Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

O Tannenbaum
distributed 12/7/01 - ©2001

Recently, I joined in a lighthearted conversation about Christmas trees with several environmentally committed folk.

Terry spoke of her preference for a live tree that can be planted after the holiday. Just to stir up the conversation, I talked of getting a Forest Service permit and going to the hills to "hack down" my own tree. Others in the group plan to buy theirs at a seasonal tree lot, a nursery, or the grocery store. Nobody in the group spoke as an advocate for an artificial "tree."

The next day, I thought back to the subject and toyed with some of the complexity of these Yuletide evergreens. Like most parts of our everyday lives, the issues are complex and can be very hard to research.

I did find that Christmas trees are big business. This year in the US, over 32 million trees will sell at retail, moving more than $1 billion through the economy, and involving about a million acres of land for production.

After Christmas, all of the cut trees will enter the waste stream in some way. Some will go to landfills, some will be burned, and a growing number will be mulched. Some communities use discarded trees as erosion barriers at beaches and along waterways. And Terry and a few others will plant theirs, gaining a slight moral edge over the rest of us.

As is the case with every purchasing and lifestyle decision we make, it is appropriate to raise eco-justice questions about this unusual product. The most general question, "Are Christmas trees good for the environment?" is probably too broad to be helpful. Targeting the questions is more fruitful, even if the answers are still hard to come by.

Where and how are the trees grown? Unless you go to the tree farm or forest yourself, that is a question to ask the retailer -- who may or may not be able to answer your question. Your tree may come from a small, local, independent farm, or it may be shipped long distances from huge plantations. Tree farms probably will use chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; my National Forest tree qualifies as "organic" and reduces the fire danger in a high-risk area. (Slight moral advantage to Peter!)

Growing trees is labor-intensive. A major research challenge would be to find out the pay and working conditions of the full-time and seasonal workers for trees from various sources.

You will have an easier time discovering how the trees are distributed and marketed. Huge numbers of trees are handled by large corporations -- grocery chains and home "superstores." The smaller tree lots provide important seasonal employment for independent businesspeople, or may provide fundraising for charities.

As a rule of thumb, it is probably true that the larger the retailer, the more anonymous the source of the tree, and the lower the price of the tree, the higher the environmental cost and the lower the standards of justice for the workers.

An industry source points out that each acre of trees in commercial production produces the daily oxygen requirements for 18 people. Tree farms also provide green belts and wildlife habitat. The industry sources don't mention the water and chemicals used to raise the trees, and the oil used to ship them.

It is indeed a luxury to devote so many resources to producing and distributing trees as short-term seasonal decoration. But, compared to other products that we encounter frequently, Christmas trees are relatively benign from an eco-justice perspective. Do your best to get a local tree from a small business, dispose of it properly, and enjoy it!

(NOTE: There's a follow-up to this conversation in the Eco-Justice Notes from two weeks later.)

+     +     +     +     +

As a "Bah-humbug" sort of person, I have to find something to grumble about! So I'll complain about those new "icicle" Christmas lights. For many people, it is not enough to dangle a single line of bulbs along the eaves of the house. Now they feel that they have to put a foot-wide swath of little lights around the roofline.

I seem to recall reports that Christmas lights -- and especially the more widespread use of the icicle lights -- contributed to power crisis in California a year ago. The electrical use of those lights is not insignificant.

When you see them in the store, look at specifications on the box (although only a few brands list the wattage). For the same length of display, icicle lights take 6 times the electricity as an efficient set of single-strand mini-lights. Foot-for-foot, the icicle lights take almost as much power as the old-style big bulbs.

The little lights were a big environmental improvement over the big bulbs. It is unfortunate that marketing and aesthetics pay no heed to the environmental impact of these pervasive decorations. Icicle lights are the SUVs of Christmas displays, reversing former efficiency for the sake of appearances.

OK, I got that off my chest. Now enjoy your tree and all the blessings of the holiday season!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form