Holidays can put quite some stress on us, our planet, and it’s resources. Do you know the environmental impact of the gifts you give? A study by Shop Like You Give a Damn has investigated the true impact of Holiday gifts to help you give more sustainably.
Here you will find the social, ethical, and environmental impact of holiday gifts:
The 10 Most Given Christmas Gifts are:
- Clothes and shoes
- Food and drink
- Health and beauty products
- Toys and games
Almost everyone has at least once found socks under their Christmas tree. But what is the environmental impact of socks? That highly depends on what material they are made of. The first step to minimize your carbon footprint is to not purchase things you or your loved ones don’t need. As socks are quite a useful gift (and they tend to often mysteriously disappear in our washing machines), buying socks might be a good plan.
A carbon dioxide equivalent or CO2 equivalent, abbreviated as CO2-eq is a metric measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases (GHG) on the basis of their global-warming potential (GWP), by converting amounts of other gases to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide with the same global warming potential.
Everyone has probably (at least once) received a pajama set for Christmas. So, it is reasonable to question its impact on the environment.
When examining a cotton pajama set, we need to talk about water consumption first. A shockingly high amount of 20 000 liters of water is used to produce one cotton pajama set. This is the same amount of water a UK household of two would use in about 2 and a half months!
And did you know that even though cotton represents only 2.4% of the harvest grown on the world’s cropland, it is responsible for 16% and 6% sales of insecticide and pesticides, respectively? It is estimated that growers use, on average, 332.6 g of chemicals to produce one pajama set made of cotton. These harmful chemicals end up in local water supplies which is harmful to humans and causes the death of many other species.
Moreover, cotton is far from an ideal material in regards to waste production too. Waste generated by cotton production contains around 50% good fiber. This means that half of the usable material is just thrown away!
What about the CO2-eq emissions linked to a cotton pajama set? When we look at traditional cotton cultivation, one pajama is estimated to be responsible for 1.8 kg of CO2-eq. Of course, when the transportation and consumer-use part is taken into consideration, this number significantly increases.
Lastly, a huge amount of resources are used to dye the cotton pajama set. To produce 1 kg of dye, 100 kg of petroleum, 1000 liters of water, and 10 kg of other chemicals are used. Unfortunately, only 75-80% of the dyes remain on the fabric, resulting in even more waste.
The reality is that buying any gift will have an environmental impact. Every piece of clothing takes some resources from our planet. One thing you can do is to buy less. To buy only the gifts you know your loved ones need and will use.
A cotton PJ set:
Wastes 50% of usable material when fast fashion pajamas are made
Uses 332.6g of chemicals
Woolen jumpers, hats, and scarves
Land use, climate, ecotoxicity, and use of resources are all negative factors linked to wool production. Often perceived as a ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’ option while in reality, wool scores the highest when it comes to the negative impact on our environment when compared to other fabrics.
Just one woolen jumper takes 375 liters of water to manufacture (which is the amount of water an average man drinks in the course of 3 and a half months) and is estimated to be responsible for 21.5 kg of CO2-eq emissions.
Other popular woolen Christmas gifts are woolen hats and scarves. So, what is their environmental impact? One woolen hat is estimated to take 75 liters of water to manufacture (which is the amount of water an average woman drinks in about one month) and be responsible for 4.31 kg of CO2-eq emissions.
One woolen scarf of regular size is estimated to take 150 liters of water to manufacture (which is the amount of water an average woman drinks in about two months or a man in about one and a half months) and be responsible for 8.61 kg of CO2-eq emissions.
But there are many more reasons to avoid purchasing wool. Production of wool is not just ‘shaving the animal’ – this massive industry is often cruel to the animals too. Sheep experience pain, stress, and horrific practices such as mulesing.
A woolen hat:
A woolen scarf:
A knitted (woolen) jumper:
Leather gloves set, a very popular Christmas gift, plays a huge role in the damage we do to our environment. During the lifecycle of just one pair of leather gloves (not even taking into account the raising of the animals and post-manufacturing processes), 21.8 liters of water and 435 g of chemicals (out of which 255 g are hazardous) are consumed.
What about the CO2-eq emissions? One pair of leather gloves is responsible for 19 kg of CO2-eq emissions. This means that one pair of leather gloves emits the same amount of CO2-eq as a car traveling from Glasgow to Edinburgh! It takes about 50 to 100 years for leather to break down and during this period, lots of chemicals are released into the environment. Did you know that during the life cycle of one pair of leather gloves, 1.7 kg of total solid waste, out of which 230g is non-biodegradable and 120g is hazardous, is generated? And that is just for one pair of gloves!
