It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas – the weather outside is frightful and Wham! might be slowly rocking on your playlist. But, you might be thinking: All I want for Christmas is to know the environmental and social impacts of the most popular Christmas gifts! (Spoiler: this massive and super informative infographic sums it all up pretty well!).
Surely, Christmas is a time of joy, family reunions and relaxation. But this period can put quite some stress on us, our fellow humans and animals, our planet and resources.
Any gift you buy will have an environmental impact. Every piece of clothing takes some resources from our planet. One thing you can do is to buy less this Christmas. To buy only the gifts you know your loved ones need and will use – and choose the more sustainable option.
But it's not exactly easy to track down the impact your gift has on the world and its inhabitants. So, we decided to make your Christmas wish come true and do the math for you.
We looked at the most popular Christmas gifts given in the UK and their ethical and environmental impacts. We provide you with the facts and information you might want to be mindful of. And our findings are definitely worth the read!
Clothes and shoes
Food and drink
Health and beauty products
Toys and games
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It's time to delve into the impact of some of the most commonly given Christmas gifts in the UK.
An important disclaimer: There is a lot of (many times unintentional) misinformation circulating in the field of the (fast) fashion industry. Such a non-transparent industry makes it easy for misinformation to flow around and go unnoticed. We do our utmost best to bring you the most recent and reliable information. The notes on the data and sources that were used to write this article can be found at the bottom of this page.
The number one Christmas gift given in the UK deserves our attention. Let's dive into the specifics.
Everyone has probably (at least once) received a pyjama set for Christmas.
And you've probably heard that cotton is a very thirsty crop and that about 20.000 litres of water is used to produce one T-shirt and a pair of jeans – or one cotton pyjama set.2,3
According to the most recent data, 1.931 litres of irrigation water (surface water or groundwater) and 6.003 litres of rainwater is used to produce 1 kilogram of lint – an amount that is necessary for one cotton pyjama set.56 If the water used to manufacture the pyjama set would be taken into account, the number of water used would be, of course, even higher.
Also, even though cotton represents only 2,4% of the harvest grown on the world's cropland, it is responsible for 10,24% and 4,71% of sales of insecticide and pesticides, respectively. However, the true impact of pesticides depends on what types are used and which conditions of use are in place.
What about the CO2-eq emissions linked to a cotton pyjama set? When we look at traditional cotton cultivation, the production of one pyjama is estimated to be responsible for 1,8 kilograms of CO2-eq.6,7 Of course, when the transportation and consumer-use part is taken into consideration, this number significantly increases.
Lastly, some resources are also used to dye the cotton pyjama set. To produce 1 kilogram of dye, 100 kilograms of petroleum, 1.000 litres of water and 10 kilograms of other chemicals are used.8 Unfortunately, only 75-80% of the dyes remain on the fabric, resulting in even more waste.8,9
Land use, climate, ecotoxicity and use of raw materials are all factors linked to wool production. Often perceived as a 'natural' and 'eco-friendly' option while in reality, wool (right after also problematic silk) scores the highest when it comes to the negative impact on our environment when compared to other fabrics.10
Just one woollen jumper is estimated to be responsible for 21,5 kilograms of CO2-eq emissions.11,12 And it takes 375 litres of water to manufacture.13 This is the same amount of water an average man drinks in the course of 3 and a half months.
Other popular woollen Christmas gifts are woollen hats and scarves. So, what is their environmental impact?
One woollen hat is estimated to be responsible for 4,31 kilograms of CO2-eq emissions.12 And it takes about 75 litres of water to manufacture – which is the amount of water an average woman drinks in about one month.13
One woollen scarf is estimated to be responsible for 8,61 kilograms of CO2-eq emissions and to take 150 litres of water to manufacture (which is the amount of water an average woman drinks in about two months or a man in about one and a half months.12,13
But there are many more reasons to avoid purchasing wool this Christmas. Production of wool is not just 'shaving the animal' – this massive industry is often cruel to the animals too. Sheep experience pain, stress and undergo horrific practices such as mulesing.
