Would you like to know the environmental and social impacts of the most popular Christmas gifts? In this article, you will find everything you need to know. (Spoiler: this massive and super informative infographic sums it all up pretty well!).
With Christmas around the corner, it is about time to look at our shopping list full of Christmas gifts. Surely, Christmas is the time of joy, family reunions and rest but this period can put quite some stress on us, our fellow people and animals, our planet and resources.
To learn more about the ethical and environmental impacts of the gifts under the Christmas tree, we looked at the most popular Christmas gifts given in the UK. It is not that easy to track down the exact impact your gift has on the world and its inhabitants, so we did our best to provide you with the facts and information you should be mindful of. And our findings are definitely worth the read!
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In this article, we will delve into the impact of some of the most commonly given Christmas gifts in the UK.
The number one Christmas gift given in the UK deserves our attention. Let's dive into the specifics.
Everyone has probably (at least once) received a pyjama set for Christmas. So, it is reasonable to question its impact on the environment.
When examining a cotton pyjama set, we need to talk about water consumption first. A shockingly high amount of 20 000 litres of water is used to produce one cotton pyjama set.2,3 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 24% and 11% sales of insecticide and pesticides, respectively?
It is estimated that growers use, on average, 332,6 g of chemicals to produce one pyjama set made of cotton.4 These harmful chemicals end up in local water supplies which is harmful to humans and causes the death of many other species.2
Moreover, cotton is far from an ideal material in regards to waste production too. Waste generated by cotton production contains around 50% good fibre.5 This means that half of the usable material is just thrown away!
What about the CO2-eq emissions linked to a cotton pyjama set? When we look at the traditional cotton cultivation, one pyjama is estimated to be responsible for 1,8 kg of CO2-eq.6,7 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 pyjama set. To produce 1 kg of dye, 100 kg of petroleum, 1000 litres of water and 10 kg of other chemicals are used.8 Unfortunately, only 75-80% of the dyes remain on the fabric, resulting in even more waste.8,9
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 this Christmas. To buy only the gifts you know your loved ones need and will use.
And for the gifts you do buy, try to search for better and more sustainable alternatives. Would you like to buy pyjamas as a Christmas gift this year? Then, we invite you to have a look at our nightwear collection made of more sustainable materials like Tencel, hemp, bamboo or organic cotton.
The 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 (right after silk) scores the highest when it comes to the negative impact on our environment when compared to other fabrics.10
Just one woollen jumper takes 375 litres 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.11,12,13
Other popular woollen Christmas gifts are woollen hats and scarves. So, what is their environmental impact? One woollen hat is estimated to take 75 litres 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.12,13
One woollen scarf of regular size is estimated to take 150 litres 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.12,13
But there are many more reasons to avoid purchasing wool this Christmas. 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.
Have a look at our vegan, fair and more sustainable collection of cardigans & jumpers for women and cardigans & jumpers for men. And what about our beanies & hats collection or scarves collection?
A 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 litres of water and 435 g of chemicals (out of which 255 g are hazardous) are consumed.14,15
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 travelling 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 to the environment.15 Did you know that during the life cycle of one pair of leather gloves, 1,7 kg of total solid waste, out of which 230 g is non-biodegradable and 120 g 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.15 Not only that, the waste is so poorly managed that about 22 000 000 litres of hazardous liquid waste ends up in Buriganga River every day. The cancer rates of tannery workers are way higher than regular levels. Leukaemia, for instance, can occur up to 5 times as often when a person lives near a tannery.17,18
And let's not forget that leather was once the skin of a beautiful animal. If you'd like to learn more about the leather industry, read our blog What's wrong with leather?
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.
For instance, the production of socks made of polyamide is estimated to be responsible for 2,1 kg of CO2 emissions.18 A pair of woollen socks is estimated to generate about 200g of CO2 emissions, but about 5,74 kg of CO2-eq emissions.12 What about cotton socks? They are estimated to be responsible for 90,9g of CO2-eq emissions.
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 better plan is to purchase socks made more sustainably and ethically - because every purchase matters. Look at our collection of socks for women and socks for men that are made of bamboo and recycled or organic cotton.
A kind reminder: when buying clothes as Christmas gifts this year, do your best to purchase clothes that were made more sustainably - but also ethically. The fast fashion industry not only harms our environment, but it also treats the garment workers unfairly. Their wages are way below the living wage or even the minimum wage. Unreasonable working hours, child labour exploitation and forced labour are not an exception in the fast fashion industry. This Christmas, put your money where your values are. Vote with your wallet for the future you wish to see.
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 is banned in the UK, 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 products are shipped to the UK.19
More than 500 000 animals are harmed and killed every year due to animal testing for cosmetics.20 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 in 2020.
Why is the packaging of cosmetic products a problem? Every year, about 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the cosmetics industry - and most of it isn't recyclable.21 A not-so-fun fact is that the decomposition of the average moisturiser container is assumed to take approximately 1000 years.
The consumption of beauty products has increased around 400% in the UK since 1985 and if this level of consumption continues, it is estimated that by the year 2050, there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills - which is as heavy as 35 000 Empire State Buildings.21,22
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.23 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 products sources.
However, in the UK, about 680 tonnes of microbeads are used in cosmetic products every year. When taking into consideration the fact that microbeads are absolutely unnecessary because there are plenty of natural alternatives available, avoiding products with these harmful plastics is recommended.
