It’s that time of year when millions of families will be getting a real Christmas tree, or putting up their artificial tree, the symbol and centrepiece of the Holiday season.
For decades we have taken the necessity of the Christmas tree, and its easy availability, for granted. But with the impacts of the pandemic, and environmental concerns as to sustainability, its time to explore the true condition of the Christmas tree Supply Chain?
The History of the Christmas Tree
Personally, for most of my life we had real Christmas trees. We would go to a local lot and pick out the tree which appealed to us the most. After the season was over we would put the used tree out for the garbage men to pick up, on the presumption that it would be recycled.
But for the last few years we felt that the expense of the real trees, combined with the environmental impacts of cutting them down, made a shift to an artificial tree more practical. No more cutting down trees; no more annual expense.
Regardless of whether you prefer a real tree or an artificial one, it’s important to understand the history of this seasonal tradition.
According to history.com, “Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree.”
The Christmas tree was introduced in North America by Germans in the 17th and 18th centuries though adoption was not widespread until the 19th century. It was also popularized in England and the rest of Europe in the 19th century. And the trees were introduced in China and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Pickyourownchristmastree.org states that in 2019 over 26 million new trees were purchased in the U.S., and in 2017 over 21 million artificial trees were bought. Given that artificial trees are reused every year, for as much as 10 years, treetopia.com shares that 65% of U.S. households will display an artificial tree, where only 18% will have a real tree; the rest do not display a tree at all.
In Europe the demand is for over 50 million real trees per year.
Where do these trees, real and artificial, come from, and where do they go?
Fir, pine and spruce trees constitute the majority of Christmas trees. In the U.S. the majority of trees are grown in Oregon, followed by North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.
Most every state grows some number of Christmas trees with over 15,000 tree farms across the U.S. and over 350 million Christmas trees are growing on these farms at any point in time.
In Europe most of the real trees are grown in Germany, followed by Denmark, France, Belgium and Great Britain.
The vast majority of artificial trees, 80%, are manufactured in China for export worldwide.
Americans get 32% of their real trees from farms where they choose and cut their own trees. Otherwise they are purchased as pre-cut trees from stores and lots. In Europe trees are also sold in town squares at Christmas markets.
There are over 4000 tree recycling programs across the U.S. where they are typically turned in to mulch.
Artificial trees, while reused for many years, will eventually end up in a landfill, though some parts of them can be recycled (eg. metal) or repurposed.
Supply Issues in the Christmas Tree Supply Chain
The global Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted most every industry, and every commodity, in some fashion. And those disruptions persist and will certainly continue into 2022. So it’s natural to expect that the pandemic, and other factors, will impact the availability of both real and artificial Christmas trees.
Given that most of the artificial Christmas trees are made in China, and there are lengthy ocean shipping and receiving delays into the U.S. and Europe, it should be expected that the supply of these fake trees will be somewhat limited.
Forest fires, droughts and flooding have also impacted the normal growing season for real trees.
Shortages of truck drivers, and the associated trucking equipment, will also have some impact on the shipment of real trees.
The cost of trees in all cases will be affected by all of these factors, including higher shipping costs. Artificial tree pricing will be impacted by the increased costs of steel and plastics, as well as shipping, and could be higher by as much as 25%.
The bottom line message is that if you are looking for a real tree, or an artificial tree, get it as soon as possible. Contrained supply may constrict the availability of these holiday centrepieces.
The debate becomes whether it is a more environmentally friendly decision to buy a real Christmas tree or an artificial Christmas tree. Some will argue that cutting down a real tree contributes to deforestation and hurts the environment. On the other hand there are those who would argue that artificial trees are made of harmful plastics and are not recyclable at all.
What’s the right sustainability choice?
A real tree takes anywhere from 4 -15 years to grow. As the trees are harvested 1-3 replacement seedlings are planted to replenish the supply. Over 85 million new trees are replanted globally each year. Further there are over 4000 tree recycling programs across the U.S.
With dedicated tree farms and replanting and recycling programs in place it can be said that this is a renewable resource which does not harm the environment. A real tree generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions and these tree farms certainly generate oxygen for the atmosphere.
Artificial trees are made of PVC plastics and metal. They are very difficult to recycle. So the best opportunity to reduce the overall greenhouse impact and carbon footprint of artificial trees is to keep them for a long time, at least 8-10 years. Given that these trees are also largely manufactured in China, there are huge resources and costs associated with shipping them to their end markets.
Overall, I interpret that a real tree has the most beneficial impact on the environment. If you have an artificial tree your best decision is to take good care of it and to use it for as many years as possible to reduce the environmental impact.
The Future of the Christmas Tree Supply Chain
No Supply Chain has been untouched by the Coronavirus pandemic, even the Christmas Tree Supply Chain. That notwithstanding the demand for these trees, whether they be real or artificial, will continue unabated for a long, long time. They issue really comes down to one of supply.
So get your tree as quickly as possible for this Holiday season. You may not have the choice or selection that you would usually have, in either real or artificial trees. Getting any tree at all may be a better choice than having no tree at all.