All this while the ethical alternative is simply stunning. Just check for yourself. Have a look at our vegan, fair and more sustainable collection of wool-free cardigans & jumpers for women, more sustainable cardigans & jumpers for men, or our wool-free beanies & hats collection.
During the lifecycle of one very popular Christmas gift – a pair of leather gloves – 21,8 litres of water and 435 grams of chemicals (out of which 255 grams are hazardous) are used.14,15 However, this doesn't even take into account the resources that go into raising the animals.
What about the CO2-eq emissions? One pair of leather gloves is responsible for 19 kilograms of CO2-eq emissions. This means that one pair of leather gloves emits the same amount of CO2-eq as a car travelling from Glasgow to Edinburgh!
Also, it takes about 50 to 100 years for leather to break down and during this period, lots of chemicals are released into the environment.15
Did you know that during the life cycle (mainly in the beginning stages of production) of one pair of leather gloves, 1,7 kilograms of total solid waste, out of which 230 grams is non-biodegradable and 120 grams is hazardous, is generated? And that is just for one pair of gloves.
But with leather, it just doesn't end there. The workers in the industry suffer too.
For instance, there are 313 tanneries in Bangladesh, a country that declared the leather industry to be their priority sector.57 The waste is so poorly managed there that about 22.000.000 litres of hazardous liquid waste ends up in the Buriganga River every day. The cancer rates of tannery workers are way higher than regular levels. Leukaemia, for instance, can occur up to 5 times as often when a person lives near a tannery.17,18
And let's not forget that leather was once the skin of a beautiful animal. If you'd like to learn more about the leather industry, read our blog What's wrong with leather?
Almost everyone has at least once found socks under their Christmas tree. But what is the environmental impact of socks? That highly depends on what material they are made of.
For instance, the production of socks made of polyamide is estimated to be responsible for 4 kilograms of CO2-eq emissions.18 A pair of woollen socks is estimated to generate about 5,74 kilograms of CO2-eq emissions.12 What about cotton socks? They are estimated to be responsible for 45 grams of CO2-eq emissions.
The first step to minimize your carbon footprint is to not purchase things you or your loved ones don't need. As socks are quite a useful gift (and they often tend to mysteriously disappear in our washing machines), buying them might be a good plan.
An even better plan is to purchase socks made more sustainably and ethically – because every purchase matters.
When it comes to giving makeup, personal care products and toiletries as Christmas gifts, there are a few things to consider: the ingredients, the packaging and whether they (or the final product) were tested on animals.
Even though animal testing for cosmetics is banned in the UK, most of the makeup and personal care products found in stores are tested on animals. This is because animal testing for cosmetics is still legal in 80% of countries, from where the products are shipped to the UK.19
More than 500.000 animals are harmed and killed every year due to animal testing for cosmetics.20 How can you be sure that your gift hasn't been tested on animals and contains only animal-free ingredients?
First things first, don't trust every label and statement on the cosmetic product. A company might just write on the packaging that it 'does not test on animals' while they do. The two well-known labels, V-label from the Vegan Society and the Leaping Bunny from Cruelty Free International, might serve as an indication of cruelty-free and vegan cosmetics.
However, it is still recommended to do your own research, learn more about the company and whether they sell in China (which means the company does test on animals as the laws in China require animal testing), to be actually sure your gift is cruelty-free.
Fortunately, there are more than 6.400 brands that offer cruelty-free cosmetic products63, so you have more than enough options to shop cruelty-free and vegan cosmetic products in 2023.
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What about the packaging? Every year, about 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the cosmetics industry – and most of it isn't recyclable.21
A not-so-fun fact: the decomposition of the average moisturiser container is assumed to take approximately 1.000 years.
The consumption of beauty products has increased about 500% in the UK since 1985 and if this level of consumption continues, it is estimated that by the year 2050, there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills – which is as heavy as 35.000 Empire State Buildings.21,22,58,59
If we talk about cosmetic products, we need to mention microbeads too. Microbeads are a type of microplastic with a specific function for scrubbing or exfoliating.60 Experts estimate that in the course of a single shower, about 100.000 plastic particles from gels are washed away down our sinks.23
This might sound like a horrific amount, however, microbeads actually make up only a small percentage of the amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans. The UK Department of the Environment suggests that only between 0,01% and 4,1% of microplastic pollution in our oceans is linked to cosmetic products sources.