But with leather, it just doesn’t end there. The workers in the industry suffer too. For instance, there are 313 tanneries in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries with one of the lowest wages. Not only that, the waste is so poorly managed that about 22,000,000 liters of hazardous liquid waste end up in the Buriganga River every day. The cancer rates of tannery workers are way higher than regular levels. Leukemia, for instance, can occur up to 5 times as often when a person lives near a tannery.
One pair of leather gloves:
Uses 21.8 liters of water
Creates 19kg of CO2-eq
Uses 435g of chemicals (225g are hazardous)
Takes 50-100 years to break down when thrown away
Plus, of course, the leather industry kills thousands upon thousands of animals.
Makeup & Toiletries
When it comes to giving makeup, personal care products, and toiletries as Christmas gifts, there are a few things to consider: the packaging, the ingredients, and whether they (or the final product) were tested on animals.
Even though animal testing might be banned, most of the makeup and personal care products found in the stores are tested on the animals. This is because animal testing for cosmetics is still legal in 80% of countries from where the product is shipped.
More than 500,000 animals are harmed and killed every year due to animal testing for cosmetics. How can you be sure that your gift hasn’t been tested on animals and contains only animal-free ingredients?
First things first, don’t trust every label and statement on the cosmetic products. A company might just write on the packaging that it ‘does not test on animals’ while they do. The two well-known labels, V-label from the Vegan Society and the Leaping Bunny from Cruelty Free International, might serve as an indication of cruelty-free and vegan cosmetics.
However, it is still recommended to do your own research, learn more about the company and whether they sell in China (which means the company does test on animals as the laws in China require animal testing), to be actually sure your gift is cruelty-free.
Fortunately, there are more than 600 brands that offer cruelty-free cosmetic products, so it does not have to be that difficult to shop cruelty-free and vegan cosmetic products. Plus, you can also make your own at home!
What about microbeads in cosmetic products? Experts estimate that in the course of a single shower, about 100,000 plastic particles from gels are washed away down our sinks. This might sound like a horrific amount, however, microbeads actually make up only a small percentage of the amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans. The UK Department of the Environment suggests that only between 0.01% and 4.1% of microplastic pollution in our oceans is linked to cosmetic product sources.
Makeup and beauty gift facts:
500,000 animals are killed every year due to animal testing
A plastic moisturizer container takes 1,000 years to break down when thrown away
The cosmetics industry produces 120 billion units of packaging every year
There has been a 400% increase in the consumption of beauty products in the UK since 1985 – if usage continues to grow at the same rate, by 2050 there will be 12 billion tonnes of cosmetic industry derived plastic in landfills
Jewelry production is quite resource-intensive. For instance, it is estimated that mining for just one gold ring produces about 20 tons of mine waste – which is as heavy as 29 UK telephone booths. What about the carbon emissions linked to precious metals?
- 1000 kg of silver produces 520 tonnes of CO2-eq which is the same amount of emissions 112 cars driving for one year would generate!
- 1000 kg of gold produces 38,100 tonnes of CO2-eq. This amount of emissions would be generated by 8,210 cars driving for one year.
- 1000 kg of platinum group metals produces 77,000 tonnes of CO2-eq. Can you guess how many cars driving for one year would generate this amount of emissions? If you said 16635, you are right.
The carbon footprint of jewelry made of recycled materials is significantly lower:
- 1000 kg of silver produces 14.5 tonnes of CO2-eq which is the same amount of emissions 3 cars driving for one year would generate.
- 1000 kg of gold produces 190 tonnes of CO2-eq. 41 cars driving for one year would generate this amount of emissions.
- 1000 kg of platinum group metals produces 770 tonnes of CO2-eq. It would take 166 cars driving for one year to produce this amount of emissions.
But what is the carbon footprint of your tiny, lighter jewelry you are buying for Christmas?
So, it is quite visible that silver has the lowest carbon footprint when compared to other precious metals. However, the more sustainable Christmas gift is recycled jewelry.
Did you know that 7% of gold in circulation around the world is found in electronic devices? About 30 to 40% of the world’s demand for precious metals could be met by urban mining – extracting raw materials from spent products and waste.
And what about the ethical aspect of jewelry production? Most metals and minerals used in jewelry production come from the poorest regions in the world where wages below minimum wage is the norm. Before the jewelry reaches the shelves in the store, they pass through numerous hands of workers. Most of the time, this is untraceable. Therefore, it is truly difficult to know how ethical jewelry production is.
Fortunately, there are brands that work with jewelry sellers who treat their workers fairly. There are plenty of those who even started their own social impact initiatives in order to help women to become more independent or provide shelters to underprivileged children in developing countries. You can also make your own jewelry!
