Environment

'It feels like a never-ending conveyer belt': The people giving up on Christmas consumerism

Over the past few decades, Christmas has become synonymous with overconsumption. But these people are proving there are more sustainable ways to celebrate.

Holly Melton with her family.

When his children were young, Neil Smith celebrated Christmas with all the excessiveness we’ve come to expect from the festive season: tonnes of presents, enough food to feed an army, and plastic decorations strung throughout the house. 

Yet something about the celebrations has always felt off to Smith, 56, who works as a consultant for environmental and community projects.

“I always disliked the amount of plastic and the clutter of Christmas”, he tells The Big Issue, adding that his children “were less happy the more they had – they couldn’t take it all in”.

With his children now grown up, and the urgency of the climate crisis clearer than ever, he’s decided to do Christmas differently this year – turning his back on the culture of festive overconsumption for a more sustainable celebration.

“I’m avoiding Amazon completely as I have concerns about their sustainability. I’ve decided as much as possible not to buy my six children or my wife ‘things’ but instead buy something that will do positive things for the environment or people,” he explains. 

Smith is one of a growing number of people who feel that the overconsumption normalised at Christmas has become incompatible with our climate emergency.

They’ve good reason to be worried. In the UK alone, an estimated 270,000 tonnes of food is wasted at Christmas, while up to £42million worth of unwanted gifts end up in landfill

Christmas trees are rarely recycled, wrapping paper gets thrown away, and a quarter of plastic-filled Christmas jumpers end up in the bin. 

“No sooner do we finish Christmas Day, then Boxing Day sales kick-off as the shops try to sell-off the stuff they overstocked with”, Smith says.

“It feels like a never ending conveyor belt of spending, trashing and spending again.”

Louise Hastie, who runs low-waste social enterprise Lower Impact Living, (Lil) says this culture isn’t always easy to resist, especially when others give you pricey gifts. 

“I’ve felt the pressure to keep up with others, and I hated receiving gifts and not having one to give back! I’m getting better at saying just ‘thank you, you shouldn’t have,’” she says. 

These days, she does a secret santa with adults in the family, and shops second hand for her children, handing down clothes as presents from the oldest to the youngest on some occasions. 

Hastie says her children do miss some things that other kids have at Christmas, as she refuses to buy them “fidget spinners or push popper toys”.

She adds, however, that they’re “more on board” with the idea of a second hand Christmas than some other family members, and have been delighted by gifts of charity shop vouchers in the past. 

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As many young children are today, both are conscious of the climate crisis, and Hastie feels her own duty to make sure the planet is habitable for them in the future.

“They’re certainly not going to thank me if the worst effects of climate change come into effect,” she says. 

Holly Melton from Frome, Somerset, is preparing for a similar Christmas in her home.

She used to buy secondhand presents out of a lack of disposable income, but now shops this way on behalf of the planet – with “Christmas having become a symbol of overconsumption”, she says. 

Throughout the year, Melton saves local newspapers and recycles them into wrapping paper, while all decorations are re-used, giving them “much more meaning to the family”. 

Hastie similarly avoids wrapping paper, putting presents in pillowcases tied up with ribbon. Palm-oil-filled chocolate is avoided, and food is bought carefully to ensure that any leftovers can be frozen and eaten at a later date. 

This more thoughtful way of doing Christmas can be challenging, especially when it comes to scouring charity shops in the run-up to Christmas, says Melton.

Yet Hastie, Melton and Smith are all firm in their conviction that a more sustainable Christmas isn’t just better for the planet – but their families too.

“I’ve had to really sit down and focus on what my kids actually want and need, rather than just buying random stuff that I’m presented with online,” Melton says.

“I genuinely think they are the best presents I’ve ever got them.” 

This year, Hastie went as far as setting up a second-hand sale ahead of Black Friday, inviting members of the community to donate and shop for pre-loved Christmas presents.

East Lothian Council awarded funding to Lil, allowing them to give £50 vouchers for families in the local area.

“It’s such a disconnect that it’s those who can financially least afford to buy new, feel the pressure to do so. Based on nothing but stigma,” she says. 

“The feedback on the sale was wonderful – one mum told us that because she’d been able to get all her Christmas presents, it meant her family would have a proper Christmas meal.”

Though Hastie says that the most impactful actions on climate will come from the government, our individual habits are key because “we really can’t afford to wait for governments to act”.

“There is absolute hope in action and hope is a wonderful gift”, she adds.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Smith, who says he’s trying to encourage everyone to enjoy the benefits of a less hectic, less wasteful Christmas this year. 

“People and relationships matter more than things,” he says.

“Christmas is about giving, but it’s about giving more than presents – trite, I know, but as I get older I see more and more how true this is.”

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