Acton Institute Powerblog

A ‘Green’ Christmas Tree

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Many of us have yet to finalize plans for our Christmas decorating this year. If you haven’t yet decided what kind of tree to put up, consider the truly environmentally-friendly choice: cutting down a live tree.

While that might sound counter-intuitive at first blush, the fact is that the alignment of consumer demand for live trees combines with the environmental interest in growing them to create a powerful alliance.

“Buying a real Christmas tree is the next ‘green decision’ the public can make,” said Mike Bondi, University of Oregon Environmental Science professor. “In fact, a real tree is the safest choice since the tree is helpful to the environment from the time it is planted right up to the recycling process.”

This isn’t your only ‘green’ option this year.

Industry trade groups are also touting live trees as the next “green” thing, including special labeling for trees grown in a particular way. Gayla Hansen, Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association president, says that when you buy a live tree, typically “you’re helping independently owned, family farms.” One way to ensure that there will be lots of evergreen trees grown around this country for years to come is to have a booming and consistent consumer demand for such trees.

This is a clear case of fiscal incentive combining with an environmental interest to create a synergy of economic and ecologic good. We have good reason to think, therefore, that economic and environmental concerns shouldn’t be viewed as polar opposites, but rather complementary aspects of the same basic issue.

A Norfolk Island Pine.

While a live tree is maturing, it takes in CO2 and produces oxygen, in addition to providing natural wildlife habitat. And when the Christmas season ends, trees can be easily mulched or composted (HT: The Evangelical Ecologist).

You might even choose to buy a tree that you can re-plant after its indoor use is finished. When I lived in Virginia where the climate was more temperate than here in Michigan, my mother and I often would reuse a Norfolk Island Pine (which admittedly sometimes looked like a Charlie Brown tree).

When there is reliable consumer demand for a product, there is additional incentive to motivate producers to have a sustainable source to meet that demand. That’s as true for Christmas trees as it is for African Blackwood (a preferred source for many woodwind instruments, including the bagpipe).

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • I have to say I put up my 35-year-old 6′ artificial tree in pride knowing it’s green as well. This old tree will one day sit in a dump, I’m sure, but by NOT buying a live tree, I’m reusing what’s already here… further saving myself from the guilt of using water during a conservation crisis in the SE. Further, live trees and supporting the family farm are not necessarily green… we have to think sustainable in a complex notion, not a black-and-white notion.

  • Ashley Sue,

    Owning an artificial tree myself, I can certainly see where you are coming from. I think the concerns about artificial trees are essentially what you point to, though: they take millennia to degrade in landfills. Even if you and I use an artificial tree for 50 years, that’s a brief moment in its lifespan.

  • Marcus

    I think it’s great your not throwing away your fake tree, but a real tree is a better choice for people who don’t already own one. Once you do throw that tree away it will break down into very harmful chemicals like dioxins, pthalates in additions to mercury and, often times, lead. If you buy a real tree, rest assured it has been absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen for an average of 5 years before it is harvested.
    And it is a black and white issue – fake trees = caustic chemicals in the manufacturing process, plus fuel to ship them from China, then a truck from the boat to the store. Real trees (usually from the Northwest) don’t need much watering (it rains alot), clean the watershed, and only use gas from the farm to the tree lot. When you do finally retire that fake tree, go green! Your grandkids will thank you.

  • I totally agree with this green approach, I was beginning to worry for our beautiful forests, that’s why I am only buying artificial trees for several years now. I think that things are going the right way now.

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