It can feel like an annual dilemma. A real Christmas tree seems a more natural choice, but up to 8 million of them are bought every December in the UK alone. That's a lot of intensive production, and potentially a lot of waste.
It's true that fake plastic trees last for years – and nowadays they can look very realistic. But they do take enormous amounts of energy to manufacture. And it's yet more synthetic waste to be disposed of in the future.
So let's look at the options in more detail...
1. Artificial trees
If you've got a fake tree already, keep using it – make it last as long as possible. But look into more environmentally-sound options when it eventually comes to replacing it.
2. Real trees
If you want to be reassured that your tree has been grown sustainably, not in a way that's environmentally damaging, look for the FSC-certification logo. If you want a tree that's certified as organic and pesticide-free, get one that's approved by the Soil Association.
3. Grow your own
Buying a potted tree with roots lets you grow it outside and use it again next year, reducing its environmental impact and costing you less. But they do need some looking after, and you'll need a big pot. Read these expert tips on caring for Christmas trees in pots.
Alternatively, if you're feeling a bit radical or non-traditional, get a large perennial indoor plant – like a yucca, palm, fig etc – and just decorate it at Christmas time.
4. Recycling real trees
Far more Christmas trees get recycled now than even 10 years ago. Most councils have allocated locations where people can leave their tree after Christmas (take the decorations off first!). Or you can usually take them to your nearest municipal tip/recycling centre.
The trees are shredded, then used as mulch on plants in parks, or on woodland paths (for a lovely instant pine-forest smell!). Or else rotted down and recycled as compost.
5. Tree rental
More and more places (such as garden centres and plant nurseries) now offer a Christmas-tree hire service over the festive season. Sounds like a good solution – they'll often even deliver and collect the tree to save you the hassle. And the tree can carry on growing after it's returned.
But the same caveats apply as buying your own tree: make sure it's grown sustainably by looking for either the FSC or Soil Association logo.
Get creative. Home-made crafts or foods are lovely alternatives to the usual shop-bought stuff. Or, if you're really trying to cut back on the consumerism, why not offer to do something nice for someone instead?
6. Eco-friendly gifts
If you are buying presents, the Friends of the Earth shop has a fabulous eco-friendly range of seasonal cards, calendars and gifts. So you can do all your festive shopping and support Friends of the Earth at the same time.
We’ve also got gift vouchers, so you can let your friends or family choose their own present.
7. Bee Saver Kit
Our popular Bee Saver Kit contains British wildflower seeds, a DIY cardboard bee hotel, bee guide and a garden planner to help you, or someone you know, become a heroic bee saver.
8. Wool and the Gang
This Christmas embrace the maker movement – knit, help the planet and feel good. Our friends at Wool and the Gang have created 'Heal the Wool', a luxurious yarn made completely from recycled wool that would otherwise end up in landfill. And for every kit you buy, 30% is donated to Friends of the Earth. It's the perfect gift for you and your loved ones to create beautiful, low impact fashion. Get your Heal the Wool now and find out about our partnership.
For yoga fans... How about a revolutionary 100% biodegradable yoga mat from the eco-friendly folks at Liforme? Mats are made from naturally-sourced sustainable rubber and a specially-engineered non-toxic polyurethane. Designed by Yogis for Yogis.
10. Free gifts
Why spend money if you don’t have to? Pledge to do something nice instead. Free Christmas Gift Cheques are a lovely way of making your time the thing that counts.
Why not try cutting down (or out) the meat this Christmas – at least for some days of the festive break? According to the Soil Association, "food is the single most important, everyday way for people to reduce their own environmental impact". Here are some alternative festive food tips to help you shop and cook for an Earth-friendly feast.
11. Vegetarian and vegan recipes
As Benjamin Zephaniah might say, why not be nicer to turkeys at Christmas? And it's good for you too. Nowadays veggie doesn’t have to mean predictable omelettes, cheese salads or risottos. Or even necessarily the standard nut roast for vegans at Christmas.
