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As seasonal as the first snowfall of the year, or the smell of the crackling wood fires coming from a neighbor’s chimney, the myriad articles telling us how wasteful the Christmas season and holiday season is are an essential and memorable part of each and every December.

Here is the (seemingly innocuous) latest from our Eco-Reps on campus (note, it’s not a permalink, but it’s the article on 12-14-16):

The pressure of great sales during the holiday season encourages Americans to go on huge shopping sprees, especially on Black Friday. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, household waste increases by more than 25%. Food waste, shopping bags, packaging, wrapping paper, bows and ribbons combined all add up to an additional 1 million tons of waste a week to our landfills (EPA). In the U.S., annual trash from gift-wrap and shopping bags totals 4 million tons, most of this likely discarded during the holidays (EPA)

Now, what should be understood is that if all Americans reduced everything they consumed, there would presumably be less “waste.” I say presumably for two reasons. First, if someone does not spend resources on a consumer good, is there any guarantee that what they choose to otherwise do with their time would be more “sustainable?” What if every American decides instead to become a world traveler? Second of course is that there can obviously be wasteful NON-consumption, but we’ll leave that idea unexplored today.

What I wanted to focus on is the assumption that all of this shopping during Christmas and holiday season actually generates more waste in the conventional sense of the term than otherwise. Does holiday shopping actually just MOVE the timing of consumption that would have otherwise occurred at other times during the year? For example, I needed to secure parts to fix a toilet in my house, but I went out on Black Friday and got a great deal on them! Same for our linens in our house. Economists have in fact measured such things and a few clicks away on a library research site would surely reveal such information, would it? Well, I’m too lazy myself to do it. For example, we know that Cash for Clunkers, aside from the horrific destroying of cars, did not change the overall trajectory of car purchases, it simply changed the timing. I see little reason to expect things to be different around holiday time. Maybe we would not be buying gifts for each other were it not for holidays, for sure.

Finally, if we do assume that holiday shopping simply reflects a movement through time for when you would otherwise be consuming, you may then want to draw a conclusion that holiday shopping is not only “wasteful” but actually “sustainable” (whatever that word means). How so? Well, if I am taking fewer trips over the course of the year, and if I am putting more items into each shopping bag, which clearly is the case when we go out for “Black Friday” type days, and we take fewer trips from our homes to the stores and instead stay out at the stores most of the day, you clearly are reducing your fuel use, your pollution, and wear and tear on our infrastructure.

My sense of course is that all of these “efficiencies” do not compensate for the increased overall level of consumption induced by the fact that we have a holiday, nor the lights and decorations and wrapping and such. But such things are surely measurable and worth knowing, no?

2 Responses to “Consumption (Non)-Smoothing, Scale Economies, Christmas and Sustainability”

  1. jb says:

    “In the U.S., annual trash from gift-wrap and shopping bags totals 4 million tons, most of this likely discarded during the holidays (EPA)”

    My reaction to this (as usual) is not as refined or half as clever as WCs, but … SO WHAT?

    Is the thrill on my child’s face upon unwrapping a beautifully wrapped gift worth nothing? Shall I carry the items I buy at the mall back to my car, one by one, instead of using a bag? (but perhaps I forget exercise is good for me; so yes, this is a good thing because I am doubtless a low information dolt slurping big gulp cokes all day, or at least I was until they were banned).

    • wintercow20 says:

      JB, hopefully I don’t give away too much in the following spoiler, but my very favorite scene in Breaking Bad comes at the very end when Walter finally has a heartfelt conversation with his wife and rhetorically asks why he did it all … his answer?

      “Because I loved doing it!”

      Or something to that effect.

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