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How to avoid a tsunami of Christmas tat

Justin Rowlatt | 15:40 UK time, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

scrooge595.jpgLet's not beat around the bush. Christmas is a carbon catastrophe and the reason is our ludicrous culture of present giving.

I know I'll be called a mean old Scrooge but here's the Christmas manifesto of this (former) Ethical Man: if you must give, give money.

I wrote these words two years ago but I'm pleased to see that more people seem to be coming round to this way of seeing things.

Professor Joel Waldfogel, who's been writing on the subject for far longer than me has been getting exposure in British newspapers and he gave a great interview to BBC Radio 4's More or Less programme.

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The professor, author of Scroogenomics, is an economist. He's concerned about the $25bn of "missing satisfaction" incurred every Christmas, because gifts are under-appreciated. I'm more concerned about the carbon - but we reach the same conclusions.

scroogeonomics226.jpgYou don't have to want Tiny Tim to starve in the workhouse to recognise what a bloated consumer nightmare the festive season has become.

Take my family, for example. We try to meet up over the Christmas period but I have mixed feelings about it.

Not because I don't enjoy seeing everyone and eating and drinking far too much before falling asleep in front of the telly. No, the reason is that I hate giving presents.

There you go you see - you are thinking I'm an old Scrooge aren't you?

Well I say bah humbug to that. I hate receiving presents too and here's why.

I've got three children and they have 10 cousins. If each of my children buys everyone a present that's thirty-six presents. If all the cousins do the same we're talking 13x12 presents - a staggering 156 in all.

And that is just the start. We've got to get presents for my folks, my three sisters and their husbands, my mother-in-law and her partner as well as my father-in-law, my wife's grandmother and her brother. Then, of course, they've all got to do the same for us. So that's another 9x8 presents - 72 more gifts - even if we assume that couples get just one present.

So my direct family alone could buy each other as many as 228 presents every single year and that's before I've popped over to my cousin Xand's for a mulled wine or two (another present plus one for my Aunt Anthea) or even begun to think about presents for friends (not that I do, you understand).

So why are these 228 presents a carbon catastrophe? That's simple: because every single one has a carbon cost. It wouldn't be a problem if this glut of gifts were actually useful. But be honest, when was the last time you actually got something you wanted or more importantly, needed?

My children now get so many presents that we collect up the ones we don't like and give them to the local charity shop. I know it sounds cruel, but we live in a small house and we would be engulfed in a veritable tsunami of tat if we didn't.

landfill_getty226.jpgThe real problem is that giving presents is an inherently inefficient activity. It means guessing what someone else may want or need. Every now and then you'll buy the perfect shirt but more often than not the ornament or tie or garden thermometer will end up in the attic or more likely in a landfill site and all the carbon that went into making it is completely wasted.

A few decades ago you probably needed the socks that your mum gave you or the saucepan she was given by her Aunt. These days it is different. Consumer goods are so cheap and plentiful that even people on very low incomes have no shortage of stuff.

Indeed, if you need proof of how corrupt our present giving culture has become look no further than the "gift" shops that have colonised every high street. You know the ones; they sell things no-one wants like scented candles, little vases and foot massage kits. Nevertheless they seem to do reasonable business.

Some of you may be thinking that I'm missing the point. You're thinking that present-giving isn't about the inherent value or utility of the gift but is about the act of giving itself.

I'll concede there's something in that, but gifts don't have to be useless. I've got a rule of only buying consumables as presents: food and drink (and sometimes fireworks). At least you know someone is going to enjoy them.

But surely it would be more ethical if we all bought each other stuff that you knew we really needed. Stuff like washing up liquid, toilet paper and breakfast cereal. Or better still, cash.

I've never understood why giving money is considered bad form. Wasn't that £5 note folded into Granny's card the very best present of all? You could use it to buy something you actually wanted. Not only that, until you buy something, cash is completely carbon free.

Hence my Christmas manifesto.


  • Comment number 1.

    Justin Rowlatt.

