October 22, 2014

Real or Fake Christmas Trees: What’s the Greener Choice?

Few things kindle the holiday spirit in a store or business like a decorated tree. But if you’re an eco-minded business owner, you might wonder: What’s the greener option – real or fake? The answer is not very clear-cut.

Christmas Tree Farm

On one hand, fake trees are typically produced in factories in Asia and usually contain oil-derived, pollution-causing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. Plus, fake trees may contain unsafe levels of lead, and will ultimately end up in landfills, since they’re not biodegradable. Retailers and distributors use lots of fuel transporting them thousands of miles over the ocean and then on trucks to the stores where they’re bought.

On the other hand, once you factor in all the water, pesticides and energy used to grow, chop down and transport real trees from tree farms, they aren’t exactly so eco-friendly either. Plus, you have to get a real tree every year, so all of that energy and water use multiplies over the years. (Real trees, do, however, absorb carbon dioxide and can be recycled into wood chips.)

There’s plenty of debate over which is the greener choice: The National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group for tree growers, argues – naturally — that real trees are better because they are all natural. The American Christmas Tree Association – a trade group of artificial tree makers – argues just the opposite. They contend that fake trees, when used for many years, have an overall lower carbon footprint.

What it generally comes down to is this: Where does your tree come from, and how is it grown or made? How many years will you be using the fake tree? If you will use a fake tree for more than a decade, it may be the greener solution since you won’t have to replace it year after year. If you already own a fake tree, you might as well keep using it – the environmental toll has already been taken.

Of course, there are other considerations to the tree decision beyond the environmental. Real trees become a fire hazard if they dry out, so you may not be able to keep a real tree up as long as a fake tree.  Real trees will generally be more expensive and time-consuming to set up, take care of and discard than fake ones that you can easily store in the closet or basement.

If you do decide a fake tree is the better option, buy one secondhand. (There are lots for sale on Craigslist.) As this DailyGreen article notes, there are also U.S.-made holiday trees that use recycled PVC and therefore aren’t so environmentally detrimental.

If you opt for a real tree, look for local tree farms that use sustainable or organic growing practices, such as “no spray” (meaning no pesticides). LocalHarvest.org lets you search for ones in your area by city or ZIP code.

7 Comments ▼

Kelly Spors


Kelly Spors Kelly Spors is a former small-business and entrepreneurship reporter and blogger for The Wall Street Journal who has also written for Yahoo!, Entrepreneur, NFIB's MyBusiness magazine and The New York Times. Kelly is now a freelance editor and writer based in Minneapolis and has previously managed communications for an environmental non-profit that helps businesses find ways to be greener.

7 Reactions

  1. Our family has used live trees that we can replant in our yard or give as a gift. The act of planting a gift tree creates another chapter to the giving season and begs for discussion through the years as you are amazed by it’s growth.

  2. It is a no brainer. The real tree is the natural choice. Tree farm grown trees are renewable and sustainable. Fake trees have to be transported thousands of miles from China factories to the US. Talk about energy consumption! Also, a fake tree does not decompose in a land fill. Real trees are normally chipped after the season and used to mulch park trails. To me, there is nothing like the thrill of starting the Christmas season by going to a farm with my family and searching for the perfect tree. The fragrance, the music, the happy squeals of the children cannot be replaced by going into the basement and retrieving the plastic fake.

  3. Who doesn’t love a real tree! Unfortunately live trees are not the most eco-friendly choice either unless you buy one locally grown like Cathrine does. Most box stores buy their trees from farms hundred or thousands of miles away and they are trucked great distances. The trees are sheared into shape and sprayed with pesticides.

    There a few options out there for those who don’t want either a large live tree or an artifical trees. Minature potted evergreens are nice because they can be replanted or simply maintained as house or outdoor plants.

    Wooden or metal artistic trees are the trend. A great new small business out of New Hampshire makes pretty cool wooden trees. festivetree.com

    Bottom line is, I think people want options when it comes to holiday decorating and the Christmas market is great opportunity for entrepreneurs in general to tap into.

  4. @Kelly I agree with most of what you have to say about real is better than fake, but if you have a fake tree go ahead and keep it. But a used, fake tree from Craig’s List…EWWW!

    I really like your last 2 paragraphs. Do you think you could post them as a comment on my blog about the same subject? http://valleycresttakeson.com/watermanagement/trends/how-green-is-your-yule-tree/

    Thanks!

  5. Kelly,

    Enjoyed your article on real or fake christmas trees, had to post it on our facebook page. Would love to use it on our blog, let me know.

    Sheila

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