A few years ago, Bill Cooke was mulling over ways to make his Christmas greener, more environmentally friendly, when he discovered he could buy a ton of air pollution.
"It was just like a light bulb went on," says the Sloansville, N.Y., resident. "I'm thinking: How come it took me so long to realize I could do this at Christmas?"
Thus it was that along with toys, games, and other gifts beneath the Cookes' tree, there appeared a "clean air certificate" citing the elimination of 2,000 pounds of sulfur-dioxide emissions. Cost: $50. (See sidebar, page 16).
Mr. Cooke's wife smiled supportively, as he recalls. But "the kids were a little young to really get it."
Welcome to the new world of "environmentally conscious" holidays. Once again this year, "green" gifts like Cooke's will be swamped by a national tidal wave of toaster ovens, ties, video games, and battery- powered kiddie cars - all encased in packaging bound for the landfill. But along with the 5 million extra tons of trash generated between Thanksgiving and New Year's, there are signs, too, that the environment will be getting its own kind of Christmas bonus: Many people want to "go green."
Some are primarily interested in helping the environment; others want to simplify their lives.
"There is a growing concern that the holiday season has gotten just so wasteful," says Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for a New American Dream, an advocacy group for voluntary simplicity. "People are not comfortable with the feel of it."
More than half of Americans say their lifestyles produce too much waste and that more recycling, energy, and water conservation - and less packaging - are needed, the center's polling shows.
While Americans are less enthusiastic about activities such as home recycling and saving electricity, a rising number of people say they would pay more for products that cause less pollution, a 2002 Roper poll found.
Sales of "health and sustainability" products grew to $138 billion in 2003, up 7.6 percent over 2002, according to figures cited by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) in Harleysville, Pa. During that period, sales rose in categories such as natural and organic foods (up 11 percent), energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs (6 percent), hybrid cars (45 percent), ecotourism (60 percent), and goods from recycled materials (10 percent).
"This is a very environmentally conscious group," says NMI marketing consultant Gwynne Rogers of the 55 million consumers who make "green" purchases. "They are interested in where the product came from, how it's going to be used - the whole product life cycle. They're not going to forget these values at Christmastime."
There is also a mainstreaming of environmental values among consumers, Ms. Rogers adds, with many organic and other products appealing to people "who aren't crunchy-granola Berkeley types."
Two forces - voluntary simplicity and environmental concern - are boosting the market for alternative holiday gifts. For example, sales at Greenhome.com have grown 25 percent over last year, says Lawrence Comras, president of the five-year-old ecogift company.
"People are more anxious to feel part of the solution, not part of the problem," he says. "We're like little elves running around scouring the country for ecofriendly products, getting them all under one roof, and making it easy for people to act on their good intentions."
Hot ecogifts this season include LED outdoor holiday lights that use 1/50th of the electricity and last 20 to 30 years. At $10 to $15 a string, they cost about five times as much as regular lights, but they save money in the long run, Mr. Comras says. "And they're prettier."
Other popular buys include heavy canvas shower curtains, handbags made from recycled rubber tires, and organic textiles including hemp and organic cotton.
Consumers also are helping the environment by pursuing simplicity. "My husband and I have been working over the past few years to simplify Christmas, both for our bank account and our environment," writes Melissa Podeszwa, a resident of Auburn, Wash., in an e-mail.
Two years ago she and her family capped per-person spending at $100 and cut it to $50 last year with the proviso that everything fit in a stocking. Gifts include family members' time - giving a trip to the zoo, for example - handmade cards, ornaments, and recycled bags decorated with holiday stamps and stuffed with symbolic gifts. A homemade sun ornament represents a solar-panel donation, honey sticks show regard for bees, organic milk-chocolate coins for cattle, and so on. Cost: $5 each.
"I confess, I've gone 'green' and I don't mean a la Grinch!" says Carmela Vignocchi of Grover Beach, Calif., in an e-mail. Her family has consciously shifted away from the "consumer spending crush." Along with setting per-person caps from $10 to $40 in any given year, the family has also limited Christmas to handmade gifts. Last year, her parents received organic-food gift baskets from the local co-op and energy-efficient light bulbs.
Environmental groups are also gearing up for a green holiday. The 80,000-member Citizens Campaign for the Environment (www.citizenscampaign.org) has launched its third annual push for "ecologically conscious holiday shopping." On its list of gift ideas: a block of wind- generated electricity, a hybrid car, even whale adoption.
For $40, you can "adopt" Cardhu, Regulus, or Ember from the Whale Center of New England. These humpback whales "have been seen hundreds of times," according to the group's website (www.whalecenter.org). You receive a photo of your whale, an adoption certificate, a CD of whale calls, and your whale's biography. The money supports whale research.
By contrast, the Nature Conservancy puts its "adopt-an-acre" donations toward buying rain-forest land. And a myriad of Internet-based companies are willing to take your money to plant a tree in your own or someone else's name just about anywhere. Care should be taken to check the company's background and reputation to ensure those dollars will actually plant trees.
Even holiday wrapping paper is scrutinized by some ecogivers. "I guess it was about a decade ago that I saw how our garbage and everyone's garbage at least tripled Christmas week, most of it boxes, wrapping, packages," says Paul Fehringer of Buffalo, N.Y. "It really upset me. I thought: 'We can do this with a lot less waste.' "
So the Fehringers, including their son and daughter, began wrapping gifts in recyclable newspaper or brown paper with no dyes and metals - all tied with bows kept from the year before. Gifts have also become fewer, smaller, and often handmade. Christmas cards are e-mailed to friends.
"My wife was not very open to all this at first," he says. "She was just so used to the shiny wrapping paper and tons of gifts. It was hard to break from that tradition."
Ultimately, such steps reflect a growing dissatisfaction with the holiday status quo, say some observers.
"People are beginning to understand that the world is not working in lots of ways," says Bill McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College and author of "Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas." "Overconsumption is the great North American environmental problem and Christmas kind of baptizes that overconsumption, sanctifies it. And people are beginning to wake up to that."
For those who want to give the gift of cleaner air, here's a possibility: pollution allowances.
Each allowance - actually a serial number issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency - lets a power plant emit 1 ton of sulfur dioxide into the air. The Adirondack Council, a nonprofit group fighting acid rain in upstate New York, is selling them. When someone buys one, the allowance is retired, preventing the SO2 from going up a smokestack and helping to create acid rain.
If that sounds a little wacky, the story of how the Adirondack Council (www.adirondackcouncil.org) got into the pollution-permit business is equally bizarre.
In 1997, a power company gave the council 10,000 SO2 allowances. "I think they expected us to sell these pollution credits and raise some money for the organization," says John Sheehan, a spokesman for the council. "Rather than do that, we wanted to find a way to retire them and keep them off the market."
The allowances, which also trade on the commodities markets, now fetch more than $700 each. But the council is still retiring the credits for just $50 - instead of making millions selling them back into the market. There are about 3,000 left, Mr. Sheehan says.
• Christmas sales in the United States are projected to rise to $219 billion this year - up 4 to 6 percent from last year.
• Holiday sales are projected to rise 17 percent in South Africa - the best showing in two decades. Germany is expected to see a 1.5 percent increase over last year. But in Britain, deep discounting by retailers failed to keep sales from falling in the run-up to the season.
• The US imported $312 million worth of Christmas tree ornaments from China between January and July of this year. But overall, China's exporters report a "chilly" holiday season.
• Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, Americans generate an extra 5 million tons of trash.
Sources: National Retail Federation; various country estimates; US Census; 1997 Use Less Stuff Report