    "Some of you may be thinking that I'm missing the point. You're thinking that present-giving isn't about the inherent value or utility of the gift but is about the act of giving itself."

    correct; first, because not once do you question why we need a common, given date and cause in order to present someone with a gift; second, because you've not given me an idea how the "carbon catastrophe" (the presents) compares with other figures like, say, the emissions from military activities in the various war zones.

  • Comment number 2.

    #1, cont'd.

    oops, missed out this choice bit:

    "Not only that, until you buy something, cash is completely carbon free."

    is that because the printing presses run on fairy dust?

  • Comment number 3.

    2. At 9:46pm on 23 Dec 2009, jr4412
    oops, missed out this choice bit:
    "Not only that, until you buy something, cash is completely carbon free."
    is that because the printing presses run on fairy dust?

    Beyond that, probably only if, like a car in fact 'given away' just to look 'ethical' in return for other stuff, only if one frames it. Otherwise it tends to simply feed consumption, which in turn drives manufacture, which in turn tends to lead to further GHGs in any growing economy. Which rather makes a mockery of most contradictory notions pumped out by our politico-media establishment.

    Anyway, what do we know? And, hence, who to trust to help inform us? A multi-billion uniquely funded objective, professional news organisation, or some free, little, if contrarian outfit...

    The answer probably lies, as with so many things, somewhere in the middle.

    Though in matters of science, and especially physics, often it is possible to be pretty accurate. If one so wishes.

    We're all giving each other IOUs to pool for something for the family (luckily quite small, and without feeling the need to congregate en masse) in the sales. Kind of misses the point, certainly saves money, but sadly will still end up with a purchase. Like so many things. Go figger.

    The era of of us living in insulated boxes not going anywhere, simply existing, moves ever closer. Probably driven by those that like pledges or, better, yet, manifestos.

    Now, was that what Nature intended?

    ps: Fireworks? remind me, what happens when they go off?

  • Comment number 4.

    i make all of my presents, or give consumables to those less close. i spend a great deal of time in "guessing" what my friends and family would appreciate. also, i am only ever given useful presents... books, kitchenware and clothing. for my 18th birthday i was given cutlery from my parents and i was not at all disappointed, because they came in very useful.

    i'm not sure carbon is really the problem here from the examples you have given; rather yours and others insecurity in not being able to form meaningful relationships and so feeling anxious no gift will be good enough or make up for the absence of meaning.

  • Comment number 5.

    Yes, a fiver in a birthday card is great...because it's one-way giving so there's no angst over whether it's stingy, overzealous, or just right. Imagine though, handing over a christmas card complete with crisp tenner, only to get one in return with a twenty in there .. or vice versa! That minefield, my friend, is why I would never money at christmastime!

  • Comment number 6.

    Totally agree, my wife and I haven't bought gifts for each other for over 5 years now. We only buy for our elderly parents and children in the family until they are 18. We also often ask them what they want or , as you sat, give them the cash. We usually agree to buy the gift in the sales too! Just pragmatic. Lots of people think we're a bit weird but company, a good walk and nice food mean a lot more than hypes commercialism!

  • Comment number 7.

    How terribly upper middle-class of you to assume we can all afford to go out and buy what we want when we want it.
    My younger daughter is getting an MP3 player for Christmas. She has wanted one for some time but has had to wait. This also helps teach her that you can't have everything you want when you want it, which is a lesson for global warmimg I think. People also do a lot of 'recycling' of unwanted gifts at Christmas. My son wanted a toy no longer available new so I went on e-bay. Saves carbon, saves landfill, he will still be happy. My Dad likes practical presents - a new pair of comfy slippers.
    As for numbers of presents, can the grown ups not have a grown-up discussion and cut out most of the unwanted gift giving, my family did this years ago.
    Perhaps the problem here isn't the gift giving at Christmas but the buying what everyone wants when they first ask for it the other 364 days of the year.

  • Comment number 8.