However, in the UK, about 680 tonnes of microbeads are used in cosmetic products every year. And once microfibres reach the oceans, there is no effective method for removing them.61
When we take that into consideration, as well as the fact that microbeads are absolutely unnecessary because there are plenty of natural alternatives available, it makes sense to avoid products with these harmful microplastics.
If you are ready to buy Christmas gifts without microbeads this year, watch out for these five most common microbeads ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products: polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), nylon (PA), polypropylene (PP), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA).24
Even though the plastic packaging of personal care products is a huge problem, the truth is that more than 90% of the carbon footprint of shampoo, conditioner and other hair products is linked to heating water when washing your hair.25,26 The remaining percentage is mostly associated with packaging.
Jewellery production is quite resource-intensive. For instance, it is estimated that mining for just one gold ring produces about 20 tons of mine waste – which is as heavy as 29 UK telephone booths.27
Let's look at the carbon emissions linked to mining and refining of precious metals:28,29
The carbon footprint of jewellery made of recycled materials is significantly lower:
But what is the carbon footprint of your tiny, lighter jewellery that you are buying as gifts for Christmas?29
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So, it is quite visible that silver has the lowest carbon footprint when compared to other precious metals. However, the more sustainable Christmas gift is recycled jewellery.
Did you know that 7% of gold in circulation around the world is found in electronic devices?30 About 30 to 40% of the world's demand for precious metals could be met by urban mining – extracting raw materials from spent products and waste.31,32
And what about the ethical aspect of jewellery production? Most metals and minerals used in jewellery production come from the poorest regions in the world where wages below the living or even minimum wage are the norm.33 Before the jewellery reaches the shelves in the store, they pass through numerous hands of workers. Most of the time, this process is untraceable. Therefore, it is truly difficult to know how ethical jewellery production is.
Fortunately, thanks to our 5 values, you’ll have more insight into which jewellery sellers treat their workers fairly. Some of them even started their own social impact initiatives in order to help women to become more independent or provide shelters to underprivileged children in developing countries. Their jewellery collection is wonderful to look at – and even more wonderful to wear! Check the collection and just judge it for yourself: more sustainable rings, ethical earrings and necklaces made of recycled gold or silver.
In the UK, about 81% of people regularly use candles and diffusers in their homes.38 So, what's the deal with this very popular Christmas gift?
Well, most of the time, candles are made with paraffin.39 It is a byproduct of petroleum refinement, in other words, it is made from fossil fuels. These candles release toxic chemicals and carcinogenic materials when burning.40
Did you know that burning one paraffin candle for one hour releases about 10 grams of CO2 emissions?41 So, what is a better alternative to paraffin candles? Candles made with soy wax!
Soy wax candles are carbon-neutral because the CO2 emissions have already been taken from the atmosphere to produce the wax.42 Candles with beeswax are also carbon-neutral but beeswax is not at all animal-friendly.
A tip: when buying candles as Christmas gifts, watch out for the wicks too. Cotton wicks are usually dipped in paraffin wax or zinc and other chemicals in order for the candle to light quicker. To make sure this is not the case, look for soy wax candles with organic cotton wicks or wood wicks. On top of that, the scented oil used in a candle should be free of parabens and phthalates to avoid chemicals being released into the air.
One woollen blanket is estimated to take 1.700 litres of water to manufacture and be responsible for about 97,6 kilograms of CO2-eq emissions. It would take more than one and a half trees grown for 10 years to capture this amount of emissions.12,13
As mentioned before, wool, right after silk, scores the highest among other fabrics when it comes to the harmful impact on our environment.10 This is mainly due to its land use, climate, ecotoxicity and use of raw materials.
But if we take into consideration the ethical aspect of wool, it is even worse – sheep experience stress and horrific pain, for instance, during mulesing. There are many more reasons why you should stay away from Christmas gifts made of wool.