If you are ready to buy Christmas gifts without microbeads this year, watch out for these five most common microbeads ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products: polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), nylon (PA), polypropylene (PP), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA).24
Even though the plastic packaging of personal care products is a huge problem, the truth is that more than 90% of the carbon footprint of shampoo, conditioner and other hair products is due to its usage phase due to heating water.25,26 The remaining percentage is mostly associated with packaging.
Jewellery 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.27 What about the carbon emissions linked to precious metals?
The carbon footprint from mining and refining of precious metals is:28,29
The carbon footprint of jewellery made of recycled materials is significantly lower:
But what is the carbon footprint of your tiny, lighter jewellery you are buying for Christmas?29
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 jewellery.
Did you know that 7% of gold in circulation around the world is found in electronic devices?30 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.31,32
And what about the ethical aspect of jewellery production? Most metals and minerals used in jewellery production come from the poorest regions in the world where wages below the living or even minimum wage are the norm.33 Before the jewellery 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 jewellery production is.
Fortunately, thanks to our carefully selected criteria, you’ll have more insight into which jewellery sellers 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. Their jewellery collection is wonderful to look at - and even more wonderful to wear! Check the collection and just judge it for yourself: more sustainable rings, earrings and necklaces made of recycled gold or silver.
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.34
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.35 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.36
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.37 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 face masks made of leftover materials, recycled cotton, organic cotton or even bamboo to our loved ones for Christmas.
An innocent-appearing and very popular Christmas gift: candles. In the UK, about 81% of people regularly use candles and diffusers in their homes.38 Is there something wrong with giving candles for Christmas?
Well, most of the time, candles are made with paraffin.39 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.40
Did you know that burning one paraffin candle for one hour releases about 10 g of CO2 emissions?41 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.42 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.43
Shop our collection of candles made of organic soy wax, essential oils with organic cotton wicks »
One woollen blanket is estimated to take 1700 litres 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.12,13
As mentioned before, wool, right after silk, scores the highest among other fabrics when it comes to the negative impact on our environment.10 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 Christmas gifts made of wool.
A study comparing 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.44 As toys are the fourth most popular Christmas gift in the UK, we looked at the impact they have on our environment.1
The global warming potential is (per kg substance):44
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 fibres are shed.45
Moreover, a battery in a toy makes it more harmful to the environment because each replacement of the battery adds about 48g of CO2-eq.
So, what are the takeaways that you should keep in mind when buying toys as a 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.
Shop our toys collection made of wood and recycled plastic »
Did you know that approximately £42 million of unwanted Christmas gifts end up in a landfill each year?47 Therefore, giving gift cards might be a smarter plan for this year.
Make sure that the gift card you are buying will be used to purchase ethically-made, vegan and more sustainable gifts. You can choose one of your favourite fair and more sustainable brands and check whether they offer gift cards.
Or, to save time and expand the options for the person you are buying the gift card for, you could just choose to give Shop Like You Give a Damn gift cards. Then, you will know for sure that the gift card will be used for fair, vegan and more sustainable purchases - and there are more than 10 000 products to choose from!
Looking at all the gifts wrapped in green and red wrapping paper with festive patterns under the Christmas tree is undoubtedly a beautiful sight. But once the enormous amount of wrapping paper needs to be thrown away, the sight is not so beautiful anymore.
In the UK, 365 470 km of wrapping paper and 40 million rolls of sticky tape are used every year.47 This huge amount of wrapping paper could actually go around the Earth more than 9 times! This tells us that the average household gets through 4 rolls of wrapping paper and one and a half roll of sticky tape.
Is there any way to have a beautiful view of all the gifts under the Christmas tree and way less waste? Absolutely.
Hopefully, this deep-dive into the impacts of Christmas gifts helped you to make more ethical and sustainable choices this year. Just remember, buy as little as possible but when you need to make a purchase, make it vegan, ethical and as sustainable as possible.
We wish you wonderful, calm and enjoyable holidays with the people you love the most.
'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.'47
Cotton Products: The calculations of cotton pyjamas were based on the fact that 1 kg of cotton is used to produce one T-shirt and one pair of jeans.2,5 Therefore, for a cotton pyjama set, 1 kg of cotton was used as the estimate. The calculations for one pair of cotton socks was based on the weight of 25g for one pair of cotton socks.
Woollen items: It was estimated that one jumper is made of 750g of wool11, one woollen hat is made of 150g of wool48,49, one woollen scarf is made of 300g of wool48,50, one woollen blanket is made of 3,4 kg of wool48,51 and one pair of woollen socks is made of 200g of wool.48,52 For the CO2-eq emissions, an economic allocation was used.12 For the water usage, the process from raising the sheep to cleaning the fibre was taken into account.13
Leather gloves: It was estimated that one pair of leather gloves uses 2 A4 (0.13m2) of leather. The impact of leather gloves took into consideration six stages of its life-cycle, namely, slaughtering, hide preservation, tanning and finishing, waste management, transportation and electricity production.14
Jewellery products: The weight estimation of heart-shaped earrings made of silver is 0,65g, of gold is 0,82g, of platinum is 1,29g. The weight estimation of a fine necklace made of silver is 2,26g, of gold is 2,85g, of platinum is 4,48g. The weight estimation of a ring made of silver is 1,87g, of gold is 2,8g, of platinum is 4,01g.29
These tools and statistics were used: Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator was used53, Water usage in the UK54, water drank per day55.
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