    Sitting here, just starting our Christmas the way we want it, i have to say that life has been so much better since i formed a relationship with someone who felt like me about the whole spendfest thing. We do not buy presents for anyone apart from one particular person just because it happens to be Christmas, and rather tend to buy something special for each other or others when the occasion deserves, rather than when encouraged to do so.

    Yes, we have a very nice, quite time, laughing and eating, laughing and watching the box, laughing and getting in touch with others by phone and web, holed up happy and not boracic lint, enjoying just what we like when we like, no timetable, no agenda, no over indulgence.

    No, we aren't particularly religious, but if we were i thought that the spiritual time of year had little or nothing to do with filling the coffers of the local emporium, or department store. The two things, religion and commerce are, to me, mutually exclusive!

    We give, to ourselves, each other, other family and friends, strangers and charity when the mood takes us, and it can be pure tokenism, or abject largess, but our giving of money or gifts does not pander to the worship of Mammon, the siege mentality of the holidays, or the spendfest. We give when we like, not when we are told to.

    Bah humbug, indeed!!!

  • Comment number 9.

    Cash is carbon free I think not! Besides the printing presses there are trees to be cut down, metal to be forged, cash to be delivered etc, etc.

    Agree that consumerism has taken over Xmas like so many things but I'm not making a carbon argument here more one about materialism and conspicuous consumption.

  • Comment number 10.

    Junkkmale wrote: Now, was that what Nature intended?

    What 'nature' are we talking about here?
    The natural world never intended anything.
    If there is another 'nature' perhaps it intended that we take not give?

  • Comment number 11.

    ::Cash is carbon free I think not! Besides the printing presses there are trees to be cut down, metal to be forged, cash to be delivered etc, etc.::

    Actually it is because giving cash instead of presents doesn't make anyone print more cash, so the carbon made would be the same even if you didn't give it away.

  • Comment number 12.

    10 cousins? It sounds like somewhere along the line your family made the classic mistake of over-procreating. Think of the carbon footprint!

    If your family weren't so GINORMOUS I'd suggest you communicate with them before Christmas to find out what they actually want, but communication has a carbon footprint as well so we'd all be done for.

    Careful you don't choke us all driving your fleet of articulated lorries full of unwanted gifts to the charity shop.

  • Comment number 13.

    This reads like a chapter in a psychiatry textbook.

    "The cult members developed a group-phobia about the element carbon and repeated strange chants about de-carbonising their lives".

    Tell me it's not happening.

  • Comment number 14.

    I agree with the author 100%. I also agree with Scroogenomics professor completely. Saw some ridiculous dissenting comments. Authors: only intelligent and open-minded people will understand what you are saying. Alas, that is not the case.

  • Comment number 15.

    Why must you buy for every single member of the family? I buy for my immediate family and their children. I couldn't possibly, nor would I want to, buy 197 gifts for Christmas. I would have to work for a month just to pay off the debt. I have better things to do with my money than to give it all away.

    Sometimes, just talking with your family can help to alleviate the pressure (if any). I am sure they would certainly understand that buying so many gifts is just out there. Each family buying for their immediate family makes things simple and nice.

    Children get physical gifts. Teens, after the age of 15 get cold hard cash. That's what they want anyway. At least this is the experience in my family. Your mileage may vary.


  • Comment number 16.

    Justin Rowlatt - I demand an apology from you. Please apologise for that deceptive program you did called "Putting the science of global warming to the test".
    1. What you did was a very faulty experiment to try and "prove" or demonstrate the "greenhouse effect" of CO2.
    2. The experiment was faulty. It had no hope of demonstrating such a thing, in the way it was done. That the temperature of the CO2 bottle was higher than the one with less CO2 was a matter of accident, due to probably many other causes, other than the greenhouse effect of CO2, which cannot be demonstrated in ones kitchen.
    3. Even if you do a very sophisticated experiment in a cold room with very accurate instruments, at most what you might demonstrate is the NOT DISPUTED greenhouse effect of CO2.
    4. Demonstrating the greenhouse effect of CO2 DOES NOT "prove Global Warming"
    “Global warming” simply stated is the hypothesis that in our real world, the very small percentage of CO2 we are putting into our atmosphere will cause our planet to warm dangerously.
    This can NEVER be proven by any kitchen experiment or any other experiment for that matter, AND AT PRESENT THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT OUR PLANET IS WARMING THAT FAST OR INDEED WARMING AT ALL
    Your talk was deceptive to an uninformed audience, who were even more uninformed than you and misled them.
    Please therefore apologise and issue a correction for that program.

