Consumption, Natural Capital & The Environment

All I Want for Christmas

Sean Ng | Dec 24, 2021

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Christmas celebrations in Japan, François Rejeté

Christmas. Shades of red and green, images of a family huddled around a warm fireplace. A towering pine tree off to the side, topped with a beautiful angel. Below the tree, countless boxes of various sizes wrapped in sparkling paper. While the origins of Christmas are uniquely western, as well as many of its customs and traditions, it has spread globally. Regardless of where you go in the world today, Christmas celebrations are almost ubiquitous. One of Christmas’ key defining features is buying lavish gifts for your loved ones. However, it also appears to be one that fuels an insatiable consumerist culture. Think back to those gifts you have received over the years. How many of them still remain as your prized possessions, or in daily usage? Have many of them have merely been hidden in the depths of your cupboard? While it is important to show our loved ones that we care about them, we should also consider the environmental impacts within every box.

Overconsumption results in hidden impacts on the environment that we often do not even notice. Living in Singapore, we enjoy good environmental quality: clean air and water, as well as many green spaces. Industrial areas are far from the places we frequent and are out of sight and mind. However, there has been evidence that our environmental impacts from consumption are exported to other regions. Many of those toys we usually buy for Christmas are imported and are therefore manufactured elsewhere. The environmental costs of manufacturing thus remain in the producing country, such as air, water, and land pollution. Meanwhile, the product is shipped to Singapore where we do not directly perceive the impacts of environmental degradation. Alternatively, production is usually done in industrial areas, where the impacts of pollution might not directly affect people living away from them. Studies have shown an increase in consumption over the holiday period, which can be a significant driver of total emissions globally. This study was conducted in the Netherlands and discusses the impacts of western-style consumption on the environment. Singapore is similarly a developed country that has adopted much of western consumerist culture, with shopping being a major pastime for many.

How, then, might we tweak our behaviour to enjoy a more sustainable Christmas? To quote an unwitting environmentalist, Mariah Carey, in a song that everyone has definitely heard before: “I don’t want a lot for Christmas…. All I want for Christmas is you”. As cheesy as it sounds, the most memorable thing every festive season is the time spent with loved ones. While gifts are certainly welcome and would bring a smile to every face, it is the memories with the people that truly last. Look back on the time spent, watching heartwarming Christmas movies, board games or a hearty meal with your families. Perhaps, it may not be necessary to get a gift for every person. Reduce the number of presents purchased by organising a secret Santa gift exchange, where each person would get one gift. Trying to guess who gave which gift could create additional fun too. Alternatively, it could be possible to avoid gifts altogether (at your own risk, your mileage with your partner may vary).

A vintage camera like this in usable condition can be found relatively cheap and makes a good gift for any photographer. Source: A Soviet Built FED-4 camera, Oxonhutch

Furthermore, we could normalise re-gifting or purchasing second-hand items. Most of the time it seems taboo to gift others an item that has been used. However, consider that many secondhand items are in perfect working condition and may almost be brand new. Also, items such as cameras can be used and maintained for a long time, and some certainly can be considered vintage. A budding photographer might not need the latest and greatest gadget—perhaps a second-hand camera would be good enough. Items such as books are meant to be passed down. If you have gotten a book years ago from a friend and have read it from cover to cover, consider giving it to someone else to appreciate. This way, you not only save space on your shelf for another book but also get to share an exciting experience with a loved one. It should not matter if the gift comes in a big box or with a large price tag. The best present is one that comes from the bottom of the heart and comes with thought, time and effort put into it.

While we all celebrate Christmas differently, gifting remains a constant that forms the cornerstone of every festive season. However, shopping and consuming goods that we might not need can have devastating environmental impacts that we often do not feel directly. These consequences are invisible to us most of the time, while we enjoy our presents. We can adopt multiple strategies to tackle these issues such as Secret Santas or regifting, and they can be applied in any situation that concerns gifts. Let us truly make Christmas the most wonderful time of the year for the current and future, developed and developing alike.

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