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The cost of real Christmas trees is on the rise — thanks to millennials

As supply is down and demand is up, Christmas trees are becoming more expensive.

A Christmas tree farm in Oregon.
A Christmas tree farm in the Willamette Valley area of West Central Oregon.
Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Millennials have been blamed for killing mayonnaise, raisins, diamonds, home ownership, and, most recently, canned tuna. But one sector is actually thanking millennials for their support: the Christmas tree industry. While the number of Americans who buy artificial Christmas trees has reportedly jumped by 30 percent since 1992, real trees are having a resurgence, and millennials apparently deserve some of the credit.

The National Christmas Tree Association, which this year launched a million-dollar campaign to highlight the benefits of real Christmas trees, attributes a 17 percent rise in the price of real trees from 2015 to 2017 in part to eco-conscious young adults, who may appreciate the smaller environmental footprint and “buy local” ethos of live trees. Still, both real trees and their PVC rivals hold their own appeal for both economic and environmental concerns.

The kind of tree customers buy depends on everything from how much cash they’re willing to part with during the holidays to whether they have the time to care for living trees. And misconceptions have long played a role in Christmas tree consumption, particularly the false idea that plastic trees spare real trees from being chopped down. As consumers become more environmentally savvy and more educated about Christmas trees generally, their preference in trees may shift.

What millennials have to do with the rising cost of real Christmas trees

A generational divide may explain why artificial Christmas trees gradually became more popular in the 1990s and the aughts, and why real ones are slowly enjoying a revival. According to Square, Inc., the financial services company partnering with the NCTA on its “Keep it Real” campaign, baby boomers stopped buying holiday firs and pines once their millennial kids grew up. But now that millennials are adults and buying trees for themselves, they lean toward the real Christmas trees of their childhoods partly because of nostalgia and partly because they are concerned for the earth, the NCTA posits.

Many consumers believed for years that PVC trees were more environmentally friendly than genuine trees. Part of this misconception may stem from consumers assuming that living trees are chopped down from forests increasingly depleted of their natural resources. In reality, farmers grow Christmas trees with the intention of cutting them down and selling them. (Pop star Taylor Swift grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania.)

Those unfamiliar with such farms might seek out artificial trees. In 2010, for example, a Target shopper who bought an artificial tree told the New York Times: “I’m very environmentally conscious. I’ll keep it for 10 years, and that’s 10 trees that won’t be cut down.”

But artificial trees are composed of PVC plastic, steel, and aluminum, and require packaging and other materials to journey to the United States from Asia, where the bulk of the trees are manufactured. While artificial trees can be reused for long stretches — meaning after about six to nine years, their environmental impact may be smaller than buying a real tree annually, according to William Paddock, the managing director of WAP Sustainability Consulting — they are not recyclable or biodegradable. Instead, they will sit in a landfill for generations, contributing to plastic pollution.

Real trees, on the other hand, require far fewer resources to grow and transport, Paddock told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. They can also be turned into mulch or biofuel or otherwise recycled, and they produce oxygen and preserve green space, including habitats for animals. A living Christmas tree purchase is also an easy way to buy American and support local farms and small businesses (though this year, Amazon is getting in on the real tree delivery game too).

Christmas trees left out to be recycled.
Christmas trees can be composted or recycled into mulch and biofuel.
Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images

“You’re not doing any harm by cutting down a Christmas tree,” botanist Clint Springer told the New York Times. “A lot of people think artificial is better because you’re preserving the life of a tree. But in this case, you’ve got a crop that’s being raised for that purpose.”

Sales of the real thing have become more expensive in recent years because it takes about seven to 10 years for farmers to grow Christmas trees, and they planted fewer a decade ago as the nation grappled with the economic recession. Now supply is down and demand is up — good news for Christmas tree farmers but hardly a definitive shift for their industry, given that the majority of Americans continue to buy artificial trees.

Why some people gravitate toward artificial Christmas trees

According to CBS News, 80 percent of Americans put up artificial trees. (This doesn’t mean 80 percent buy faux trees annually, since artificial ones last for several years.) And in many ways, it makes sense: Artificial trees, after all, don’t need water or shed needles that have to be swept up. Some even come with built-in lights. For the low-maintenance holiday observer, artificial may be the way to go.

Others may be drawn to savings. PVC trees well over 6 feet tall can be purchased for less than $100. Considering that the trees last for several years, that’s a lot cheaper than buying a natural Christmas tree each year, especially as prices for the real deal rise. In 2015, the average price for a living Christmas tree was $63.88; last year it rose to $73.24, a 17 percent increase from two years earlier, according to Square.

Parts of an artificial Christmas tree at a Chinese factory.
A worker in a Chinese factory handles part of an artificial Christmas tree.
AFP/Getty Images

The price of real trees also depends on when consumers buy them during the holiday season. Christmas Eve is when tree purchases cost the least. According to Square, the average cost of a natural tree on that day is $47, but prices drop by 22 percent the entire week before Christmas. Costs are highest on Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving); last year, the average tree price was $81 on that shopping holiday.

If you’re cash-strapped, an artificial tree could save you more money than buying a real tree each year. But if you’re set on a live tree, buying one just before Christmas can help you cut costs.

While the debate over artificial versus real trees isn’t likely to die out anytime soon, ultimately the tree most suitable for shoppers encompasses several factors, from their concerns about the environment to whether they have the time needed to pick out, haul in, and care for the genuine article. But natural tree enthusiasts insist this much is clear: Nothing can replace that real tree smell.

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