Christmas without Christmas trees?
The natural Christmas tree industry is at risk from both changing climate conditions and plastic competitors from China
The Christmas tree has been an icon of the Christian holiday season for over four centuries, but tradition alone will not protect Christmas trees from being threatened by climate change.
According to experts from the Finnish Forest Research Institute, climate change risks thinning – or entirely eliminating – the otherwise thick blankets of snow that protect the coniferous tree from the winter cold. Without the insulation, Christmas trees take longer to thaw in the spring, delaying the start of photosynthesis, and, in turn, stunting growth over the trees’ ten-year growth cycle. Furthermore, increased temperatures may lead to extended breeding seasons for the predatory spruce bark beetle and heightened incidents of flooding that contribute to rotten roots (Phytophthora). In short, climate change could wreak havoc on the 350 million Christmas trees growing on US farms and the 100,000 people employed full- or part-time in the Christmas tree industry.
Fight back or give up
Oregon-based Noble Mountain Tree Farm, the world’s largest farmer of natural Christmas trees, is just one of the many companies slated to be negatively impacted by climate change. In the face of looming supply pressures, growers like Noble Mountain are in search for more resilient breeds such as the Turkish fir and genetic engineering methods that may result in stronger trees. At the same time, some growers – especially those in drought-prone areas – are giving up altogether, resigning themselves to not replanting trees that do not make it through the season. Scientists at the University of North Carolina have evidence suggesting that Christmas tree growers may need to increasingly shift their crop to higher – and more expensive – elevations to guard against water loss. Still others are banding together via the Christmas Tree Promotion Board to support publicity campaigns prompting consumers to “Keep It Real” to fight against the influx of fake plastic trees, often produced in, and imported from, China.
Fight the fakes
In the face of constrained supply of real Christmas trees, it is important to note that increased use of fake, plastic Christmas trees may only exacerbate the environmental damage. Even if used for six years, a plastic, chemically-laden Christmas tree still has a 60 percent larger environmental footprint than a real tree. Furthermore, despite their short lives after having taken 8-12 years to grow to the requisite size, Christmas trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, which plastic trees obviously do not do.
Since a shrinking natural Christmas tree industry spells trouble not only for air quality but also for landfill waste, farmer ought to band together to better educate consumers and fellow growers of the environmental benefits of supporting the domestic Christmas tree industry over imported green plastic. In particular, the Christmas tree industry needs to reverse a widely-held consumer perception that fake trees are more environmentally friendly than real ones. According to one shopper interviewed by the New York Times, “I’m very environmentally conscious. I’ll keep [a fake Christmas tree] for 10 years, and that’s 10 trees that won’t be cut down.” Some natural Christmas tree sellers are not making matters any better: to the question of whether purchasing natural Christmas trees is better than purchasing a fake one, one natural tree seller responded to the New York Times with “I don’t even know for sure… I would guess natural?”
Without a concerted educational campaign for both the public and Christmas tree growers, the market share of natural Christmas trees will only erode – in the face of declining consumer demand and increasing risks to supply.
 Sutinen, S., Roitto, M., & Repo, T. (2015). Vegetative buds, needles and shoot growth of Norway spruce are affected by experimentally delayed soil thawing in the field. Forest Ecology and Management, 336, 217-223.
Student comments on Christmas without Christmas trees?
Thank you for your post: very educational and original!
I need to say that I am a hard-core supporter of fake trees, but my struggle is more ethical than environmental: I cannot accept the idea that, while I celebrate the birth of Jesus, a tree is slowly dying in my living room. That said, I understand the environmental value of purchasing a real tree over a plastic one!
There is one thing that would probably help the cause of real trees: consistently recycling them after the holiday season. Ikea has been doing this for ten years in a few European countries, including Italy: they offer a discount voucher to anyone buying a Christmas tree in one of their stores and bringing it back after the holidays . The tree thus recovered are turned into compost that is used for forest restoration programs across Italy. The initiative has been successful, with return ratios of ~60% in some cities .
This example is particularly meaningful as it shows that, with the right incentives, people can be encouraged to do much more for the environment than we commonly think. How about leveraging this learning further to make our civilization greener?
Gorick – wow, this one is a very tough issue because it requires us to in some ways, contemplate sacrificing (or at the very least, adjusting) a tradition that is extremely deep-rooted in religion, culture and family. Thank you for shedding light on this issue, especially because it is a common misconception that artificial trees are automaticalyl more environmentally friendly than real trees. In addition to many of the consequences of Christmas trees you noted above, we also need to consider “tree-miles” and the carbon emissions used to transport the tree to the shop and then to the consumer (1).
