How can we have a sustainable Christmas?

10 12 2010
Is it that Christmas sweater you've had your eye on? Around £700 million was spent on unwanted Christmas presents last year

What horror lies within? Around £700 million was spent on unwanted Christmas presents last year

As the Christmas season approaches its peak, shoppers will be hoping to make the right choices for gifts, but many will have niggling worries that they have forgotten their niece’s favourite colour or misjudged their brother-in-law’s need for new power tools.

In the event of an error, thanks will doubtless be graciously offered.

The fate of the present, however, is less certain. A charity shop? Short-term storage in the hope that a passing friend or neighbour might take an interest? A couple of uses and then into the bin?

Various factors conspire to ensure that Christmas is the time of year when wasteful consumption reaches a peak. We are buying in the dark (can we even recall the name of that second cousin, let alone choose him a useful present?) and under pressure of time – why are there so few Saturdays in Advent? And with limited budgets. No wonder we make mistakes.

Around £700 million was spent on unwanted Christmas presents last year – equivalent to nearly £30 per household.

Maybe this doesn’t matter. After all, Christmas is a time for celebration, for forgetting the prospect of higher VAT, student loans and the like. But maybe it does.

A report published last month indicated that Britons are consuming at three times the rate that is sustainable. It was hardly a revelation.

In the past, such warnings have been largely disregarded but this has become less easy. Consumers today are too knowledgeable of the environmental impact of our consumption to feel comfortable with excess and waste.

Our throwaway culture may be more exposed than usual over Christmas, but it is a reality throughout the year. Consumers continually demand the latest styles, technology, and convenience rather than longevity. So-called “fast fashion” now accounts for some 20 per cent of the clothing market.

But is it fair to blame producers? They can only supply what consumers demand.

We cannot expect retailers to stock well-crafted, durable products, inevitably relatively expensive, if shoppers are unwilling or unable to purchase them.

On the other hand, retailers bear a responsibility for marketing campaigns that seek to make us dissatisfied with items that still function. Around a third of discarded electronic goods still work or need only a minor repair.

How, then, might change come about? Is a throwaway society inevitable?

People will only start demanding longer-lasting products if they can see that this is in their interest.

They need access to far better information on how long products have been designed to last.

Is it not time to raise people’s expectations of reliability and durability rather than expect them to purchase extended warranties?

Governments have a role to play. As repairing and maintenance is labour-intensive and expensive, while imported new goods are often relatively cheap, people increasingly favour the latter. But governments can influence market signals through the tax system. Ultimately we will all pay the price for over-consumption. Maybe a less commercialised Christmas would be a start?

Tim Cooper, Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption at Nottingham Trent University




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