Wishing you a sustainable Christmas and a green New Year

23 December 2020

2020 has been an unprecedented year for everyone around the world. This year has affected us all, but it is important to remember it has also impacted everyone uniquely.

Personally, my year has been crazy. I started my new job at Resource Futures just as the Coronavirus pandemic took hold of the UK in March; moving into my new house in a new city the day the first lockdown was announced, was an experience like no other. At a time when community is more important than ever, I was without one, and at a loss of ways to find my new sense of community in Bristol. It was with this feeling, and during my long summer furlough months, that I stumbled across the opportunity to become a Black & Green Ambassador.

After a slow summer, I was propelled into an Autumn and Winter during which my feet hardly touched the ground. The Black & Green Ambassador programme focusses on work in the intersection of climate and racial justice, as well as leading, connecting, and celebrating community action. It is amazing to be part of and has connected me to people and community that I would have otherwise never have met, especially during a pandemic.

As we crawl to the end of the year and prepare for a very different festive season, it can be hard to keep the environment and sustainability at the heart of choices, but a sustainable Christmas is possible, as is a green New Year.

A sustainable Christmas

Christmas means different things to different people. For some it is a religious celebration, for others it is a time for family and friends, and many do not celebrate this holiday, with Thanksgiving, Eid, Diwali, Hannukah, Kwanzaa or another celebration being the focal point of their year. All these celebrations have their own traditions centred on family, dance, food, and gifts. In my house, Christmas is not religious, it is time for our family to come together; the time between Christmas and New Year is filled with birthdays and we usually travel from house to house in celebration.

When thinking about a sustainable Christmas, three things come to mind:

  1. the gifts
  2. the tree
  3. the food

The key to a sustainable Christmas is moderation. During this season it is easy to fall into excess, and excess means waste! A sustainable Christmas is not one without joy and all the things you want; instead, it is about not stuffing yourself to the point of unbuttoning your trousers and navigating a sickly feeling for days after.

The gifts

Gift-giving is a big part of Christmas and many businesses rely on this season. However, by 2050, our world will be consuming as if it were three and annual waste generation is projected to increase by 70 percent! Buying new or unnecessary things is not the best thing for the environment. This is not me being a Grinch; but I do believe we should think a little differently about gifts.

In recent years, I have tended towards buying experiences as opposed to physical things; gifting my mum an afternoon tea, my brother a photography class, and other such things.

I have never been a person that buys my friends Christmas presents; we do birthdays, not Christmas. As my friends have moved around the world, we have taken to sending letters, and we always send a Christmas letter. I love this; I am always very excited to get post and keep the letters to read back on in years to come.

When it comes to my family, we send each other gift ideas. I know this might not be for everyone, but it takes out the wastefulness of gifts that you do not want or need, and that may end up on eBay, or worse, in the bin.

I also have friends that take part in a ‘Secret Santa’ between friends and family, again minimising the cost of Christmas both financially and environmentally. A final rule that some families I know put in place is ‘charity shop gifts only’, which is great for reducing the carbon footprint of products.

It is the small things like shopping local and making when you can – using paper not foil wrapping paper – that helps to make a sustainable festive season.

Afternoon tea

The tree

This is an age-old debate amongst environmentalists and the public alike. And there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. If you have a plastic tree – make the most of it, use it and use it and use it until it breaks, then repair it and use it some more.

However, I would not recommend rushing out and buying a new plastic tree. If you want a tree, the best choice from a carbon perspective is a locally grown real tree – making sure you dispose of it correctly (composting!).

I understand this is not possible for everyone. This year I bought a small potted tree and I am hoping to keep it alive for years to come. We will see how that goes.

Can you decorate trees you already have in your garden? Do you need a tree inside at all?

All of these are potential Christmas tree alternatives, depending on where you live, what you have access to, and what your Christmas traditions are.

local Christmas tree farm

The food

Now this a big one; food has a significant role in celebrations across the globe, cultures, and religions.

Christmas is great in a lot of ways; even as you are cooking your Christmas lunch/dinner thoughts may already be forming around what to do with the leftovers. Be it a sandwich, a stew, a pie, or something more adventurous.

The key again is not to be excessive. I am all for a treat, but when we are heading into the territory of four different puddings for four people, we may have gone too far.