I grew up in a family where fake vs. real tree was an issue of constant debate every year. One year, my extremely artistically talented and environmentally-conscious younger sister made our Christmas tree. She used hangers and insisted we use it in lieu of a real tree. This example made me think that it could be an interesting for teachers to encourage children to think about ways to create their own Christmas Trees. This would enhance their art education, and also help educate this new generation about ways to incorporate sustainability into their lives going forward. I found this guide to be particularly inspiring: http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/15-alternative-christmas-trees-181603. I also agree with Roberto that there is huge opportunity for increased tree recycling. There are also some tree rental companies that will recycle for you. By utilizing these types of companies, we could perhaps also decrease the impact of “tree miles” incurred due to having to drive many miles to recycle a tree on our own.
I think another important element around this conversation is what do we do about the other Christmas tree items – lights, decorations, ornaments? We could purchase LED lights or artificial trees that come with LED lights such as the one highlighted here: http://www.treeclassics.com/Classic-Fraser-Fir-Artificial-Christmas-Tree-p/tcf-t.htm. We could also (i) re-use and recycle ornaments and (ii) purchase more eco-friendly ornaments. I think consumers can drive a lot of this change and am excited to see what companies do in the future to adapt to these changing consumer preferences.
Gorick – thank you for sharing this post. Like Roberto, I also have to agree that I grew up in a home where we used the same fake Christmas tree every December. However, my parents decided to buy a fake tree primarily because of safety reasons. Every year we read in the news stories of trees catching on fire, which sometimes results in serious injuries or deaths. I think this is a huge liability that people incur when purchasing natural Christmas trees. Maybe, as a way to avoid people from going after fake trees for this sole reason, companies can start advertising different ways to decorate the Christmas trees (one that does not include light ornaments). While this might be a difficult task, if successful, it could ultimately convince a part of the market to think twice before buying a fake tree.
What a unique article, Gorick! I had no idea that plastic Christmas trees have a 60% larger carbon footprint than real trees. As many others I’m sure believe, I thought plastic trees for better for the environment, but that real trees were more authentic or beloved (as they are for me). As Jessie mentioned above on the recycling aspect, one of the things New York City has done (and I’ve participated in) is Christmas tree pick up during the first two weeks of January. The trees are chipped and mixed to be made into compost NYC parks and gardens.  Hopefully programs like these can be implemented in more cities along with the educational campaigns you highlighted!
Gorick, I feel like my mind has been blown. My family has been using the same fake Christmas tree for the last 30 years. The whole time I thought it was environmentally responsible for us to go fake and save a young tree’s life. I had no idea the carbon footprint of a fake tree was so significant. I did a little reading to understand why and was fascinated to learn that they are made from PVC and are non-recyclable. Further, the process of making PVC release carcinogens .
As the holiday season approaches and I look to purchase my first Christmas tree to decorate, I will definitely look to “go green” and ditch the artificial tree.
Your point about fake trees brings up (in my opinion) one of the most important fallacies in the whole climate change discussion — impact of usage vs. impact of manufacturing. As end users, we often only use impact of usage in our mental calculations of how much a given product impacts the environment, whereas there is plenty going on in the manufacturing process that could change the equation. For example, the dirty business of mining heavy metals for electric car batteries causes plenty of environmental harm, or the fact that a more “efficient” Japanese car must be shipped over the ocean while an American-made car might save on those environmental costs. Is recycling valuable once you net out the cost of the effort? The answer is not necessarily a resounding yes . It can be argued that reducing paper use will lower the market price of paper, causing land-owners to shift production on that land to something else that might not act as carbon sequestration in the mean time.
Without good data or disclosure on the true environmental costs and elasticity of various products and services, the end user has no hope of making informed decisions. Imposing this product-level disclosure on the manufacturers themselves seems unnecessarily burdensome, but as corporate disclosure around environmental impact starts becoming the norm, it will be easier to begin making that data accessible to consumers on a unit basis. this will better allow consumers to be better stewards of our environment.
For now, turning off our lights and trying our best with everything else has to be good enough.
This is an incredibly fascinating topic and one that everyone understands and one that should resonates with almost everyone in the US. If you haven’t personally had Christmas trees growing up, then you at the very least know someone who has. The dilemma of whether to fight back or give up is an interesting one, and what I would identify as the most important question. As highlighted in your article, I believe that the solution could be moving towards the artificial Christmas trees. I do believe this would likely be more sustainable over the long haul as they do not need a certain climate to grow.