Real, fake, commercially or locally grown, the battle over the “most sustainable” option for Christmas trees has gone on for years, and it’s more nuanced than we think

Sustainability isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario when it comes to Christmas trees. It all comes down to personal access, finances and what you already have in your home. If you take a look below, you’ll find some pros and cons to each Christmas tree option so that you can choose your “most sustainable” Christmas tree this year.

Real trees

Pros: It’s true that real trees have a lower environmental footprint than artificial trees. Most pines and firs used for Christmas trees aren’t taken from wild habitats; 98 percent of real trees bought are grown on farms. The U.S. alone has nearly 15,000 Christmas tree farms, employing more than 100,000 people.

These trees are able to grow in poor soil and as they grow, they sequester carbon dioxide and store it in the soil, slowly repairing the soil life. Cut trees consume less water, provide temporary carbon sequestration and clean oxygen, and give refuge for wildlife during their life cycle.

Cons: Not all real trees are created equal. Some farms, in order to accelerate the growth of trees for the season, will use pesticides and artificial nutrients to enhance growth. These chemicals end up in the soil (degrading it and killing microbes and organisms within it), and can also run off into local watersheds, disturbing the ecosystems there.

If you choose a farmed tree, make sure it’s as local as possible so that you have the ability to talk to the farmer. Read up on the company beforehand, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about their practices. Even if they’re not “sustainable” quite yet, your questions may spark a future business plan that is environmentally conscious.

Artificial Trees

Cons: 80 percent of artificial trees are produced in China, and are always made of PVC or polyethylene plastics. Both of these plastics are derived from petrochemicals and create huge greenhouse gas emissions in their manufacturing process.

Pros: Even though it’s nearly impossible to find a Christmas tree that isn’t made of PVC or plastic, there are some made from recycled PVC, which is a better option if you’re buying an artificial tree or replacing your old one. Artificial trees also last longer than real trees, so there’s the possibility of thrifting or buying a used one to eliminate the need for manufacturing.

By purchasing a recycled artificial tree or thrifted one, you are drastically reducing the amount of harmful products being thrown in the landfill. If you’re purchasing an artificial tree, the most important factor in its sustainability is that you use it for as many years as possible. And be sure to maintain its good condition so you can donate it later,

Living Trees

Pros: The look and smell of a living tree is one up side, but they also have the lowest environmental impact of the bunch. A living tree is potted and actively sequesters carbon throughout its lifetime. Once it’s too big to keep in the house, it can be transplanted in your yard as a home for wildlife and critters. If you don’t have room, you can donate it to a local farm that can plant it and do the same.

Cons: Living trees take a bit more effort throughout the year, rather than just during the holiday season. Not only will you have to water it year-round, but you’ll have to repot it once it outgrows its home. The effort is worth it, but you have to know whether you’re the type to do the work.

Once again, it’s also important to source your tree from a local nursery that practices sustainable and ethical growing. This includes where the tree’s seeds were sourced, how it was grown, and whether it was sprayed with pesticides or not.


Pros: No strings attached to your decision! You can rent a real, living or artificial tree from your local shop, tree nurseries or regional foresters. If you have a smaller budget or aren’t sure which route to go, this “fostering” method allows you to test all of the waters before taking the plunge.

Disposing of your Christmas tree

The average Christmas tree leaves 40 kg of greenhouse gases, and although real trees are better for our carbon footprint, they can still be bad for the environment if thrown in the landfill and not disposed of properly. Here are some responsible ways to get rid of your tree in the new year:

  1. Make firewood: This is a wonderful way to heat your home after the holidays and you won't have to cut down any additional trees. 
  2. Use as mulch: The needles make for nutritious mulch for your garden. Before you chop the trunk and branches for firewood, shake the needles off and allow them to decompose slowly and feed your garden’s soil.
  3. Donate your tree: Local farms love receiving your real Christmas trees to feed to their goats and animals (just be sure to ask before dropping them off). Artificial trees can be donated to local schools, retirement homes, senior centres or nursing facilities. If it’s in good condition, a thrift store may be willing to accept it too.
  4. Compost your tree: Any part that you can’t use around the house, send it off to your local farm or composting facility (or compost it at home) rather than sending it off to the landfill.