Aug 18

Keeping Christmas Trees Green

Theo Normanton
Dec 24, 2020

Image: Markus Spiske via Unsplash

Keeping Christmas green has been a focus for consumers and the forestry industry around the world this year, yielding innovative solutions and some simple advice.

One prominent example is Finland, which places a strong focus on preserving biodiversity and squeezing every last bit of use out of the timber it harvests. Wood-derived ingredients are used to make products as diverse as clothes, cosmetics and asphalt, and even the by-products don’t go to waste: they are used in glues, fertilisers, and even pharmaceuticals. It is technically not inconceivable that, by summer, a Finn could be wearing the same Christmas tree that stood in the corner of his or her living room. Most wood-based products in Finland are recycled, with as much as 85 percent of paper and cardboard consumed being recovered.

Unsurprisingly, given that Finland is the home of Santa Claus, Christmas trees are extremely popular among Finns. And here Finland is a sustainability leader as well: while many other countries import trees from neighbouring states, trees in Finland are increasingly sourced from local family-owned forests and are estimated to account for one-fifth of Christmas trees in Finnish houses this year.

Those who don’t want to buy a farm-grown tree can cut one down themselves. In the north of Finland, just five euros will buy you the right to choose and fell your own tree in a forest owned by the state. The surging popularity of such initiatives – some of which have even been gamified by using the GPS coordinates of specific trees to turn the felling into a treasure hunt – testifies to a growing awareness of the promising potential of the forestry industry. It also points to a demand for sustainable siviculture – the practice of managing forest growth and quality – at a time when we need to look after the planet’s lungs just as much as our own.

In neighbouring Russia, forests represent a significant growth industry as well as a precious resource. Russia is the biggest forest country in the world, and home to the world’s longest forest belt. As such, its forests are not only an important strategic resource but also vital to the global environment. Even with such vast resources, Russian forestry products company Segezha places emphasis on environmental stewardship: it was the first Russian forestry company to produce a sustainability report, in 2016, and spent RUB 97.8 million on reforestation in 2019 alone (the equivalent of more than $ 1 million). Looking to the future, Segezha hopes to produce 4 million more seedlings by 2023 in a long-term effort to keep Russian forests healthy.

In Austria, forests and farms make up 80 percent of the country’s total area. The preservation of biodiversity has been of particular concern here, reflected by the various government programmes and campaigns over the last five years aiming to protect its vast forests. New ways of promoting environmental stewardship and replenishing existing timber stocks are encouraged by initiatives like the Schweighofer Prize – an award sponsored by a former top European timber producer. Elsewhere,  the Austrian federal government recently launched  the largest ever investment fund dedicated to Austria’s forests, including the construction of a research facility to produce biofuels from wood.

Not all the innovation is coming from the top, however – growers are also coming up with new ways to preserve the balance in Austria’s delicate topology. One producer of Christmas trees, Fischeragrar, prepares nutrient-rich seedbeds sowed with slow-growing grass before planting its trees in order to prevent soil erosion and promote biodiversity. It also plants a new tree for every one that it fells. A study in Austria calculates that a Christmas tree farm of one hectare binds 140 tonnes of carbon dioxide and produces 100 tonnes of oxygen during the decade it takes for the trees to grow.

The sustainable strategies adopted by governments and industry alike serve the double purpose of securing future supplies of wood products and combatting global CO2 emissions. They’re also beginning to look like good business sense. Proof that consumers are increasingly concerned with sustainably sourced forest products has come in the sale of Christmas trees this year: a preference for local over imported Christmas trees has been noted across Europe and North America, and schemes involving rented and re-planted trees are on the rise.

And for consumers, the advice is simple: the best way to keep Christmas green is simply not to burn a tree after it is discarded. That would return the carbon captured by the tree back into the atmosphere. Instead, many companies offer to pick up used trees and turn them into mulch or even recycle them. By using these services, consumers can do their part in keeping our trees – and our holidays – green for many years to come.

Theo Normanton

Theo Normanton covers tech, ESG and the circular economy, with a particular interest in the markets of Russia and the CIS.

Tweets at: @TheoNormanton

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