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I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas

by: Stephen G. Henderson    3 December 2006

A tall, just-cut evergreen, its branches festooned with countless twinkling lights, and underneath are piles and piles of brightly wrapped presents. Could there be a more perfect image of the holiday season?

Well, yes. While over the next few weeks marketers and retailers will tempt us with ever greater numbers of things to buy, awareness is starting to dawn on the global perils of over-consumption. As a result, many say they are undergoing a consciousness-raising about Christmas (and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa) and are trying to find more Earth-friendly ways to celebrate the holidays.

Consider that, according to the latest Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund, the world's population is currently using 25 percent more resources each year than the Earth can produce. We're able to do this by spending "capital." Meaning, our reliance on resources like fossil fuels that have taken thousands, if not millions, of years to accumulate. In this season of merry-making, these inconvenient truths suggest that maybe it's better to conserve, than to give.

"It is wonderful for kids to have toys and books and lots of other things, but we must be more conscious of what goes into the manufacture of these presents," said Wendy Cooper, whose Baltimore-based company, Green Home Building Pro, advises on ways to incorporate practical "green" components into new construction and existing architecture.

"Gift-giving is an opportunity to be role models for our kids and friends, by finding presents that are meaningful and not just stuff," she continued. "I like to say that it's having less, but having better."

This new trend toward trying to make the holidays less materialistic is small, but growing, said Paul McRandle, a senior researcher at The Green Guide, an online newsletter that calls itself a "green living source for today's conscious consumer." McRandle acknowledges, though, that the season presents a unique problem, as even those who might attempt to be ecologically minded during the rest of the year may cut themselves some slack in December.

"There are those who don't want to deny their children, or who don't want to disappoint those who may not share their same environmental convictions," he said.

To raise awareness of ways to have a more eco-friendly holiday, The Green Guide asked actress Meryl Streep to be guest editor for its November/December issue. Here, Streep lists a variety of her favorite gift ideas that are all "socially responsible," meaning they're not made from petrochemicals, but instead use materials that are nontoxic, recycled or sustainably harvested such as organic cotton, hemp, or wood that is not taken from old-growth forests.

Other people working in this same field caution against this greener-than-thou approach. "The problem I have with the environmental movement is it's often a guilt trip, or even a morality play. If you drive an SUV, you are going to hell," said Josh Dorfman, who is host of a syndicated radio program called The Lazy Environmentalist, as well as founder of Vivavi, a line of sustainable furniture such as coffee tables made from bamboo.

"Most of us care about the earth, but we are all busy and a bit lazy," Dorfman continued. "I don't think there are perfect solutions, but there are solutions that are at least better."

So, consider negotiating a Christmas Compromise. Don't think of what's listed below as a series of rules; rather, these are a few ways you can have your holiday fruitcake and eat it, too.

Meryl makes merry

In The Green Guide, Streep recommends organic fresh produce, dried fruits, nuts, desserts, flowers and wine from Diamond Organics (; clothing made from hemp, which is widely grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers (sweetgrassfibers. com); and organic wool cardigan sweaters for men and women from L'Occitane, the Provencal company, has launched a line of organic lavender body lotion ( For Streep's full "Top Green Product Picks," go to

Earth-friendly games

Boys will be boys, and many parents can't resist their sons' desire for video games. If so, Paul McRandle suggested buying those that are less violent and encourage socially responsible thinking, such as Food Force, a game created by the United Nations, in which players act as aid workers and face the difficulties of delivering food to needy parts of the world ( There's also CO2FX, a Web-based multi-user educational game that explores the relationship of global warming to economic, political and science policy decisions (

Give non-tangible gifts

To cut down on environmental damage caused by excess packaging (both in petrochemicals used for plastic and styrofoam, and trees cut to make cardboard boxes), consider giving non-tangible gifts, recommended Wendy Cooper. It might be a voucher for a dinner out, a gift certificate for a massage, or tickets to a play or art exhibit.

Best of all, let your children choose where to make a charitable contribution in their name. "I have two nieces, 10 and 13, and they look forward to this process each year," said Cooper. "We all sit down together, consider the work of various organizations, and discuss the various pros and cons. They take it very seriously."

A current favorite of Cooper's is Heifer International (, through which needy families around the world receive training and animal gifts that help them become self-reliant.

A bum wrap

All those rolls of paper mean the felling of many, many trees. Ask yourself if the gift requires wrapping, or if a bit of ribbon or a card might not be just as pretty. If you feel you must wrap, by all means avoid glittery or reflective foil varieties (hugely polluting), and seek instead those made from recycled paper, or other earth-friendly materials such as recycled rags or banana fiber. Check out or

Light a soy candle

While everyone loves a candlelit table, most candles actually contain huge amounts of petrochemicals, making them harmful both to the larger environment, as well as to the air quality in your home. Consider buying candles made from soy, which are nontoxic, clean-burning and soot-free. Bonus: They are estimated to burn up to 30 percent longer than paraffin-based candles. Check out

Try a new menu

The Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Mass., recently stated that while the best way to ease global warming is to reduce fossil fuel consumption, the second is to eat less meat. "It takes 16 pounds of corn and soybeans to produce one pound of beef flesh," said Don Robertson. "It is a terribly inefficient way of eating."

How about making a meal, then, where it's all "trimmings," like vegetables, fruits and nuts? You might not even miss the pot roast.

"Our habits change so slowly, and traditions die hard. In order to even look at these suggestions, we have to say, 'Well, gee, maybe our ancestors were wrong," Robertson concluded. "Change won't occur overnight, but clearly moving in this direction is the only way to go."

In other words, this holiday season, try to begin considering that the Earth will only be evergreen if we treat it in ever greener ways.