Candles, Face Masks, and Blankets
An innocent-appearing and very popular Christmas gift: candles. In the UK, about 81% of people regularly use candles and diffusers in their homes. Is there something wrong with giving candles for Christmas?
Well, most of the time, candles are made with paraffin. It is a byproduct of petroleum refinement, in other words, it is made from fossil fuels. These candles release toxic chemicals and carcinogenic materials when burning.
Did you know that burning one paraffin candle for one hour, releases about 10 g of CO2 emissions? So, what is a better alternative to paraffin candles? Candles made with soy wax!
Soy wax candles are carbon-neutral because the CO2 emissions have already been taken from the atmosphere to produce the wax. Candles with beeswax are also carbon-neutral but they are not at all animal-friendly.
A tip: when buying candles as Christmas gifts, watch out for the wicks too. Cotton wicks are usually dipped in paraffin wax or zinc and other chemicals in order for the candle to light quicker. To make sure this is not the case, look for soy wax candles with organic cotton wicks or wood wicks. On top of that, the scented oil used in a candle should be free of parabens and phthalates to avoid releasing chemicals into the air.
The extra benefit is that a typical candle with soy wax burns for 30-50% longer than a paraffin candle.
1 hour of burning a paraffin candle produces 10g of CO2-eq
- The creation of cotton, reusable face mask produces 60g of CO2-eq
Face masks have become an essential accessory this year. The majority of face masks are made of long-lasting plastic materials which means they can persist in the environment for decades to hundreds of years.
In the UK alone, more than 1 billion products of personal protective equipment, including face masks, were given out between the end of February and mid-April. And the estimations don’t look promising: it is expected that about 75% of used face masks will end up in landfills or in our oceans.
It is pretty likely that a huge number of people will find a nice reusable face mask under their Christmas tree. For this reason, we need to have a closer look at face masks.
Just one cotton face mask is estimated to be responsible for 60 g of CO2-eq emissions. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t wear one. Of course, we need to protect each other. There are just better alternatives to conventional cotton. So, we can try to protect the environment too: by giving reusable or DIY medical masks a try!
One woolen blanket is estimated to take 1700 liters of water to manufacture and be responsible for 97.6 kg of CO2 emissions. It would take more than one and a half trees grown for 10 years to capture this amount of emissions.
As mentioned before, wool scores the highest among other fabrics when it comes to the negative impact on our environment. This is mainly due to its land use, climate, ecotoxicity, and use of resources.
But if we take into consideration the ethical aspect of wool, it is even worse sheep experience stress and horrific pain, for instance, during mulesing. There are many more reasons why you should stay away from holiday gifts made of wool. There are plenty of eco and animal-friendly yarns and textiles to choose from.
woolen blanket fact:
A standard sized woolen blanket produces 97.6kg of CO2-eq
Stuffed and plastic toys
A study comparing the life cycle assessment of three toys: a stuffed dog without battery, a stuffed dog with a battery, and a plastic toy and their global warming potential shed light on the environmental impact of toys. As toys are the fourth most popular Christmas gift, we looked at the impact they have on our environment.
The global warming potential is (per kg substance):
The manufacture of a standard soft toy produces 0.77kg of CO2-eq
The manufacture of a battery-operated soft toy produces 1.34kg of CO2-eq
The manufacture of plastic toys, such as LEGO produces 1.79kg of CO2-eq
However, the exact environmental impact of a toy you are planning to buy depends on the materials they are made of. The study compared the global warming potential of polyester and fleece found in toys – and the conclusion is that polyester is more environmentally damaging than fleece.
This might have come as a surprise because fleece is not at all an environmentally-friendly material: for instance, when a single fleece jacket is washed, about 250,000 synthetic fibers are shed. Moreover, a battery in a toy makes it more harmful to the environment because each replacement of the battery adds more CO2-eq.
What You Can Do
So, what are the takeaways that you should keep in mind when buying toys for Christmas? It is recommended to buy second-hand toys and extend the life cycle of toys by passing them down to other family members or friends. The longer the toys are used, the better for the environment.
If that is not an option for you, try to stay away from buying toys made of plastic and/or with batteries. A great and more sustainable alternative is a toy made of wood or recycled plastic.
Top Tips for a Sustainable Christmas
- Think of the right gift
- Buy it second hand
- Make it vegan
- Make it ethical
- Make it more sustainable
- Wrap it more sustainably
Hopefully, this helps you to make more ethical and sustainable choices for gift giving. Just remember, buy as little as possible but when you need to make a purchase, make it vegan, ethical, and as sustainable as possible.
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