It’s that time of year when millions of families get a real Christmas tree or put up their artificial tree, the symbol and centerpiece of the holiday season.
For decades we have taken for granted the necessity of the Christmas tree and its ready availability. But with the impact of the pandemic and environmental sustainability concerns, is it time to examine the true state of the Christmas tree supply chain?
The Story of the Christmas Tree
Personally, we’ve had real Christmas trees for most of my life. We went to a local lot and chose the tree we liked the most. After the season, we made the used tree available for the garbage collectors to collect, assuming it would be recycled.
But in recent years we felt that the cost of the real trees combined with the environmental impact of felling made a switch to an artificial tree more practical. Cut down no more trees; no more annual costs.
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 beginning the Christmas tree tradition as we know it today 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, was the first to put lighted candles on a tree.”
The Christmas tree was introduced to North America by Germans in the 17th and 18th centuries, although adoption did not become widespread until the 19th century. It also became popular in England and the rest of Europe in the 19th century. And the trees were introduced to China and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Pickyourownchristmastree.org states that over 26 million new trees were purchased in the US in 2019 and over 21 million artificial trees in 2017. Given that artificial trees are reused for up to 10 years each year, treetopia.com reports that 65% of US homes will display an artificial tree, while only 18% will have a real tree; the rest show no tree at all.
In Europe, over 50 million real trees are in demand every year.
Where do these trees come from, real and artificial, and where are they going?
Fir, pine and spruce make up the majority of Christmas trees. In the US, most trees are grown in Oregon, followed by North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.
Almost every state grows some number of Christmas trees with over 15,000 tree farms in the US and those farms are growing over 350 million Christmas trees at any given time.
In Europe, most real trees are grown in Germany, followed by Denmark, France, Belgium and Great Britain.
The vast majority of artificial trees, 80%, are made in China for export worldwide.
Americans get 32% of their real trees from farms where they select and cut their own trees. Otherwise they are purchased as pre-cut trees from stores and lots. In Europe, trees are also sold at Christmas markets in city squares.
There are over 4000 tree recycling programs in the US, typically processing them into mulch.
Artificial trees that are reused for many years eventually end up in landfill, although some parts of them can be recycled (e.g. metal) or reused.
Delivery problems in the Christmas tree supply chain
The global coronavirus pandemic has disrupted almost every industry and commodity in some way. And these disruptions continue and will certainly continue into 2022. Therefore, it is expected that the pandemic and other factors will affect the availability of real and artificial Christmas trees.
Given that most artificial Christmas trees are manufactured in China and there are long shipping and receiving delays to the US and Europe, it should be expected that the supply of these artificial trees will be somewhat limited.
Wildfires, droughts, and floods have also disrupted the normal growing season for real trees.
The shortage of truck drivers and associated trucking equipment will also affect the shipping of real trees.
In any case, the cost of trees is affected by all of these factors, including higher shipping costs. Artificial tree prices are impacted by the increased cost of steel, plastic and shipping and could be up to 25% higher.
The bottom line is that if you are looking for a real tree or an artificial tree, you will get it as soon as possible. Limited supplies may restrict availability of these holiday centerpieces.
There is debate as to whether buying a real Christmas tree or an artificial Christmas tree is a more environmentally friendly choice. Some will argue that cutting down a real tree contributes to deforestation and harms 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 is the right choice for sustainability?
A real tree takes between 4 and 15 years to grow. When the trees are harvested, 1-3 replacement seedlings are planted to replenish the supply. Every year over 85 million new trees are planted worldwide. In addition, there are over 4000 tree recycling programs in the United States
With dedicated tree farms and replanting and recycling programs, it can be said that this is a renewable resource that does not harm the environment. A real tree produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and these tree farms certainly create oxygen for the atmosphere.
Artificial trees are made of PVC plastics and metal. They are very difficult to recycle. So the best way to reduce the overall greenhouse effect and carbon footprint of artificial trees is to keep them for a long time, at least 8-10 years. Since these trees are also largely manufactured in China, there are enormous resources and costs involved in transporting them to their end markets.
Overall, my interpretation is that a real tree has the most beneficial environmental impact. If you have an artificial tree, it is best to take good care of it and use it for as many years as possible to reduce its 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. Regardless, the demand for these trees, whether real or artificial, will continue unabated for a long, long time. Your expense really comes down to one of the supplies.
Get your tree up ASAP for this holiday season. You may not have the choice or choice you normally would with either real or artificial trees. Getting a tree at all may be a better choice than not having a tree at all.