and it’s cost-effective.

Wrapper’s Delight

sustainable holiday candy
A gift of homemade candy won’t last long, but will be appreciated. Photo: Adrienne Kenyon

Americans generate about 25 percent more waste during the holidays than they do the rest of the year. Packaging is one of the culprits here. Consider gifts that limit disposable packaging, like gift cards, donations, plants, classes or other activities you can do together, or homemade items like jams and baked goods. Can’t avoid buying the latest superhero toys for the kids? Braving the crowds at brick-and-mortar stores limits shipping packaging, and the emissions generated from shipping items cross-country. (And when the kids move on from superheroes, donate those old toys, rather than throwing them out.)

If you do buy online, and many of us will, group orders into as few shipments as possible, choose eco-friendly packaging when available, and do the gift wrapping yourself, because reducing the use of disposable gift wrap is another good way to limit waste. Reuse gift bags, bows, and wrapping paper, rather than cutting new paper and ribbons to size for every gift.

Same goes for decorations—choose items you can use year after year, made from materials that are recyclable or biodegradable. Avoid plastics that will sit in landfills for generations, and that may introduce harmful chemicals into the surrounding ecosystems. Speaking of which…

To Tree or Not to Tree

If you’re getting a Christmas tree, your most sustainable option is to buy one that can be replanted later. No open space to plant a tree? A real tree might still be better than a fake one, depending on what the fake tree is made of and how long you plan to keep it.

If you expect to reuse your fake tree for a long time, look for one made in the United States (to reduce your tree’s carbon footprint) and free of both lead and PVC plastic; PVCs are not recyclable, and may contain carcinogens and other elements that can be harmful to human health and the environment.

Christmas tree farm
A Christmas tree farm. Photo: USDA

If you buy a real tree, buy local from a dedicated tree farm, and compost it after the holidays. If you can’t compost it yourself, many municipalities provide tree composting services. In NYC, the Department of Sanitation will pick up trees for composting with your trash collection in early January. Or, you could take your tree to one of the many Mulchfest events in city parks, where you can turn it into mulch for yourself, or for the many gardens and street trees across the five boroughs.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

Holiday parties are a highlight of the season, but many of our favorite foods—including meat, dairy, and seafood—are not great for the environment. Yes, going vegetarian or vegan is your greenest option, but for many people, going meat-free isn’t realistic. So, what to do?

First, just reducing your beef consumption can make a big difference, so if you aren’t sick of turkey yet, consider serving poultry. But if brisket is the centerpiece of your meal, then enjoy it and think of it as a holiday treat. Try reducing the amount of beef you eat in January, and buy brisket that comes from pasture-raised cows, which have a lower environmental impact than those raised on factory farms.

Is the Feast of Seven Fishes part of your family’s tradition? Choose U.S. Pacific cod over Atlantic, and check out Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to help you plan the rest of your menu.

And whatever you do, save room for dessert. 

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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Mike Nelson Pedde
6 years ago

Don’t forget live trees. Some companies will deliver a tree before Christmas and pick it up after the holidays, then plant it out in the spring.

Our Norfolk Island pine – G. L. I. T. T. E. R. has been with us for a number of years now. Here’s a part of her story: