holiday shopping

How Holiday Shopping Leads to Debt, Pollution, and Discontent

Gift-giving and holiday shopping have always been big parts of what makes Christmas so exciting—especially for kids. Many of us have fond childhood memories of flipping through toy catalogs and eagerly circling the things we wanted, writing to Santa, and even telling little white lies about how good we’d been. When we were kids the gifts were Christmas!

A lot has changed since those good ole days. For instance, you now know that Santa isn’t real. But what if I also told you that those gifts we spend so many months campaigning for as kids (and shopping for as adults) add up to crushing debt and stunning pollution, and they don’t even make us all that happy, either?

Don’t worry—there is a happy ending to this Christmas story! But first, let’s dig into why Christmas gifts can be so problematic.

The Excess of Holiday Shopping

Americans spent an estimated total of $830 billion on Christmas gifts in 2015, a little over $800 each. That’s a hefty chunk of change! We don’t just have this cash lying around, either. Many of us end up going into debt to cover the costs of a picture-perfect holiday, buying decorations, cards, and, yes, gifts.

The impact of this spending is hard to understate. Christmas shopping makes up almost 20% of all retail sales revenue, and retailers rely heavily on Christmas spending to bump up their yearly profits. But holiday shopping also takes a large chunk out of budgets; it is one of the main reasons that credit counseling centers typically report a spike in calls during January and February as credit card bills come rolling in.

It’s not just our finances that take a hit with this holiday shopping spree. In 2006, The Independent revealed that gift givers will use around 32 square miles of wrapping paper—that’s more than enough to cover the entire island of Manhattan! Most of the paper gets thrown out or burned. Add that to the 125,000 tons of plastic packaging that comes along with these prettily wrapped gifts, and you can see why environmentalists might start sweating as Christmas approaches.

The toll of this excess isn’t entirely surprising, especially for those of us with children. Christmas morning with kids usually involves blearily sipping coffee while gazing in dismay at the piles of ripped wrapping paper and toy packaging that have swallowed the living room. Despite the uneasy feeling of excess that each year’s Christmas carnage inspires, it can still feel almost impossible to find an alternative.

The Psychology behind a Waste-Free Holiday

Skipping the gifts altogether seems just a little too “Grinchy” for even the most die-hard environmentalists. The entirety of modern Christmas celebrations is centered on exchanging gifts. We’ve been sold for years and happily bought into the concept of gifts bringing joy to our loved ones. Surprisingly, however, science is beginning to prove that getting new things doesn’t make us as happy as we think it does.

Evidence is mounting that possessions bring us far less joy and happiness than experiences do. One study by psychology professor Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University spanned over twenty years and revealed that possessions fall short of creating long-term happiness for three distinct reasons:

  1. We get used to new things. What was once desperately wanted soon becomes old news.
  2. Expectations keep getting higher. We aren’t ever content with enough; we’re always looking for more.
  3. No matter what we have, someone else has something better. Pressure to keep up means we never feel truly satisfied.

Contrast the temporary, shallow happiness derived from obtaining a new possession that we will soon take for granted with the long-term and deeply felt experience of learning a new skill, taking a class, or traveling. One sits on your shelf, the other helps you change and grow as a person. In addition, an experience doesn’t have to be wrapped, packaged, maintained, stored, or disposed of.

The holidays have become increasingly about what we buy rather than what we do. Let’s change that!

Wondering how to go about making the switch from a waste-filled holiday season to a joyously Green Christmas? Stayed tuned for Part II of this holiday spotlight on tips for waste-free celebrations and green gift suggestions for everyone on your list.

Madeleine Somerville is a writer, author, and blogger. Her first book All You Need Is Less was published in April 2014. Her writing has appeared in both print and online outlets, including The Guardian, Earth911, Yahoo!Shine, TreeHugger, and Alternet. She lives in Calgary, Canada with her four-year-old daughter and writes at