When it comes to a sustainable Christmas, I think we can learn from history and other cultures. I realise this year our celebrations will be different to what we wanted, and it can be hard to think about being environmentally-friendly, but, though priorities have changed, there is still a climate and ecological emergency that needs our attention. Although this is not the end the year we wanted, why not still try, and do a little good.

Turkey sandwich

A green New Year

We are all rooting for 2021, wishing it to be better. I hope it will be, but a new year is not an automatic elixir to solve all ills. We are all going to have to work to build back better, and not let the gaps that the pandemic has exposed get bigger.

The Black & Green Ambassador programme has been an inspiration and has also motivated me to make small and big changes and actions in my personal life. When chatting with my other Ambassadors about New Year’s resolutions in preparation for our New Year’s Eve radio show on Ujima Radio at 10am, a few things became clear. Resolutions and change are hard, so try and build on things you are already doing in your life, may this be reducing plastic use, or eating more organic food. Do not wait until January 1st if you are already making changes; action them now.

Make sure it is a resolution that works for you. My fellow Ambassador Roy has a New Year’s resolution to turn on his new air source heat pump; my first reaction was ‘that is cheating!’ But the choice, expense, and dedication to retrofit your house is a big deal, so I will let him off.

For the Black & Green New Year’s Eve show I interviewed Alex Minshull, Sustainable City and Climate Change Manager at Bristol City Council, and asked him ‘if people in Bristol could have one resolution to help stop the climate and ecological emergency, what should it be?’ He rightly said, that it is impossible to say – everyone is in a different place, with different circumstances – what works for me will not work for you, for so many different reasons.

That said, if you are looking for inspiration on how you can make 2021 a greener year, check out Bristol Climate Hub. Here you can fill in a short questionnaire which then provides you with some ideas of changes you can make based on your lifestyle, the effort they entail, and how much impact they could have.

If those are not quite right either, here are my green New Year’s Resolutions; perhaps one of them works for you too, or inspires you to make your own greener choices. I am hoping that writing my resolutions in a blog and saying them out loud on the radio will hold to me to account, but feel free to get in touch with me throughout the year to check up on my progress

A resolution to repair

I plan to start with clothes and improve my sewing. I do not believe it is dramatic to say I am a victim of ‘fast fashion’. I have gotten better with age; now choosing to invest in fewer and more expensive items. But I still love clothes; putting together an outfit is creative process – thinking about colour, texture, and shape – it is an expression of me. I admit, I have and buy too many clothes, so I want to learn to make, repair, and alter. I do buy from charity shops, but having the ability to alter would make this so much easier.

I would love to incorporate repairing in other areas of my life too, as we all know, the convenience of simply buying a new version often gets the best of us. I want to make a more concerted effort to repair – ideally myself – but if not, by using local tradespeople.

Sewing clothes

A return to veganism

I am vegetarian and I was vegan for a year when I was studying at Edinburgh University. I am not going to tell you that veganism will solve all the world’s problems; I am very aware of the faults of veganism and the movement. If I had a small piece of land on which I could have chickens and rear a few cattle, I would no doubt be eating those eggs. But I do not, and given the poor health of our food systems, veganism is a step I can take right now to try and minimise the impact my food has on the planet.

I also love a challenge, and I think becoming vegan will push me to be more adventurous with what I cook. I also have a feeling that being vegan in Bristol in 2021 will be a lot easier than being vegan in Edinburgh in 2015.

Vegan food

Another year of ‘no fly’

By no real action of my own, on Saturday 9 January 2021, I will have had my first ‘no fly’ year since I was about 13 years old. Though this was not my choice, I will take the wins where I can. Now I have been forced into something I have been thinking about for a while, I want to see it through.

My plan is that, for Europe at least, I will continue not to fly. Train networks are great in continental Europe, so I do not doubt it is possible. The reality of this in a post-Brexit world however, I am not sure of. But given the new culture of remote working, I am hoping the travel time that would have otherwise made no flying impossible, can now be counted as work time.

That said, my best friend is getting married in South Korea in 2021, so if anyone can recommend a way to get to Seoul without flying, please get in touch.

Train station

Here’s to 2021

We are entering a new world, and the problems of 2020 are not just going to disappear. I am excited by the fact that the Green Agenda is front and centre for global recovery plans, and I have no doubt that 2021 is going to be a year like no other.

Olivia Sweeney is a Junior Consultant at Resource Futures as well as a Black & Green ambassador.