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  • Divya Vydhianathan

'Tis the Season to Shop Sustainably!

As the holidays are near, those who celebrate often feel lots of cheer! December usually brings extended breaks from school and college, spending time with family and friends, and resourceful deals at stores. Anticipation for the holidays is higher than before this year as COVID restrictions loosen up and families have more savings to spend on gifts for their loved ones. However, December is not full of pure cheer and joy outside retail industries and privileged homes. The reality is that the aftermath of yearly splurges on gifts harms the environment, hurts personal finances, and worsens subpar labor conditions for under-compensated workers. It is crucial to understand how shopping for the holiday season is unsustainable and make small changes that maintain the happiness of celebrating the winter holidays while respecting the planet Earth.

Sustainability Issues: Holiday Edition

If the entire world consumed products at the same rate as America, we would need four Earths to sustain the demand. Americans generate 25% more waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than any other time of year. In 2018, the United States Postal Service delivered 6.2 billion packages, 900 million of which got delivered between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Part of those 900 million packages accounts for 14.5% of all USPS deliveries which happen in a month-long period. Carbon emissions rise dramatically within this time, with about 30% of those emissions in the US coming just from transportation. The primary modes of transportation that increase these emissions are delivery trucks that deliver several thousands of packages daily, plus millions of consumers in light-duty vehicles like cars rushing to physical stores to buy gifts. If the holiday season alone contributes to a significant amount of American emissions, that is an enormous issue. This number is large but still does not include every American if you account for the number of people who spend the holidays working instead of spending time with their families.

Labor Issues: Holiday Edition

Due to high consumption rates during the holiday season, many employers force employees to work overtime while disregarding their right to well-compensated labor. They implement poor labor conditions such as unpaid overtime, holiday pay violation, and workplace harassment and discrimination. Unpaid overtime is when employees work extra hours so businesses can close as many deals as possible at the end of the year, and they do not get compensated for their work. If workers do not track their hours, it is difficult to get accurately compensated for overtime work. Holiday pay violations happen when in contracts, employees are promised pay for working on major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas but do not receive that promise from their employers. Workplace harassment increases during this time of year from issues like forcing non-Christian and non-religious workers to work on Christmas just because they do not celebrate it. These conditions especially hurt those working in retail and service industries during this time of year. They do so much to ensure that most of the nation has an enjoyable holiday season, so we should also consider shopping intentionally and give them a break.

Holiday and Sustainability: Collaboration of the Year

Despite the existing downsides to holiday shopping, there are small changes you can implement to enjoy the holiday season while still being mindful of personal finances and sustainability. There is no need to give up holiday cheer to save the planet, but there is also no need to harm the Earth just to buy a few extra gifts this year.

  1. Make your shopping more intentional. Only shop for those in your inner circles, such as your closest friends and family, to save money and reduce waste from excess shipping and packaging.

  2. Try to shop ahead to get the best deals on gifts you want, about a month or two in advance for physical presents and even further in advance for gifts of experiences like concert/sports tickets or travel plans. Shopping ahead also ensures that what you want is still in stock when you have to order, so it avoids the stress and added emissions of driving to multiple stores last minute in search of what you want.

  3. When ordering gifts online, try to combine orders and order in advance. Combining orders through ordering everyone’s presents in one sitting reduces the amount of packaging by consolidating items into one or two packages instead of having over ten different packages. Shopping in advance reduces emissions with online shopping because you do not have to pay for express shipping to deliver packages in a rush, which saves so much fuel for various vehicles.

  4. Shop at local stores! Support small businesses, green businesses, and secondhand stores! These stores have unique items that you won’t find in a large retail store, and they are locally sourced, so there are fewer emissions. Furthermore, you save more emissions by ordering online and picking up items in a physical store or walking in to visit a physical store than if you were to ship the items to your home.


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