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How Green is your Christmas Tree?

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LONDON, December 21, 2012 /PRNewswire/ --

Trucost research finds that artificial Christmas trees are six to ten times more environmentally costly than real Christmas trees.

The time has come to buy your Christmas tree, but for the conscientious shopper which is better; artificial or natural?  As it turns out the answer is not straightforward; depending largely on how long you own your artificial tree.

Using Trucost analysis, the environmental costs of natural and artificial Christmas trees were determined and screened for materiality. Greenhouse gases and water were found to be material, and further calculations using more product specific factors were made.

According to the research, artificial trees have an impact between 6 and 10 times higher than that of a natural tree - but then you may have many natural trees throughout the lifetime of a single artificial one. The only accurate way to compare is to think of the comparison in terms of impact per year - a natural tree will be replaced each year and is therefore the same regardless, while an artificial tree will have a progressively lower impact for each year you use it.

Download infographic

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Of course, comparisons here are based on 'typical' tree impacts, with real life products produced under good or bad practice, for both type of tree.  Some artificial trees have lesser impacts due to highly efficient and better managed production plants, use of recycled materials and good practice in emission and waste management. Likewise, operations in tree farms vary and may include harvesting with helicopters, cold storage and use of other energy consuming equipment which will influence the impact realised. 

Nurseries may or may not need to be irrigated artificially (depending on local weather), and aggressive techniques may be utilised to remove pests. The data used for the costings in this example have presumed minimal irrigation of seedlings for the first 3-4 years of the tree's life only, and rainfall irrigation following this. 

Impacts of natural Christmas trees vary considerably depending on the species, geography, farming/cultivation methods, soil type and many other variables. All trees have a positive carbon intake during their growth, with carbon sequestration removing carbon from the atmosphere and 'storing' it.  This is highly variable, however, and depends on factors such as type of tree, age, location and soil type. 

More important than purchasing patterns is perhaps the consumer use phase - notably, how long the tree will be kept for, and what will happen to it once it is no longer needed. Durable, long life artificial trees which are reused for many years (at minimum 8), can present a similar environmental cost to natural trees which are well managed at end of life. 

Here are some simple suggestions to minimise the impact of your tree;

  • If buying natural, why not consider a living, re-plantable Christmas tree? Although not yet widespread, these trees can be used year after year, with the option of either keeping in your own garden throughout the year, or returning to the supplier after 'renting' for the Christmas period.
  • When buying your tree, whether artificial or natural, try to find a local supplier to reduce the distance travelled to collect it, and where possible, buy your tree when you are making a trip anyway, rather than going out especially to buy it!
  • Buy domestic trees where possible (this is more difficult in the UK than USA, although some trees are still imported in the latter).
  • If you buy artificial, keep it for as long as you can!  When you no longer need it, try and send it for reuse, give to charity or pass on to someone else who may be able to use it - the impacts associated with the tree are lessened the longer it is used for

Editor's notes

Download infographic: How green is your Christmas tree?

Caveats and assumptions

Excluded from calculations

  • Retail impacts
  • Lights and decorations
  • All resources outside of GHG, emissions to air, and water

Variations in methodology

  • Carbon sequestration
  • EOL inclusions (inconsistency with methane capture at landfill, % efficiency of incineration energy capture)
  • Life span of average artificial tree
  • Type (species) of tree - 'average' or 'most common' data


  • 6.5-7 foot tree
  • USA/Canadian natural trees
  • Artificial tree produced in China and shipped by sea
  • Calculations are based on U.S. data (the UK imports a lot more natural trees than the US, so transportation would probably be greater, reducing number of years an artificial would require for similar impacts
  • Natural trees are assumed to be sent to landfill or incineration in equal part

About Trucost

Trucost has been helping companies, investors, governments, academics and thought leaders to understand the economic consequences of natural capital dependency for over 12 years. Our world leading data and insight enables our clients to identify natural capital dependency across companies, products, supply chains and investments; manage risk from volatile commodity prices and increasing environmental costs; and ultimately build more sustainable business models and brands. Key to our approach is that we not only quantify natural capital dependency, we also put a price on it, helping our clients understand environmental risk in business terms. It isn't "all about carbon"; it's about water; land use; waste and pollutants. It's about which raw materials are used and where they are sourced, from energy and water to metals, minerals and agricultural products. And it's about how those materials are extracted, processed and distributed.

Press contact:
Sarah Wainwright


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