Hey folks, Merry Christmas! In today’s Finshots, we talk about how the US Christmas tree industry is thriving yet ailing.

But here's a quick side note before we begin. We're taking a short holiday break over the next week. So, you won’t have any new stories from us for a few days. We’ll resume publishing in the New Year. And until then, we’ll mail you some of our best articles from 2023. We hope it makes up for our brief absence. With that out of the way, let's dive into today's story.

The Story

Christmas is about Santa Claus, stuffed stockings, gingerbread, winter and hot cocoa, plum cake, and Christmas trees decorated with bells, lights, and candy canes.

But it wasn’t always like this. Much before the 19th century, Christmas trees weren’t even a popular symbol of the celebration. Germans would just bring home some pine-like trees and set them up undecorated. Many countries believed that evergreen trees kept evil spirits and illness away. So maybe Germans believed that too? Well, we don’t really know. But soon, they began decorating these trees with apples, golden nuts, and red paper strips.

German settlers living in Pennsylvania, America may have picked this up and adopted the practice. However, the Americans believed that it was an odd tradition.

It was only in 1846, that an illustrated news magazine called The Illustrated London News published a sketch of Queen Victoria, her husband Prince Albert, and their children around a Christmas tree. And since the royal family was pretty popular amongst its subjects, the Christmas tree soon became a fashion icon ― not just in Britain but even among folks along America’s eastern coast who were believed to be quite fashion-conscious.

Today, all of the US’ 50 states grow Christmas trees in tree farms. And Oregon alone supplies over 4 million trees a year or nearly one-third of the trees sold in the country. Now outside of the US, Denmark and Germany have an upper hand in global Christmas tree production and exports too.

But there’s a reason why we want to talk about the US alone. A couple of days ago, CNN reported that US’ Christmas tree farms and supplies are shrinking and that the industry is being run over by artificial Christmas trees. Why’s that happening, you ask?

You see, real Christmas trees take at least 7-10 years to grow or become mature enough to be sold commercially. So when the financial crisis of 2008 blew up the US economy, farmers couldn’t afford to plant too many trees. This led to a Christmas tree shortage when it was time to harvest about 8 years later. And prices shot up. It was also the time when climate change brought in drought in many parts of the US, killing most of the seedlings the farmers planted. So people started switching to artificial trees. By 2018, 82% of the roughly 95 million American households with Christmas trees opted for artificial ones.

Oregon’s tree farms began to shrink as well. Between 2005 and 2020 the number of tree farms crashed by 70%. Climate change meant that the cost of planting Christmas trees rose. Farmers were ageing too. And all of this affected tree outputs.

Come the pandemic, everyone was locked up in their homes. The demand for Christmas trees shot up tremendously. Supply chain chokeholds meant that enough artificial trees couldn’t be imported to meet consumer demand. So real trees which were already in short supply had to be harvested early for sale. These shortages spilt over to the next few years too and are blamed for pricy Christmas trees even in 2023.

But as supply chain issues started to clear up, it was a quick recovery for the artificial Christmas tree industry. People preferred to buy them not just because of the short supply of the real ones but also because they were easier to handle. Just think about it. No long rides to Christmas tree farms. No chopping bulky trees and transporting them home. And the best part? No worrying about how to dispose of an extra tall colossal tree.

Besides, imagine how much money people saved when they bought one faux tree for a couple of years versus buying a new real one every year. When The New York Times spoke to a content creator and Christmas tree enthusiast about it, she said

Our real Christmas tree that was six or seven feet was $300, which would be an expensive annual tradition,

Our fake one was $500, and then we get to put it in storage for next year.

But this convenience could be problematic for the real Christmas tree industry as well as the environment. For one, these artificial trees are imported from China. Last year China shipped out almost $10 billion worth of Christmas trees and decorations globally. And the US was its biggest customer. Over 80% of US’ trees come from China. So it makes lives difficult for the already struggling tree farmers.

Another thing is environmental damage. You see, artificial trees are made from toxic materials including plastic that eventually end up in landfills. The only way to reduce that damage is to use the tree for at least a decade or two.

On the flip side, real Christmas trees not just absorb carbon as they grow on farms, but also emit less carbon dioxide when disposed of. Now, if you think that cutting down real trees would contribute to deforestation, here’s the thing. Christmas trees are a crop in the US. So they’re meant to be harvested and replanted.

The BBC suggests that

a 2m-tall (6.6ft) Christmas tree burnt after use emits only 3.5kg carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) – roughly 0.2% of the emissions from a return flight from London to New York. A[n artificial] tree of the same size that ends up in landfill has a carbon footprint of 16kg of CO2e – equivalent to 1% of that return flight, or roughly two hamburgers.

That’s not it, real trees if harvested close to the ground with a couple of roots intact can actually be replanted outside homes to be reused.

But would people care much for it?

Well, in 2018 Vox published an article that suggested that millennials, or people born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s were keeping the real Christmas tree tradition alive for sustainability. But as shoppers age, is hope dying for the real Christmas tree industry?

We hope not. Until then…

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