Guilty about wheelie bins full of wrapping paper and drawers of unwanted gifts, many families are ditching frenzied shopping for more sustainable celebrations.
Everyone used to call Helen Tandy “the Grinch” at Christmas. She would get odd looks and long sighs from friends and family when she tried to explain that she didn’t want gifts and wouldn’t be buying any either. Christmas crackers – “a horrible waste: a bang, some tat and then it’s all chucked away” – were banned at her home. Shiny wrapping paper (which can’t be recycled) made way years ago for plain brown or newspaper, then, last December, she tried furoshiki – the Japanese art of fabric wrapping. Tandy’s artificial tree will next month be wheeled out for its 31st Christmas, and will be decorated from a carefully stored box of decorations handmade or collected, one by one, over the years.
Ditch the tinsel … Maud Barrett, husband Rodney, daughter Lela and son Zak making Christmas decorations at home in London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
“I didn’t want to get to the end of Christmas Day and look around and feel like we’d made a week’s worth of waste in just a few hours,” says Tandy. “I couldn’t stomach it.”Tandy, 50, works as an ethical financial adviser in Chester and lives with her husband and 22-year-old son. Eight years ago, she quit her job in mainstream banking and audited her life against her impact on the planet; she now runs sustainability workshops as a climate ambassador for the Women’s Institute and a Friends of the Earth co-ordinator,
“Back then, people thought I was weird, but now they’ve started to engage and talk differently. More people understand why it’s not right for Christmas to become a consumerist nightmare. I’m not religious at all but the pandemonium of sales and buying things for the sake of buying something goes against what the festive season is all about.”
It’s safe to say that her husband and son weren’t fully on board when Tandy first started scaling back on what she considered unnecessary waste. “I’ve dragged everyone along with me and in some ways they were kicking and screaming to start with, but they’ve come to realise that we need less stuff and more time together. When I buy presents now, they’re experiences, not objects”.
A Tandy-style family Christmas – more sustainable, less wasteful and better for the environment – might have seemed anachronistic or simply mean a few years ago but there are signs that many more families will be opting for an eco-friendly Christmas this year. Activists behind Buy Nothing Day and Green Friday, which both encourage supporters to spend nothing and celebrate sharing and mending instead, are mounting a direct challenge to the rampant commercial frenzy of this week’s Black Friday. But can a growing backlash against buying really make a difference?
“It’s more about a personal sense of relief,” says Léon Pearce, a 28-year-old sound engineer who lives with his musician wife, Rebecca Hawley, in Liverpool. Opting out and “not buying stuff I don’t really need” puts him more at ease with his conscience, he says. “It’s as if something quite negative has just gone from my life.”
A Christmas wreath made from natural materials by Maud Barrett and her family. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
The couple are embarking on their first Buy Nothing Christmas this year. “I haven’t always been anti-consumerist,” he says. “Until six months ago I was quite a clothes addict. I justified it to myself by never buying fast fashion and choosing more expensive stuff that would last a few years. But now I don’t care so much about the latest clothing or trends, and I have much more money. I do miss browsing around shops looking at nice things, but just not enough.”
For their first Christmas together, four years ago, Pearce says he bought his wife lots of gifts. “All the presents were of a certain type. They probably weren’t things that would get thrown away as that’s never been my vibe, but it’s definitely going to be different this year. It sounds really cheesy but the main gift is being together and committing to not working, because we both work a hell of a lot. Ours are the sorts of jobs that take up your life rather than nine to five, so it’ll be phones off and laptops off for a couple of days, That’s more than enough.”
Pearce has been inspired in part by his involvement with Extinction Rebellion and a growing distaste for unsustainable consumption of “stuff”.
“We both stopped buying from Amazon a few months ago, which was a new challenge, and I consciously began boycotting Black Friday three years ago. We always used to take advantage of Black Friday for work – buying audio and musical equipment, microphones and gadgets and that sort of thing.”
The couple have urged friends and family not to buy them anything or, “if they really must, it has to be something edible or a bottle of wine we can all share rather than something wrapped in plastic wrapped in wrapping paper”. Not having children, Pearce admits, makes having a green Christmas much easier. “The youngest person we would normally buy a gift for is 12, and in some ways he’s the most supportive of what we’re doing. He understands it.”
According to a study by waste management company Biffa, the UK creates 30% more waste than usual over Christmas. This includes an estimated 227,000 miles of wrapping paper and 114,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.
Retailers may well not welcome this shift. November and December traditionally account for over 20% of total annual sales, and as a British Retail Consortium spokesperson says, 2019 has been “an incredibly challenging year” on and offline. Sales growth in the past 12 months has fallen to its lowest ever level – just 0.1%, compared with 2.8% a decade ago. The BRC put the blame on “weak consumer demand” reportedly propelled by “Brexit uncertainty” rather than the anecdotal view that Brits have simply reached “peak stuff”.
