In the run up to Christmas this year, American shoppers are expected to spend a staggering $602 billion dollars. Although a large portion of this expenditure is spent on other festive items such as food and gifts, Christmas would not be the same without a well decorated tree.
While the earliest origins of the tradition can be traced back to ancient Egyptian times, this festive tradition is now a multibillion dollar industry. In 2011 alone, nearly 13 million artificial Christmas trees and over 21 million real trees were sold across the globe. Although erecting an oversized tree in your living room may seem innocent enough, the reality of producing this many trees highlights some shocking truths about modern supply chains.
Take for instance the vast amount of resources required just to distribute this festive product: given that 85% of all fake trees are manufactured in China, most Christmas trees will travel thousands of miles before taking their place in our homes. When you consider that even the most efficient cargo ships still burn up to 1660 gallons of fuel per hour, transporting the artificial trees from the Chinese factories, where they are produced to destinations around the world, requires an immense amount of fuel.
In addition to the vast fuel consumption, artificial trees are often made from a plastic material known as PVC. Although this material is used to make many household products, PVC contains a toxic mix of ingredients including lead and Dioxin. When mixed together to synthesise the plastic, a number of hazardous by-products are also released. These by-products are notoriously difficult to dispose of and can have a detrimental impact on both the environment and our health.
While many of us perceive freshly cut trees to be the more eco-friendly option, real Christmas trees can be equally as damaging to the environment. For instance, given that each tree can take up to 7 years to grow, farmers often adopt intensive farming methods in order to ensure they can harvest enough trees to satisfy demand. To maximize yield, some Christmas trees are grown using harmful pesticides and chemical fertilizers. While such farming methods can help producers get the most out of their land, excessive use of pesticides can contaminate water supplies as well as cause chemical poisoning in local wildlife.
Given that Christmas trees are bought purely on a sentimental basis and serve no functional purpose, the impact on the environment and the amount of resources required to produce such a vast number of trees seems extremely wasteful. This is especially true when you take into account that artificial trees are kept for just 7 years, while real trees are disposed of almost immediately after Christmas.
Although we are unlikely to chop the Christmas tree out of our holiday celebrations, businesses have started to take steps to improve the green credentials of the Christmas tree supply chain. For example, some manufactures have started producing eco-friendly alternatives which are either made from nontoxic materials or grown locally without the use of pesticides. In addition, it is now possible to rent living Christmas trees which can be replanted at the end of the holiday period. Through adopting these practices across the supply chain, the resources required to produce and distribute each tree is drastically reduced.
While these developments help cut the environmental impact, one of the biggest improvements is the increase in recycling services. Across the U.S today there are over 4000 programs in place which allow consumers to recycle their used Christmas trees. While real trees are chipped and turned to mulch, these programs ensure artificial trees are disposed of appropriately, thus preventing a huge amount of waste unnecessarily going to landfill.
Although such improvements have mitigated the negative impact of the supply chain, the impact mass produced products have on the environment is not just limited to Christmas trees. Whether it is as a result of wasteful production processes or inefficient physical distribution methods, virtually every supply chain will have some impact on the environment. In order to minimize the negative impact of supply chain operations, business should take a leaf from the Christmas tree industry and find innovative ways to improve their operations.
For now, intensively farmed and PVC imitation trees remain the choice of the vast majority. What kind of Christmas tree did you buy this year? Have you ever considered how it made its way into your living room?