While the U.S. is already considered a consumerist country, the holiday season exacerbates this reputation during the months of November and December. Over the past 20 years, holiday spending in the U.S. has more than doubled, with spending in 2022 projected to be more than $940 billion.
This kind of consumption can have adverse effects on the environment and society. Consumerism — particularly disproportionate use and spending — contributes to climate change and wealth inequality, according to the United Nations.
Carbon-heavy, wasteful production systems draw global resources away from the developing world and place disproportionate impacts on the environment. The U.S. is largely responsible for this trend. According to World Population Review, the U.S. was the second-largest contributor of greenhouse gases in 2020, producing 12.6% of global emissions.
Though consumerism is a global issue, the U.S. has a particular history of consumption that has influenced spending patterns worldwide. Starting during World War II, the American government explicitly promoted domestic spending to help stimulate the economy.
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Stemming from that era was the onset of the consumer’s republic — a cultural phenomenon that linked patriotism with spending. Initially, much of this spending was home-related and domestic, though it evolved when corporations recognized an opportunity to reach eager consumers.
Mass consumption evolved to reflect the results of targeted marketing campaigns, leading to an even more deeply materialistic American culture, according to NPR. Today, the global economy is strongly connected to the consumption habits Americans have developed over time.
To experience the idealized image of comfortable Americans, Europeans adopted many of the same consumption habits in a process called Americanization. The spread of these spending habits normalized consumerism, leading to the commodification of winter holidays.
In essence, gift-giving and consumption have become central to the winter season. A capitalist society has allowed corporations to take advantage of a consumerist culture under the guise of nostalgia and generosity. At best, businesses are encouraging mass consumption. At worst, they are preying on consumers through the bastardization of holiday traditions.
Corporations use manipulative psychological tactics during the holiday season to encourage consumers to spend. One example is the scarcity principle, which by telling customers that a good is in low supply, convinces them to buy before much thoughtful consideration. This tactic is particularly effective as people aim to finish holiday shopping on a deadline.
Another particularly controversial strategy involves marketing to children. The government imposes regulations on how businesses are allowed to interact with minors, but the impacts of advertising still reach children.
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Knowing that children have difficulty discerning promotional content, companies create appealing advertisements that encourage children to engage with a capitalist, consumer culture. For many children, the holidays are about receiving gifts, and marketing campaigns reinforce this notion for minors early in their lives.
The volume of consumption that wintertime marketing encourages has profound impacts on the planet and global inequality.
For example, the trash produced between Thanksgiving and Christmas contributes to 1 million extra tons of waste per week, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation. And about $500 billion worth of items are bought and returned. Many of those returns are then thrown away by retailers.
Of course, reversing the deeply embedded influence of capitalism in the holiday season is a hefty undertaking. Ethical consumption under a capitalist system is difficult, but there are choices individuals can make to reduce their carbon footprint and their impact on global inequality.
Not buying gifts at all — while perhaps a somewhat extreme measure — is an option. But even reducing the number of things you buy can have an effect. According to Deloitte’s Holiday Retail Survey, the average number of gifts people plan to buy has reduced by more than 40% since 2021.
This can help reduce the number of items that end up in landfills but also help individual financial interests as prices remain high. Concern about inflation was another trend in the Deloitte survey and a major motivating factor for reducing holiday spending.
Another measure to reduce environmental impacts during the holiday season is to use less disposable wrapping. Consumers can opt for reusable options, like cloth bags, or to not use gift wrapping at all. Purchasing services or other gifts that do not involve tangible items could be a good solution to this issue.
Food is one of the largest contributors to individual carbon footprints, and waste significantly increases during the holiday season. Preparing holiday meals that rely less on meat and dairy as well as being careful to not overbuy can have major benefits for the environment.
Perhaps the most impactful change shoppers can make this year is to buy locally. According to Earth.Org, online shopping can harm the environment through excessive packaging and increased carbon emissions. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, people have become accustomed to the convenience of online shopping. But buying from sustainable producers can dramatically reduce environmental impacts and support local businesses.
The holidays can be a great time to reconnect with loved ones, and recentering our celebrations to focus less on items can create a more meaningful experience and a healthier planet. Resisting a consumerist culture is a challenge, but everyone can take steps to have a more sustainable holiday season.
Celia Hiorns ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.