Climate Action

Don’t let consumerism consume your holiday

With Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday upon us, the holiday shopping frenzy has officially started in North America (and increasingly around the world — thanks, globalization). From here till the New Year, we’ll be shopping online, traveling to malls, making and checking Christmas lists (twice) and finding enough money to buy it all.

But all that stuff isn’t necessarily a good thing for the planet. Like the weight gain, stress and food hangovers we get after a season of overindulgence, consumerism can have similarly harmful effects on the long-term health of our world.

“We’re now at the point in our lives where we can have sort of as much as we want of anything, and it’s like a good meal,” said former United States President Barack Obama, at a Greenbuild conference this month. “Sometimes just having a nice meal instead of keeping on going back to the buffet, you feel better at the end of it.”

What’s the problem with a little material overindulgence, though? Well, aside from the adage that money can’t buy happiness, this overindulgence is fueling climate change.

It’s (not) a wonderful life

One study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology showed that individual household consumption — not businesses, government or industries — accounts for more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 50%–80% of total land, material and water use.

The problem, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology reported, lies mostly in the carbon-emitting ways we produce and transport all the stuff (including food) we buy. And when we consider all the new stuff we’re going to buy (and all the additional food we’re going to eat) this holiday, that carbon footprint is only going to grow.

But this overconsumption is how it’s always been, right? In the last century — around the holidays especially — excess has seemed normal, even welcomed. We overeat, overdrink, elaborately decorate and, of course, frivolously shop.

How much of overconsumption is really our fault? I mean, our economic system does promote this kind of behavior: In capitalism, a company’s long-term success is driven by a growth model, where stockholders pressure companies to sell more stuff each quarter. No wonder so much advertising this time of year encourages overconsumption.

The last century, though, also saw an industrialized culture that burned ten-million-year-old organic matter into the air at unprecedented rates, wrecking our climate systems, fueling extinction rates and causing a whole slew of problems we’d rather not think about.

A lot of today’s materialism may even be chalked up to a desperate attempt to escape from enormous, existential problems and stresses. In other words, these short-term pleasures may be a convenient distraction us from long-term anxieties.

So, what can we do about it?

Well, the first step is recognizing that we have a problem (if you’re reading this, you’re on your way to checking this box). Whether it’s the stuff we don’t need from the mall or the food we bring for family gathering, all that stuff adds up, tallies against the long-term health of the planet.

The next step is doing something about it. It’s a fault in our system that as people get more money, they drive carbon-intensive consumerism. But aside from dismantling the capitalist system this holiday, you can make conscious individual choices to reduce your carbon footprint while slowly getting over consumer, and climate change-fueling, culture.

A Green Christmas

First, stop online shopping. Sure, it’s convenient, but all the packaging and transportation that goes into delivering that gift (next day!) to your doorstep leaves a way bigger carbon footprint than just going to the store yourself.

Instead, try a couple nearby shops with locally sourced goods. These goods travel the least amount so have a smaller carbon footprint. Plus, you may find that going to these shops and talking with the store owners is much more rewarding than a one-click experience. Just don’t forget your canvas bags to tote your new treasures home.

And then there’s second-hand gifts. For the book lovers in your life, used book stores can provide the perfect gift — pre-loved, rare or out-of-print books have more character anyway. So hit up the local consignment shop, record store or antique mall for some vintage hidden gems.


With all the talks of gift-giving, one can forget the other big carbon-emitter of the holidays: food. Food, especially meat and dairy, account for a huge slice of our individual carbon footprint, or foodprint, as we call it. And all that food we don’t eat turns into waste, another problem for the planet.

But small shifts on food can have huge impacts for the planet: Food waste and transitioning to a plant-rich diet are research organization Project Dropdown’s third and fourth most-effective solutions to reducing total atmospheric CO2. Check out our recent blog by Earth Day Network’s Food and Environment Director Jillian Semaan for more on how to cut your foodprint this holiday.

Trains, planes and automobiles

Finally, when you travel for the holidays, do so through public transit or carpools. Squeezing into Dad’s otherwise problematic SUV is better than all individually driving to Grandma’s house. And if you must travel far, consider trains and buses over planes.

The bottom line is this: We’re in a climate emergency, and emergencies don’t align with business-as-usual habits. In fact, business as usual will throw us deeper into a climate catastrophe. Have you seen the latest projections from the United Nations? They aren’t going to put you in a festive mood. They should, however, put you in an active one.

Of course, to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we’ll need more than just consumer swaps — we need an overhaul of our system, rethinking everything from politics to economics. That change starts with our individual habits, including those habits rooted in consumerism, and ends in transformational change, from leaders on down.

Hey, it’s the holidays — what better time for a miracle?