  • Comment number 17.

    How refreshing to read this. Yes, Christmas is a load of hot air in every sense. All that forced bonhomie and feigned gratitude for things we don't want or, for the majority of us, need. Fine for children perhaps but still feeding the "I want" culture. Ecologically a disaster too. I think hedgehogs have got it right: they hibernate!

  • Comment number 18.

    I have a few issues with this. Okay, several.

    Most importantly in terms of logic, you've set up a straw man for the sake of argument. I think very few rational human beings would believe they were actually obligated to give 200+ presents out, and even the irrational ones likely can't afford it. So all you did was create a ridiculous example to say how much better your way is. Well done. You've not actually proven anything. I have a large family, too. So we do secret santas or gifts for each branch of the family or whatever, and it's manageable. Normal people understand that buying for umpteen cousins isn't feasible, and that's fine.

    Maybe your family just needs a frank discussion all around- give gifts from branch to branch; cheaper, less carbon, and fewer presents to sort through.

    You claim that giving money is best. Okay, it's easiest and it may have a smaller carbon footprint (a claim you in no way substantiated, given, as an earlier commenter mentioned, the issue of producing money; the government doesn't print one fiver, so a single bill's cost is not the seminal piece of information). So what? What makes that better? To me, money is what you give when you are out of time or ideas, or don't know the person that well. Money is impersonal and takes little thought and effort. When I want to show someone I care, I put thought and effort into things. I'd rather send (and receive) a thoughtful card without a five pound note (or a ten dollar bill) than just pass cash around... and I think sending a thoughtful card would not only meet your carbon standards, but would actually be more meaningful.

    But when it comes down to it, even without your flawed and unsubstantiated arguments, you have yet to convince me of two important pieces of this entire post:

    1. That a year of "ethical" living should be about carbon (and, by extension, a near-denouncement of Christmas);

    2. That you aren't a Scrooge.

    Why? Well, to the first point, I think it's great you're committed to conservation. But like many such individuals, it seems every time I'm foolish enough to read a post by you all I see is another person who's pretty down on human beings. Even our celebrations and cheeriness aren't good enough for you. Christmas is a distaster for the environment. But does not our human joy matter too? Are we preserving the natural world by making it free of us? Last I checked we also were inhabitants of the natural world-- and if you think we're doing too much bad to it, I don't notice you turning to a coalition of squirrels to fix it. Yes, that's right, human beings are the solution (and not a problem- we may cause them but we aren't them). Let's save the environment, but let's worry about human beings, too. There are a lot of people dying needlessly in war and stife, and whatever the voluntary extinction crowd says, people do matter most. I don't see how you can ethically spend a year writing about ethics only on one issue-- it's at heart a claim which any level of honest discernment would unseat simply by its narrow range. Moreover, I think it's a claim no one can legitimately make, to live ethically. The fact that it has a nice ring to it and simplifies things for the BBC doesn't make it accurate- or right. I think it's unethical to stomp on the joy of the season- and for what I can see that's as legitimate as your narrow definition.

    And yes, the above makes you a Scrooge and it's got me feeling rather Scrooge-ish in your direction, for which I apologise. Not only is such "scroogenomics" arrogant (in telling other people how to be generous) but it's also completely missed the point of the season. Do people give in excess? Yes. Do they spend in excess? Yes. Should they probably reevaluate, etc.? Yes. Do we have any right to criticise people and effectively call them irresponsible and unethical because they want to be kind? NO. Sorry, folks, your holiday cheer is being rationed- single scoop only.