Have a look at the Vegetarian Society, Jamie Oliver or the excellent Vegan Food & Living for hundreds of fantastic recipes. And there are some extra tasty festive treats on the Vegan Society website – including vegan brandy butter, and even vegan eggnog.
12. Organic meat
If you can't get past the meat craving, try choosing planet-friendly organic and free-range, and support greener, small-scale farming wherever possible.
It might be a bit more expensive, but it's better to buy a bit less of the good stuff than more of the cheap and cheerless intensively-farmed meat. Companies like Riverford Farms run dependable organic delivery schemes, and they offer seasonal veg, meat and dairy packages.
If you do happen to indulge in seasonal meaty excesses, why not eat less meat after Christmas to make up for it? Eating less but better meat would be a great New Year’s resolution. Read our ideas for making a roast chicken (or turkey) last a week.
And if you want to try to eat less meat all year round, we can help. Sign up to our Let's Eat Better Pledge and we’ll send you monthly emails with recipes and tips for a more sustainable diet.
13. Cut food waste
When you're food shopping, try and choose things that are light on packaging, or buy loose items.
And if you end up over-catering, don't just bin what's left. Transforming leftovers can be a great way to create new meals, save money and cut waste. Try the BBC Good Food leftovers recipes for ideas – or challenge your family to suggest recipes with whatever you’ve got in the fridge. Classic winter dishes like turkey pie and bubble and squeak are perfect for making the most of your leftovers, not to mention Brussels sprout curry.
If you have too many leftovers, see what you can freeze. Or why not donate some to an elderly neighbour, local food bank or soup kitchen? Compost any other waste.
14. Merrier mulled wine
If you’re entertaining friends, mulled wine is a great festive treat – but try and look out for organic and vegan wines for the most sustainable options.
Most of us love a bit of festive decoration and fancy wrapping, and who doesn't like getting Christmas cards? But research suggests that the paper waste over the Christmas period is equivalent to 5-12 million litres of biofuel – enough to power a bus to go to the moon 20 times.
So why not recycle or make your own Christmas decorations? It’s a great excuse to have fun, and keep kids busy, if there's any around. You can also try getting creative with dried fruit peel, pine cones, Christmas tree offcuts and the like.
15. Green gift wrapping
Support Friends of the Earth by buying our eco-friendly set of 10 recycled newspaper gift bags. Or use newspapers or magazines saved from your recycling – the more colourful the better.
16. Cut your card footprint
An unbelievable 1.5 billion Christmas cards are thrown away by UK households each year, according to Imperial College researchers.
E-cards (sent online) are an increasingly popular alternative. They cut your carbon footprint, save trees and save money – see Friends of the Earth's free e-cards.
If you do prefer to buy paper cards, take a look at our eco-friendly Christmas cards range.
A lot of decorations – sadly including staples like tinsel and glitter – are made from plastic, often PVC. They're hardly environmentally-friendly. The Friends of the Earth shop stocks some eco-friendly and Fairtrade Christmas goodies – including:
- Christmas stockings made from recycled sari fabric;
- felt dove and robin decorations;
- recycled sari bunting;
- distressed glass baubles;
- and a cloth advent calendar kit.
If you're using fairy lights, make sure you get LED ones – they're the most energy-efficient. And put them on a timer so they're not on all day.
18. Have a DIY crafty Christmas
Leisure and travel
Here are some fun and mostly free things to do during the festive break, with minimal cost to the environment.
19. Festival winter walks and events
The Ramblers website is a great resource if you're looking for local walking groups or routes. Or visit the Canal and River Trust for information about frosty walks along Britain’s beautiful waterways. The National Trust offers a full calendar of festive activities and events around Christmas, in some of Britain’s most stunning country parks and homes.
20. Share transport
Make Christmas travel greener by sharing shopping trips and lifts with friends and family. Use public transport, or shop online and get bulk deliveries.
21. Get on your bike
Turn your Christmas holiday into a green getaway. The UK has lots of wonderful outdoor cycling opportunities. Escape Routes by Matt Carroll has 60 scenic routes for both day-trips and longer weekend breaks.
Look out for more tips in our series on tackling overconsumption.