A study comparing the life cycle assessment of three toys, a stuffed dog without a battery, a stuffed dog with a battery and a plastic toy, and their global warming potential, shed light on the environmental impact of toys.44 As toys are the fourth most popular Christmas gift in the UK, we looked at the impact they have on our environment.1
The global warming potential is (per kilogram substance):44
However, the exact environmental impact of the toy you are planning to buy depends on the materials it is made of.
Moreover, a battery in a toy makes it less environmentally friendly because each replacement of the battery adds about 48 grams of CO2-eq emissions.
So, what are the takeaways that you should keep in mind when buying toys as a Christmas gift? Buying second-hand toys and extending their life cycle by passing them down to other family members or friends is recommended. The longer the toys are used, the better for the environment.
Did you know that approximately £42 million of unwanted Christmas gifts end up in a landfill each year?47 So, giving gift cards might be a smarter plan this year.
Make sure that the gift card you are buying will be used to purchase ethically made, vegan and more sustainable gifts. You can choose one of your favourite fair and more sustainable brands and check whether they offer gift cards.
Or, to save time and expand their options, you could just choose to give Shop Like You Give a Damn gift cards. Then, you will know for sure that the gift card will be used for fair, vegan and more sustainable purchases – and there are more than 18.000 products to choose from!
Looking at all the gifts wrapped in green and red wrapping paper with festive patterns under the Christmas tree is undoubtedly a beautiful sight. But once the enormous amount of wrapping paper needs to be thrown away, looking at all the waste might hurt your eco-conscious heart.
In the UK, 365.470 kilometres of wrapping paper and 40 million rolls of sticky tape are used every year.47 This huge amount of wrapping paper could actually go around the Earth more than 9 times! This tells us that the average household gets through 4 rolls of wrapping paper and one and a half rolls of sticky tape.
Is there a way to still have that beautiful view of wrapped gifts under your Christmas tree and produce way less waste? Absolutely.
Hopefully, this deep-dive into the impacts of Christmas gifts helped you to make ethical and more sustainable choices this year. Just remember, shop with compassion. No more than you need. And always vegan, fair and as sustainably as possible.
Have the most wonderful and enjoyable holidays, everyone!
'A carbon dioxide equivalent or CO2 equivalent, abbreviated as CO2-eq is a metric measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases (GHG) on the basis of their global-warming potential (GWP), by converting amounts of other gases to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide with the same global warming potential.'47
A lot of data used in this article are global averages (for instance, in case products made from cotton). The reader should be mindful of the fact that there are significant global differences in the way fibres are grown and that their environmental impact can therefore be different.56
Cotton Products: The calculations of cotton pyjamas were based on the fact that 1 kilogram of cotton is used to produce one T-shirt and one pair of jeans.2,5 Therefore, for a cotton pyjama set, 1 kilogram of cotton was used as the estimate. The calculations for one pair of cotton socks was based on the weight of 25 grams for one pair of cotton socks.
Woollen items: It was estimated that one jumper is made of 750 grams of wool11, one woollen hat is made of 150 grams of wool48,49, one woollen scarf of regular size is made of 300 grams of wool48,50, one woollen blanket is made of 3,4 kilograms of wool48,51 and one pair of woollen socks is made of 200 grams of wool.48,52 For the CO2-eq emissions, an economic allocation was used.12 For the water usage, the process from raising the sheep to cleaning the fibre was taken into account.13
Leather gloves: It was estimated that one pair of leather gloves uses 2 A4 (0,13m2) of leather. The impact of leather gloves took into consideration six stages of its life-cycle, namely, slaughtering, hide preservation, tanning and finishing, waste management, transportation and electricity production.14
Jewellery products: The weight estimation of heart-shaped earrings made of silver is 0,65 grams, of gold is 0,82 grams, of platinum is 1,29 grams. The weight estimation of a fine necklace made of silver is 2,26 grams, of gold is 2,85 grams, of platinum is 4,48 grams. The weight estimation of a ring made of silver is 1,87 grams, of gold is 2,8 grams, of platinum is 4,01 grams.29
These tools and statistics were used: Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator was used53, Water usage in the UK54, water drank per day55.
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