C.J. Semones Ethics: The Environment Professor James Olsen The

C.J. Semones
Ethics: The Environment
Professor James Olsen
The Questionable Ethics of Christmas Tree Farming
As the holiday season gets into full swing thousands of households will
venture out in search of the perfect Christmas tree to decorate with lights and
ornaments. This festive tradition dates back to 16th century Germany when devout
Christians began bringing evergreen trees into their homes in order to celebrate the
birth of Christ. Since then the practice has become a worldwide holiday
phenomenon. In recent years however, the practice has come under scrutiny due to
the unsustainable methods in which the trees are harvested each winter. This paper
seeks to demonstrate that the current design process surrounding this seasonal
custom is environmentally unsustainable. From there it will attempt to confirm that
this lack of sustainability is due to its anthropocentric basis and is thus, highly
It is estimated that in America alone roughly 25-30 million evergreen trees
are harvested for the holidays each year. In 2012 the seasonal industry was valued
at roughly 1.1 billion dollars.1 In his work, “Making Capitalism Sustainable”, John
Elkington discusses how the environment and free market economies are at odds
with one another. He argues that sustainability is undermined by capitalism because
"National Christmas Tree Association Education Quick Tree Facts." National Christmas Tree
Association Education Quick Tree Facts. 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015.
it cuts corners in order to boost profits at the expense of environment.2 He
continues on asserting that regular checks to free enterprise systems are not enough
when it comes to the environment as they often take a significant amount of time,
which the Earth does not have. Although Elkington asserts that Capitalism is the
environment’s biggest nemesis, he makes the claim that if the necessary changes
were made to the system it might also be nature’s best ally in the fight for
sustainability.3 However, he emphasizes that this is only possible if significant social
and regulatory pressures are applied to current free enterprise practices. To back
this assertion Elkington puts forth the precautionary principle whereby a high
priority is placed on maintaining a balance between use and replacement.4
Additionally, he calls for a shift in the burden of proof so that producers should now
have to prove that their products were produced sustainably before going to
market, rather than having outside third parties confirm that they are in fact
unsustainable after the fact.
John Elkington’s call for sustainable capitalism fits under the broader theme
of design and redesign promoted strongly by environmentalist engineers like
William McDonough. According to McDonough, many of the environmental issues
we face today are the result of design failures across current ideologies, industries,
and practices related to our relationship with nature5. Our present approach to the
environment and the Christmas tree industry in particular needs to be redesigned
Keller, David R. "68: Making Capitalism Sustainable." In Environmental Ethics: The Big
Questions. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make
Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002.
with a fresh emphasis on sustainability. The idea of a design shift in holiday related
evergreen harvesting has already begun to take hold in Germany. After seeing piles
of rotting dead trees each New Year two eco-minded German entrepreneurs came
up with the idea of renting out live trees in pots. Their business, “Happy Tree”, gives
families the opportunity to decorate beautiful and authentic trees each year before
giving them back after the holiday season ends.6 The company’s owners reported a
75 percent tree survival rate at the end of the first season in 2014 and their goal is
increase that number to over 90 percent by the Christmas 2015.7
In addition to the unsustainable practices used by the vast majority of
Christmas tree farms, the industry faces other ethical issues in regards to its labor
methods and pesticide use. According to The Guardian, many evergreen growers use
harmful chemicals like Monsanto’s Roundup, a potent herbicide, in order to
maximize their crop yields.8 Additionally, seasonal workers, who are typically
overworked and underpaid, do the majority of the hard labor that goes into
harvesting Christmas trees. What about other alternatives such as fake trees, which
are cost effective one-time purchases? The owners of “Happy Tree” counter
arguments that favor fake evergreens by stating that they are made with synthetic
plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which have the potential to make families
sick.9 They emphasize that their business is a happy medium as both the wasteful
Sewell, Anne. "Going Green: Ecological Festivities As Germans Rent Out Live Christmas
Trees." The Inquisitr News. December 20, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015.
7 Ibid.
8 Hickman, Leo. "Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree." The Guardian. December 4, 2008.
Accessed December 22, 2015.
9 Ibid.
practice of using a new tree each year and the potential exposure to harmful toxins
are avoided altogether.
