Tuesday, May 21, 2024

How to be more sustainable during the holidays


‘Tis the season! As we look forward to numerous holidays, special traditions, and spending time with loved ones, I can’t help but think about the impact of my actions. Sometimes it feels like my actions alone can’t really change the amount of consumption, waste, and emissions the holiday season produces. And it’s true, alone I can’t. That’s where all of you come in! Based on research by The United Nations Environment Programme, household consumption accounts for around two-thirds of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

As a member of the Cisco Chief Sustainability Office, I am deeply invested in our planet and hope to help educate others on various topics surrounding environmental sustainability. So I spoke with some of our Cisco Green Team members about ways to help reduce your holiday footprint, positively impact the planet, and help you feel good about the actions you take this season.

Decreasing Energy Usage

Switch to LED lights: Decorating with lights is popular this time of year. It’s dazzling and it’s festive so what’s the problem? It’s estimated that throughout the month of December, in the U.S. alone, households will use 3.5 billion kWh of electricity to power holiday lights, which is equivalent to the annual energy usage of 350,000 homes. However, if everyone were to switch to LED lights, the usage would decrease to one quarter of the amount, as LED use about 85% less energy than traditional lights. Plus, it would cut down on everyone’s electricity bill (around $850 million each year!)

Invest in a timer: Ever go to bed and forget to turn off your lights? An easy solution is to add a timer to your lights. This way you can set how long your lights will be using energy and when you would like them to turn on and off each day.

Reducing Waste

Cut down on food waste: Hosting dinner parties, baking cookies, and sharing meals are all delicious ways to enjoy the gift of food, but they can also lead to unexpected waste. Did you know that  one-third of all food produced in the world – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes – is lost or wasted every year?

Grocery stores and households both play a part in managing the amount of surplus food, whether unsold or uneaten, that is discarded into landfills. According to ReFED, it makes up 24% of all landfill inputs, making food the number one material in landfills. The good news is we have a few ways to cut this number down.

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Start with buying only what you need and plan ahead if you know you need to feed a certain number of people.  If you do have scraps or leftovers, sending them to a landfill won’t helpto reduce GHG emissions. The decomposition of food and other organic materials in an environment without oxygen (like a landfill), produces methane, a greenhouse gas. Wasted food is responsible for 58% of landfill methane emissions. Instead, take notes from Cisco’s Tram Quach in Raleigh, United States: “We compost our cooking scraps at home with a tumbler in our backyard and use glass containers to take or bring back food to avoid using disposables.” Composting is a great option to discard food waste and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, one of the easiest ways to cut down on food waste is simply eating all your leftovers. Bonus points if they are in reusable containers like Tram’s.

Be conscious of packaging and decor: Opening a special gift from a loved one can create an unmatched feeling. Unfortunately, most conventional wrapping paper sold in stores has plastic lining, coating, or harmful chemicals, which means it cannot be recycled. Out of the 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper produced each year, around half, or 2.3 million pounds ends up in landfills (that’s 277,000 miles worth!)

Don’t worry, you can be sustainable and still experience the surprise of unwrapping a gift. “I always find fun, silly, and odd things to wrap my gifts in from around my house. Whether it be newspaper, unused fabrics, or other creative materials, this has been a loved tradition in my family, and they always look forward to what I come up with,” says Cisco’s Angee Barnett from Topika, United States.

Similarly, Green Team co-lead Jordan Hart White based in Raleigh, United States likes to wrap presents in butcher paper and then draw on decorations and name tags. “This saves some of the plastic holiday waste from going into the trash and allows me time to get creative,” says Jordan, who knows her plastics!

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Another part of holidays that bring both joy and waste are decorations. And I get it, who doesn’t love festive décor? But as always, there are ways to make this tradition a little lighter on the planet. One example comes from Toronto, Canada Green Team member Alyssa Copp: “Make your own decorations! I strung my first citrus garland this year which is both sustainable AND economical!” This might even check off two boxes: consciously made décor and cutting down on food waste, a win-win. Besides making your own decorations, another option is to thrift or buy secondhand.

Avoiding Over Consumption

Forgo buying new: In the sustainability world, we say “why buy new, when you can get it used or homemade?” or maybe that’s just me! People buy 60 percent more clothing today than 15 years ago, and each item is kept for only half as long. Getting used items or DIYing is a unique and circular way to change up your wardrobe. “Instead of buying new ethnic wear for Diwali, I often try and wear my mom’s age-old sarees (Indian ethnic wear),” says Cisco’s Neha Agarwal from Bangalore, India, “which have not been worn by her for one or two decades at least. They feel new because no one remembers seeing them. I am totally re-using them and make small fashion edits to make it match the current fashion trend.” We love mom’s hand-me-downs!

Like decorations, gifts are a perfect opportunity to get creative and make something homemade. If you aren’t the DIY type, secondhand stores have gift options for everyone. Cisco’s Erin Carter from Chapel Hill, United States likes to incorporate both by buying cute baskets at thrift shops, lining them with paper, and filling them with cookies as gifts. And Green Team member Elizaveta Vatlina from Oeiras, Portugal also opts for secondhand, saying “Last year I didn’t buy clothes at a new store, instead I used Vinted or vintage stores.”

There are several online secondhand stores that are wonderful options if you don’t have the means to get out to your local secondhand store. A few that I know of are Vinted, Mercari, Depop, Poshmark, and thredUp, but I am sure there are many more. San Jose, United States Green Team member Kayshav Dattatri recommended Thriftbooks.com as a great online source for used books at a bargain!

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A final idea from Cisco’s Scott Weber based out of Ann Arbor, United States is a book exchange where each person brings a book that they enjoyed reading over the past year. Then everyone goes home with a new-to-them used book and a personal recommendation.

Buy local: If you are interested in buying something new, there are plenty of amazing options that you can find right down the road. Yes, I’m talking about shopping right in your local community! “I’m a big book-giver, so I head down to my local used bookshop and pick out gifts there,” says Cisco’s Ron Toland in Vancouver, Canada. It’s estimated that buying locally generates 3.5 times more wealth than shopping at national chains. Plus, it reduces your carbon footprint by cutting down on the amount of fossil fuels that are burned, since it changes how far goods must travel.

Give experiences: This idea stems from the absence of buying something material. “I love to gift experiences instead of things!” says Cisco’s Alex Wilkins, from San Jose, United States, “I’m planning a cooking class for my partner, a fancy dinner with my mother, and bowling with my brother!” Other ideas could include guitar lessons, yoga classes, or tickets to a concert, comedy show, sporting event, or museum exhibit.

Donate or volunteer: Donating to charity on behalf of another instead of giving physical gifts is an idea brought to us by Sydney, Australia Green Team member Vivien Chia. You can also get in touch with local charities to see if they have volunteering opportunities available, because giving your time is an incredible gift. And don’t forget, Cisco provides 10 days a year of Time2Give, donates $10 for every hour volunteered, and matches dollar for dollar on approved organization donations.


There are probably hundreds of other ways that we can practice sustainability during the holiday season. If you have a favorite practice, share it in the comments! Our decisions matter and we can create change with the choices we make. I hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday season!

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