In years past, Colleen Schmitt of Hingham, Mass., used to make a point at Christmas to find hot new electronic items and buy them as gifts for her two brothers.
But more recently, this ecominded University of Vermont junior has come to question the wisdom of buying things that are soon discarded as obsolete, and her brothers (now 18 and 22) are feeling the effects. Their gifts this year will come from the Peace and Justice Center, a Burlington, Vt., store that specializes in crafts made from recycled materials and other ecofriendly methods.
"I try to impress my new lifestyle on them," says Ms. Schmitt. "A fad gift is fun at the time, when people think it's what they really want, but then a year later, they're over it. So did all that plastic really need to be made? And now you're just throwing it into a landfill?"
This holiday season, environmental activists and merchandisers alike are banking on consumers to make their tidings a little greener. Organizations such as the Sierra Club and The Center for a New American Dream are churning out guidelines for cutting waste at a time of year that's become notorious for excess. Retailers are touting items from organic cotton linens to solar-powered remote-control toys in an effort to cash in on shoppers' increasingly ecofriendly sensibilities.
Public rituals large and small are beginning to reflect the green spirit. The famous lighted ball that drops to usher in the New Year in New York City's Times Square will for the first time feature LED lighting, a cooler-running and energy-saving alternative to incandescent bulbs. And in the town of Tonawanda, N.Y., an annual Christmas light contest has added a new category that recognizes the home with the most energy-efficient display.
Experts on green living say the holidays are loaded with opportunities. Everything from parties to travel and charitable giving is a chance to exercise environmental values. Spending extra money isn't always necessary in order to make the holidays greener, they say, but spending time to plan ahead greatly increases the likelihood of success.
"The holidays are one of the most stressful times of the year, and when we're under more human social stress, we make poorer environmental decisions," says Stephanie Kaza, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont in Burlington. "Anything that mitigates the social stress – like saying, 'Let's plan on taking a walk over the holidays,' or 'Let's plan on cooking some healthy meals'… makes it more likely you'll make better decisions environmentally."
Low-energy lights save in long term
Sometimes greening the holidays involves an up-front investment. LED holiday lights, for instance, can cost several times more than the regular incandescent alternatives. But LEDs are both safer and some 90 percent more efficient, which means users are likely to recoup the extra cost in reduced electric bills over just one or two holiday seasons.
In other cases, taking the greener road can bring expenses down. For example, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an advocacy group, encourages those who shop online and from catalogs to opt for ground shipping rather than air. The reason: Ground shipping is six times more efficient than air shipping, which means fewer carbon emissions per package, says the NRDC. Ground shipping saves money, too, but shoppers may need to place orders sooner to make sure they arrive on time.
Despite a proliferation of greener options, the holidays inherently pose challenges to ecofriendly living. Jack Yates, a professor of psychology at Northern Iowa University, says he's well aware that the season's rituals – from operating ovens and stoves for hours on end to traveling long distances for short visits – tend to be very energy-intensive. To contain the family's environmental footprint, he and his wife use some LED lighting around their Cedar Falls, Iowa, house and turn off their holiday lights when they go out or go to bed. But they still use some incandescent holiday bulbs because he couldn't find LED ones in his preferred color, white. And, he says, they're not about to start preparing holiday meals in a microwave oven even though that would be more efficient than a conventional stove.
"I'm going to save energy 365 days a year, but there are some things that are very important to me," Professor Yates says. "I'm sure there are energy-efficient ways of doing [a holiday feast], but we do it the traditional way. I just feel you have to have a balance here between the desire to save energy and important family traditions."
The costs of holiday travel
In terms of ecological impact, the most egregious holiday habit is flying, Professor Kaza says. Air travel often involves longer distances than car travel and so produces more carbon, says Daniel Sperling, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis. Planes on average generate more emissions on a per-passenger, per-mile basis than cars with two or more passengers, he says.
Kaza takes such considerations to heart. To save on emissions, she sees certain family members, who live as far away as the West Coast and Britain, only every other year at the holidays.
For those less inclined to sacrifice, the holiday dinner table provides an easy venue to showcase one's greener side. That's because regionally traditional dishes, such as squash in New England, rely on local ingredients that haven't traveled thousands of miles on carbon-coughing vehicles. In that sense, those who go green when preparing holiday feasts may wind up renewing some seasonal traditions rather than displacing or reinventing them, says Jennifer Powers, spokeswoman for NRDC.
Choose ecofriendliest gifts
And there may even be hope for greening the yearly shopping bonanza. Just about every gift category offers options that are more ecofriendly than others, according to Mark Spellun, editor in chief and publisher of Plenty, a green lifestyle magazine. Example: cellphones. Among the best for minimizing environmental impact, he says, are Credo models whose chargers can have a solar-power option.
Among the worst, he notes, is Apple's iPhone. Replacing the iPhone's rechargeable batteries involves shipping the phone back to Apple and paying $85.95. That creates an incentive to junk it in a couple of years and buy an upgrade, Spellun says. That means more electronics are likely to end up in a landfill, despite Apple's recycling program.
To be sure, the greening of the holidays won't work for everyone. Those who take a pass on going green in December need not wallow in guilt, Yates says, but they should remember their seasonal excesses when January arrives.
"We all have choices," Yates says. "Maybe you want to travel for Thanksgiving or Christmas…. You may not be able to cut back on your holiday energy use. But there are other things you can probably do to cut back and save carbon."