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Dovetail Partners Consuming Responsibly Report No. 3 

The question of natural vs. artificial Christmas trees is often a topic of discussion in the popular media as year-end approaches, suggesting more than casual interest in the trade-offs involved. Among those trade-offs is environmental impact.

In 2016, 27.4 million natural Christmas trees were sold in the United States, about 9 million more than the number of artificial trees sold (18.6 million). Although more natural trees were sold, the difference in the number of real vs. artificial trees was the smallest ever recorded.

Changing consumer preferences raise a question as to what impact a shift to greater numbers of artificial trees might have on the environment. Which has less impact, natural or artificial trees? The answer is that . . . well, it depends. Which of these choices is environmentally better hinges on such factors as travel distances from local tree retailer to home, the number of years an artificial tree is kept in service, what happens to natural trees at the end of the Christmas season, and what environmental impact measure is judged to be the most important.

In general, production and use of natural trees results in lower environmental impacts than production and use of artificial trees. However, long transportation distances from tree grower to retailer and retailer to home have a significant impact on a range of impact indicators, and can shift the advantage to artificial trees. Minimizing the environmental impacts of artificial trees requires that they be kept in service for a number of years. 

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