Celebrate with less waste this season

6 December 2022

A quick trip to the shops (or a browse on any online marketplace) in December can be an overwhelmingly festive experience.

Even the most cheerful of merrymakers may find themselves paralysed by an onslaught of seasonal promotional campaigns. Flashing lights, sparkly decorations, picture-perfect presents and laden festive feasts adorn advertisements for everything from Christmas hams to household cleaning products.

And while most of us instinctively recognise that marketing goes into overdrive at this time of year, it can still be difficult to maintain a cool head, and buy and behave as sustainably as we might normally strive to.

UQ postdoctoral research fellow, Dr Alexandria Gain, is a sustainability marketing specialist from the Business School. Her research to date has focused on brand wastefulness, overpackaging and how these elements can impact consumer buying decisions.

Dr Gain sat down with us this week to talk about how Christmas marketing works behind the scenes, and what we might be able to do to reduce our waste this silly season.

Cutting back on unnecessary consumption

“Emotional appeals are one of the most common types of marketing we see at Christmas,” Dr Gain says.

“We are bombarded with messages that are designed to elicit feelings of warmth, fun and excitement.

“For many of us, Christmas is connected to the idea of ‘happiness and joy, and spoiling yourself and your loved ones’. And, so often, seasonal marketing tells us we can create and experience these feelings by buying gifts, decorations and food.”

Food waste in the festive season is substantial, with UK consumer goods company, Unilever, releasing figures a few years ago that 74 million mince pies (among many other items) go to waste each year at Christmas. Global Food Security, a British government food research program, has a blog with some handy insights into factors driving food waste.

“Whether it’s for food or other items, brand promotions typically aim to encourage purchases and increase consumption. Many focus on creating a sense of urgency. This is commonly seen with add-ons like free postage over a certain amount and limited time offers. But just stop and consider if you really need the items you’re buying,” Dr Gain urges.

Tips to cut back on consumption

  • Make a list before you shop and stick to it! Don’t be tempted by impulse buys that are often driven by emotional marketing appeals
  • Avoid last-minute shopping. This is when you are more likely to get caught up in panic buying of unnecessary food and presents, Dr Gain suggests
  • Try for quality over quantity when it comes to indulgence. For example, instead of buying excessive amounts of food that can’t be eaten, you could try preparing one very special meal that uses a range of luxury ingredients you wouldn’t normally purchase.

Using resources more efficiently

“Another idea that is connected to reducing waste is the concept of how efficiently (or not) we use the resources we have,” explains Dr Gain.

“A good example of this at Christmas is festive-themed products, such as dining and table settings, decorations and even outfits. These items tend to sit un-used in storage for the remainder of the year – and that’s if you even decide to keep them at all.”

Tips to use resources efficiently

  • Re-purpose existing items. Think about what you already have and whether you could upcycle it to match a new theme. Try browsing online image boards and curated collections on sites like Pinterest for inspiration
  • Use clean household materials that would otherwise be thrown away (such as scrap paper, packaging and other clean recyclables) to make ornaments, wrapping paper, crackers and so on
  • Buy high-quality, if you do purchase new items, and use them fully and for many years to come, Dr Gain suggests.

Reducing tangible waste

“The leftover rubbish that is thrown away, such as the food waste and gift wrapping, is the wasteful part of Christmas that people may be most familiar with and likely to be already thinking about,” says Dr Gain.

“Overpackaging is particularly prevalent, as manufacturers and retailers know that extra packaging makes a product more appealing and delivers experiential benefits, such as the idea of ‘unwrapping or unboxing a beautiful present’.

“Extra packaging also signals to consumers that a particular item would make a good gift. Consider things like mugs, which, for most of the year, sit on a shelf as they are. At Christmas time, they suddenly appear in a box, displayed as a ‘present’. 

“This obviously has an environmental impact, and avoiding overpackaging is an example of the sorts of changes we can try to be mindful of as we make purchasing decisions.

“Another couple of other easy wins are things like avoiding single-use products (i.e. disposable cups and plates etc), and paying attention to whether or not you actually have the facilities to maximise advertised waste reduction features (for e.g., compostable cutlery or kitchenware is only useful if you actually have a compost to put it in).”

Tips to reduce tangible waste

  • Give experiences or services, rather than physical presents. Dr Gain agrees this has become a very common idea for reducing waste, but says it is still worth re-visiting the conversation in the lead up to Christmas, as it has the potential to significantly reduce tangible waste
  • Take your green bags and re-usable bags when you head off to do your Christmas shopping – be it gifts or food. This is another simple suggestion, but how often do we just forget to bring them!
  • Buy locally and in-store, if you can, to avoid the extra packaging that comes from online deliveries. While we’ve all gotten used to the convenience of e-commerce, there’s no doubt that more often than not it generates a huge amount of extra rubbish, as products are wrapped, boxed and taped to make the journey to your home.

Disposing thoughtfully the day after

“Although we can all do our best to reduce waste in the festive season, sometimes, it can feel really hard to avoid it at Christmas, no matter how hard we try,” Dr Gain acknowledges.

“So, while we mostly like to talk about reducing and avoiding, it’s also important to talk about responsible options at the end of the consumption experience,” she says.

Tips to re-use or re-purpose thoughtfully

  • Hold onto unwanted gifts until you can re-gift (just make a note of who gave what to whom!)
  • Donate good quality presents to charity stores or (as those stores often tend to be at capacity right after Christmas) look for no-buy groups or similar on social media, so you can pass on items to people who genuinely want them
  • Take a few minutes to store food leftovers properly on Christmas Day and search in advance for good leftover recipes. There will likely be a range of different meals you could make to enliven your un-eaten turkey or use up those extra salads over the next week!

Where to next?