Maud Barrett, 36, a textile artist originally from Paris who now runs a social enterprise in south London teaching DIY and crafting skills, says it is becoming clear that “wasteful accumulation of things” can’t be considered the norm for much longer. “It’s a pressure,” she says. “It has an impact on your wellbeing. We’re so much happier since we stopped just buying things: it really helps not having the worry.”
This year she, her husband and their three-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son will be trying to minimise the family’s carbon footprint by celebrating their second secondhand Christmas. It hasn’t always been easy.
“Both my kids want stuff,” she admits. “But both of them are very aware of my ideals of life and how I want us to be as a family so they do understand. They’re not always happy but, well, they understand and my husband is also more on board.”
Barrett’s growing unease with mass consumerism was sparked by a period of living in the Middle East. “We were there for four years for my husband’s job,” she says, “and had no real contact with nice independent shops or places that could make a difference with sustainability. I was so annoyed about the amount of waste we created – like buying bottles of water every day – and the lack of choice we had, that I promised we would change our habits hard and fast when we moved back to London.”
This year, she says there will be “one or two” presents for the children – her daughter wants Barbies and her son wants an XBox – but none of them will be box fresh from the shops. “My partner won’t necessarily get anything until I address an actual need that he has – it could be something boring like work shirts – and he will now apply the same rules for me. I don’t want something for the sake of it: that doesn’t make me happy.”
Instead, Barrett says, they have built family traditions that “aren’t about things: things don’t make people happy”. Their traditions, she says, make the most of the most luxurious commodity of all: time together. “We arrange a few weekends where we do crafts as a family – we make decorations like baubles and collages, or the children make toilet roll decorations. I look for ideas on Pinterest, but it’s about creating memories, doing things together that they look forward to.”
Despite this, market researcher Mintel predicts that Britons will still spend £48.7bn this December, an increase of 3.8% on the same period last year. Matthew Sparkes, a sociology lecturer at Cambridge University, says that though qualitative evidence may be scant, his hunch is that “environmentally aware consumers are going to be a middle-class phenomenon at this stage. People who have the capacity to engage in countercultural consumerism by making their own presents and so on will have a different outlook and social network.”
Sparkes points out that consumer credit in the UK is higher than at any time in history, which suggests that it will be some time before ethical consumption makes a significant dent in the UK’s Christmas economy. “Class undercuts all aspects of consumption, he adds. “Someone with very limited social resources will feel very different social pressures: they will want their kids to fit in. Having the option to opt out [of shopping] is a luxury in itself. If you’re on a zero-hours contract, you’re not necessarily thinking about sustainable consumption. The pressures are so different and are underpinned by the structural issues that drive consumption.”
That the health of the nation is considered to be shaped by its economy and how much its people spend is one factor, says Sparkes. That consumption – be it mindlessly acquisitive or mindfully guilty – shapes individual identity is another. In this sense, buying lots or deliberately buying very little at Christmas can both become ostentatious signifiers of class. It’s easier to forgo presents when one already has a considerable level of comfort and disposable income.
Tandy agrees. In her opinion, a change at government level is needed for there to be a significant swerve in public opinion. “I feel quite sad going through the town centre [in the run-up to Christmas]. I think about the people who go into debt at Christmas for the sake of two or three days because they feel this overwhelming need to be like everyone else. And all this stuff is pushed on you so much. For instance, I used to be very aware of the car I drove: it was a status symbol. I thought it was stuff that made a person – the car you drove, the house you had – and over time I realised it isn’t. It’s the people you’re with – your friends and family – that counts.”
1. Wrap up carefully
Shiny wrapping paper that doesn’t hold its shape when scrunched into a ball isn’t recyclable. Switching to plain brown paper or newspaper fastened with ribbon and string rather than sticky tape and plastic bows is one way to reduce waste. Wrapping presents in lengths of fabric, following furoshiki (the traditional Japanese art of wrapping items in decorative cloth), is another option that is growing in popularity.
2. Buy time rather than things
Research shows that experiences provide more lasting happiness than objects – and so a gift of tickets to a show, paying for a course or activity, a Netflix subscription or membership of the National Trust might be another option.
3. Branch out
An estimated 6 million real Christmas trees end up in landfill each year. Many local authorities run recycling schemes, where they collect the trees and turn them into woodchip or compost for parks. This is an improvement, but it’s worth looking out for tree recycling and tree rental schemes, where trees are hired out for Christmas then replanted.