The first portion of this paper was dedicated to demonstrating how current
methods of Christmas tree harvesting are unsustainable. The wasteful nature of
seasonal tree use and disposal combined with the potentially dangerous ways in
which the trees are farmed confirm a need to redesign the industry. The second part
of this paper seeks to prove that this unsustainability is the result of our perceived
human excellence, which numerous environmental thinkers have deemed as
In his essay, “The Land Ethic”, Aldo Leopold asserts that humans need a new
ethic for dealing with the relationship humans have with the land and the plants and
animals that grow on it. Leopold argues that the next step in the evolution of
environmental ethics is the inclusion of the non-human members of the biotic
community.10 Furthermore, Leopold claims that a thing is right and therefore ethical
“when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic
community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."11 Under this new land ethic
humans are no longer the conquerors of other living organisms but rather, they
become equal members of the environmental community. Aldo Leopold would
argue that our current economics based land ethic is flawed because most members
Leopold, Aldo, and Charles Walsh Schwartz. A Sand County Almanac With Other Essays on
Conservation from Round River. [Enl. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.]
11 Ibid.
of an ecosystem possess no monetary value even though they are necessary for the
health and overall survival of the biotic community that contains them.12
Sebastian Schoefeld and Jan Wehmeyer, the owners of Happy Tree, support
Leopold’s land ethic through their biocentric approach to the Christmas tree
industry. A spokesman for the company was quoted presenting their business
philosophy with the following statement, “the idea is that Christmas tree will no
longer have to die, but can be as happy as their human families during the festive
season.”13 This statement on behalf of Happy Tree demonstrates that the business
does not put humans first, but rather it takes into account the wellbeing of non
Homo sapiens organisms, such as evergreen trees.
This line of biocentric ethics is further supported in Paul Taylor’s, “The Ethics
of Respect for Nature”, which demands regard for every living organism. According
to Taylor, all organisms are teleological centers of life with goods of their own that
we should morally consider for their own sake.14 Moreover, Taylor asserts that
humans share a kinship with all species as Earth’s life-processes have brought all
creatures into existence thus establishing a common origin. Furthermore, Taylor
argues that humans depend on nature and not the other way around, in fact he
claims that nature would be far better off with out us.15 Thus, our dependence on
nature means that it is unethical for us to violate it. Lastly, Taylor establishes that
Sewell, Anne. "Going Green: Ecological Festivities As Germans Rent Out Live Christmas
Trees." The Inquisitr News. December 20, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015.
14 Taylor, Paul W. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 1986.
15 Ibid.
the world is an interdependent system in which everything is connected to
everything else, thereby disproving the notion that humans somehow hold a higher
status than nature does due to our superior intellect.16 Based on the claims made by
Paul Taylor it is unethical for humans to wastefully cut down trees as a means of
celebration as we have no right to end the life of another organism, especially since
we depend of these very organisms for our continued existence.
While Paul Taylor and Aldo Leopold present a biocentric approach to
environmental ethics, Utilitarianism is a far more economic oriented line of thinking
popularized by John Stuart Mill. According to this ethical stance, an action is
considered to be morally in the right if it produces the maximum good for the most
number of people.17 Although this approach is far more anthropocentric, it too
would declare unsustainable Christmas tree farming as an unethical industry. The
concept of having a Christmas tree in your home is a very Christian practice, though
many non-practicing households also participate in the tradition. Estimates put the
number of Christians worldwide at 2.2 billion though this particular custom is really
only carried out in Europe and other predominately western Christian countries
thereby reducing the total number of Christians who also have a tree each year.18
Regardless of how you spin it, the majority of the world does not participate in this
Rest, Henry. "Utilitarianism." Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed December 22, 2015.
18 Chappell, Bill. "World's Muslim Population Will Surpass Christians This Century, Pew
Says." NPR. April 2, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015.
holiday festivity thus, proving that it is not a morally correct practice according to
the tenets of utilitarianism.
Although the tradition of having a freshly cut and decorated evergreen on
display in your home is a long established holiday practice, it has become a
unsustainable practice and therefore, environmentally unethical. The problem is not
with the tradition itself, but rather with its design. If seasonal celebrators want to
continue the tradition in an ethical manner they need to move away from their
current capitalist, anthropocentric approach towards something much more
sustainable. This would require a design shift to the practice such as utilizing
reusable trees, which are far more biocentric and therefore, ethical.