This article was contributed in support of Rainforest Alliance.

It’s getting colder (though not as cold as it should be) and the days are shorter. The holidays are here, and with it an opportunity to have a more environmentally-friendly celebration. Make your holidays joyous in spirit and gentle on the environment. Here are some tips from the Rainforest Alliance for a green, clean holiday season.

1. Buy an Actual Tree 

Image: Gojman via Flickr

In an article about how to reduce your personal carbon footprint over the holidays, it may seem counterintuitive to talk about Christmas trees. After all, trees are a carbon sink and provide a ton of other benefits, from clean air to water filtration. But keep in mind that Christmas trees are not cut down from virgin forests. Christmas trees grown on farms, just like other crops—and while they grow on the tree farm, they still do provide those essential carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services. Like other crops, you have a choice about what kind of tree you purchase.

Organic, more sustainable options exist. Check this list of organic and low-pesticide trees to find a vendor near you.

But what about fake Christmas trees, you ask? Fake Christmas trees are made from plastic and often manufactured in China. This comes with a bevy of environmental and human health problems, from the pollution that springs from the production of the plastic, steel, and brackets in the tree, to the emissions generated from shipping it from another country, to the packaging and resources required to store the tree. Fake Christmas trees are not recyclable, and often end up in landfills.

A 2009 report from the Montreal-based consulting firm Ellipsos compared resource use and emissions generated from the production of natural trees versus fake trees. The report notes that while a fake tree can be reused, you would have to reuse the fake tree for twenty years before it could be considered greener than a real tree.

2. Recycle or Compost Your Christmas Tree

Unlike fake Christmas trees, real trees are recyclable or compostable. Many municipalities offer recycling programs within the first two weeks of the New Year—so it’s important to be timely about your recycling. On the other hand, trees in more rural communities are often taken to landfills, if you’re not careful to take the right steps. Check this handy recycling tool to see how you can recycle a tree in your town. Be sure to remove all the decorations before you put it out on the curb—if your tree still has ornaments, or if it’s “flocked” (sprayed white for a more wintery feel), it will almost certainly go to a landfill.

Another option is composting. If you already have a compost heap, your tree will have a happy home. If not, tree branches provide a great base layer for composting. In both cases, chop the tree into smaller, more manageable sections, and add to your compost bin. Some cities, like New York, will convert your tree to mulch for free—great for the compost heap or for your garden later in the year.

3. Do Holiday Lights Right

Image: Taryn via Flickr

Another area of consumption during the holidays is festive holiday lights. They’re beautiful and they make our homes feel cozy, but they use 6.6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year—according to the Center for Global Development, that’s enough to power 14 million refrigerators. There are two main ways to reduce your energy use while using holiday lights: replacing your traditional lights with LED lights, and using a timer to reduce the amount of time the lights are on.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, LED lights are have a longer lifespan and consume 70% less energy than conventional incandescent light strands. It costs $0.27 to light a 6-foot tree for 12 hours a day for 40 days with LEDs, compared to $10 for incandescent lights. They’re also much less likely to burn out than incandescent lights. Another added benefit to LED lights—they radiate less heat than incandescent lights, making your tree less of a fire hazard.

Using a timer will help reduce and regulate the amount of time your lights are on. You can find them at almost any store that sells holiday decorations, but your best bet is home improvement stores.

4. Carbon Offsets For Holiday Travel

Image: Thomas Enderlin

The days before and after Christmas and New Years are some of the busiest travel days of the year. We’re all hopping on planes, trains, and buses to be with faraway loved ones for the holidays. But greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are a big contributor to global warming and climate change, and are the second-largest source of emissions in the U.S.

If you do travel for the holidays, consider offsetting the emissions with carbon offsets. How does it work? In very basic terms, a carbon offset project is one that offers services to sequester carbon—examples include reforestation and agroforestry projects. The money from carbon offsets supports the project and incentivizes local people to keep the forests intact. In some cases, carbon offsets also represent a new way for communities to make money. It’s important to make sure your well-intended funds actually go to these communities and forests. Validated carbon projects have been audited by independent third-parties to ensure high-quality, verifiable, real carbon offsets.

For more info about validated carbon offset projects, check out this explainer and this list of projects validated by the Rainforest Alliance.

5. A More Earth-Friendly Holiday Table

Image: Caroline Phelps via Flickr

The leading cause of deforestation, and another huge source of greenhouse gas emissions, is agriculture. Eighty percent of deforestation comes from clearing forest for agriculture. This releases approximately 1.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases each year. Most of this deforestation occurs in the tropics, but the impact of these emissions affects everyone.

The choices you make when you’re at the grocery store can help you reduce your personal agricultural carbon footprint. Meat intake is a good place to start—just by reducing your meat consumption could help reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by about one-third. At your holiday dinner table, this translates to a greater number of vegetable- or grain-based dishes, while giving meat a smaller role. Look for vegetables that are in season, and other goods that bear sustainable certification seals (coffee, chocolate, and tea, for example).

6. Smile and Avoid Two-Day Shipping

Image: Rainforest Alliance

Taking care of your holiday shopping online is a relatively stress-free way to take care of gifts. Click, click, done! But when purchasing goods online, consider the difference in shipping methods. One- or two-day shipping is extremely convenient, but the emissions from such rapid shipment methods tend to be extreme in comparison to slower methods. One-day shipping usually means air freight, and airplanes are a big source of carbon emissions—the U.S. aviation industry is responsible for 11% of domestic transportation-related emissions. This excellent column from Grist explains the logistics of opting for a slower shipping time like this:  

“If the shipper has more freedom in scheduling deliveries, it can choose to hold back a delivery truck until it’s crammed full rather than send it out half-empty. And if your package doesn’t have to reach you by any particular time, the company can design the most efficient delivery route to your neighborhood.”

The takeaway: The more time you give a company to fill your order, the more efficient they can be with delivery.

Finally, if you choose to buy gifts online, this browser plugin can help you find more sustainable alternatives. And if you use Amazon, consider using Amazon Smile—Amazon will donate 0.5% of the price of eligible purchases to the charitable organization of your choice.

7. Instead of Gifts, Donate

Image: Noah Jackson

One of the best ways to be environmentally friendly is to buy and use less stuff. At a time where our climate future is less than certain, consider asking your mom to donate to a cause you believe in, rather than give you another sweater you’ll never wear. Set up a monthly donation to a cause you know is near and dear to a loved one’s heart, in their name. Many organizations run matching programs at this time of year, doubling (or potentially tripling) the impact of a donation.


Defend the Planet

7 Tips For a Cleaner, Greener Holiday