    Who knew environmentalists were the new Puritans. They didn't celebrate Christmas either, you know? Very small carbon footprint, too, and yet not always so ethical, and not so happy either.

    Merry Christmas. I'll be having a very low carbon-footprint holiday, doing a secret santa with my family rather than individual gifts, but that's due to plain old fashioned common sense, not any grand claims to ethics-- and I'll be much cheerier for it, too.

  • Comment number 19.

    Long before everyone worried about carbon footprints, I have always admired the fact that the Chinese always give cash for Chinese New Year in red envelopes. We should celebrate Christmas the same way. It is much more ecologically sound and far more practical. Using envelopes would allow people to personalize them if they wanted to. They could make and/or decorate their own envelopes or buy stylized ones if they want to create mementos. Secondly, most envelopes could be reused year after year unlike wrapping paper and other packaging. If this idea isn't good enough, we could just give cash in Christmas cards as some people do. Christmas cards can also be personalized. I think they are a little more wasteful because of the extra paper and because re-usability is reduced by the fact that people usually write something inside.

    In the end, the elimination of gift-giving doesn't go far enough. We should eliminate Christmas cards except as mentioned in the preceding scenario, Christmas trees, most Christmas decorations, and especially Christmas lights. Now before everyone brands me as an atheist, I like Christmas for different reasons. I have many fond memories of eating a wonderful Christmas meal with family and singing Christmas carols by the family piano every Christmas.

    Lots of people talk about conservation but few really change their wasteful daily habits. It is up to consumers to force manufacturers and retailers to stop producing and marketing a bunch of useless, wasteful junk. Think of the most useless gift you have ever received. Then think that some company probably produced thousands and marketed it because they convinced idiots to think it was latest and greatest.

  • Comment number 20.

    Merry Christmas. But remember you are and "ethical man". To be ethical you have to tell the truth and not tell lies (if you know they are not true). Thus you are honour bound to research the truth.

    Global warming may or may not be true, but there is no evidence of it at the moment, as the world has not warmed for 12 years. (This is not controversial - it is from the East Anglia data, such as it is).

    Of course we should save the environment and tackle pollution but not as a supposed flow on effect of controlling carbon, which has shown no signs of being harmful to date.

  • Comment number 21.

    "Carbon footprint" doesn't matter a hoot. Cant you people understand that? Wasteful expenditure does. Thus travelling to Copenhagen. Conferences on this subject and spending money on sequestering CO2, which horticulturists pump into their greenhouses, because its so depleted in the atmosphere, does matter. It is wasteful expenditure and serves no purpose. That money could be better spent providing clean drinking water, irrigation projects etc.

    If you want to travel around town or enjoy yourselves, or go for a holiday - go ahead and dont feel guilty because of the unethical messages from people like Al Gore, or Pachauri, who are amassing money unethically.

  • Comment number 22.

    Here's a way to prove the lie in your experiment. Set up two bottles exactly the same, with just air in them. No CO2. Repeat that experiment. I can guarantee that one will heat more than the other. And to deceive those poor people that you had "proved" Global warming, of all things and, then discussing what sacrifices they must make? Making them feel alarmed and guilty, this is just not right.

    If you are truly ethical, please read this and email me and frankly and honestly let me know what you think:

    (There are some inconsequential mistakes in that timeline (such as grapes never grew in Greenland during the Viking times) but the Medieval warm period was nonetheless warmer than today - other evidence.

  • Comment number 23.

    Before we get onto presents, what about cards? I have been appalled for some time about the culture of sending cards to every single person one knows. A gift at least has the potential for some real utility, but a card is just a waste of resources all around - cutting down trees for the paper, producing the paper, printing the card, shipping to store, mailing to recipient - all for something that looks pretty next to the dozen or so other cards during a period of a week or so around Christmas and then gets binned! Even without getting into the whole Global Warming debate, I have been fighting this practice for years just on basic ecology grounds.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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