Money and Our Planet: How do we squander them? Let us count the ways
Part 3: Celebrations
At the start of this Money and Our Planet series last October, I stated that Canadian families, with an average debt-to-income ratio of 171 percent, now have not only the highest level of household debt since records were first kept, but also the highest debt of all G7 countries. I explained how we Canadians are depleting the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate as we accumulate that debt, specifically with respect to food, shelter and transportation. In the sequel, I explained the financial and environmental debt incurred by our excessive consumption of clothing, medication and cosmetics. And there’s more to come – in this column, I’ll focus on celebrations and special events.
A lot of attention has been paid to the Christmas season, during which businesses ramp up their advertising with every bell and whistle known to humankind, in an attempt to get consumers to throw caution to the wind and spend as if there’s no tomorrow. We have probably heard the “scandal” in connection with Hatchimals, the toy of the year in 2016 without which no child’s happiness would be complete. A toy with a retail price of $80 was being bought up by speculators and then re-advertised for nearly 10 times that amount, and several desperate parents were actually forking out the money to get one of these toys.
It can be difficult to determine exactly how much consumers spend for Christmas gifts because, although many people buy their gifts during November and December, others buy them throughout the year. Having said that, here are some statistics:
An article in Canadian Living states that:
According to the Bank of Montreal’s Holiday Spending Outlook, Canadians plan on spending an average of $1,397 in the 2011 holiday season — up approximately 6.5 per cent from 2010. The survey reveals that we will spend an average of $582.70 on gifts, $359.80 on travel, $307.30 on holiday entertaining and $147.50 on miscellaneous expenses. However, the problem with the holiday season isn’t the amount we end up spending in stores. A recent TD Canada Trust survey indicated that one-third of Canadians will end up buying gifts that they know they can’t afford, and nearly one in four will end up financing purchases on credit cards. (end of quote)
In a subsequent Canadian Living article (www.canadianliving.com › Life & Relationships › Money & Career), it is reported that the “average adult plants to spend $766 on holiday gifts in 2015”. So the gift amount has gone up, and it’s likely that spending in other Christmas holiday categories has gone up as well.
As with all human activity, Christmas spending has an environmental impact; the important thing is to minimize it. Travelling, of course, increases our carbon footprint, but, at the same time, if Christmas is the one time each year that we visit our relatives and friends, who can argue against that? We can try to minimize travel impacts by using land transportation and avoiding single-occupant car travel, where feasible. Minimizing the amount of gift-giving, as well as buying useful gifts, and gifts that are hand-made, local, or gifts of services (e.g., a dinner out, massage, concert), help to minimize our environmental impact. Reducing gift wrapping and packaging where possible will also help. Don’t buy single-use ornaments or dinner decorations such as Christmas crackers (a British tradition that involves two people pulling apart a decorated cardboard tube that emits a bang and releases a toy, a joke, or a paper hat).
According to the Regional District of Nanaimo website (http://www.rdn.bc.ca/cms.asp?wpID=177) (RDN population about 160,000): “When you add in all the marketing materials used to promote gifts and all the materials used to wrap them, an additional 300,000 tonnes of garbage is generated in Canada between mid-November and New Year’s Day.” Other statistics on this website:
In Canada the annual waste from gift-wrap and shopping bags equals about 545,000 tonnes;
If every family in Canada reduced its weekly waste during the holidays by just one kilogram, 34,000 tonnes of garbage would be eliminated.
If everyone in Canada wrapped just three gifts in reused paper or gift bags, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 hockey rinks. (end of quote)
And then there’s Halloween. According to a 2014 article in the Financial Post (http://business.financialpost.com/news/retail-marketing/the-1-billion-fright-economy-how-canadians-are-now-outspending-americans-on-halloween)
Canadians have become so wild about Halloween we now spend more per capita on costumes, candy and décor than our U.S. counterparts do…. A recent survey from digital couponing site RetailMeNot.com found that 68% of Canadians now celebrate Halloween…. As a business, it has more than doubled in size in less than a decade.
…“In the past three years, the Halloween holiday has just gone viral in Canada …,” said Diane Brisebois, the Retail Council’s president and CEO. “Adults have really, really gotten into it. Now it’s adults and their pets. In Canada, it has become so popular that people are pretty much decorating anything.”
…”Ten years ago, the Americans were way ahead of us,” said Ms. Brisebois, who noted the Retail Council of Canada’s Halloween spending estimate of $800-million to $1-billion does not include service businesses such as restaurants or those throwing parties or themed events for the occasion…. That’s up from the council’s estimate of $750-million to $950-million on the same basis in 2012. Candy and costume sales account for about 30% to 40%, respectively, of total sales, with the remainder spent on decorations and accessories. (end of quote)
This article goes on to say: “Selling seasonal items is inherently riskier for big retailers than carrying staples such as hand blenders or socks. They confer high margins at full price, but have a limited shelf life and get marked down quickly.” Can you guess what happens to unsold stock?
Much of this $1 billion is spent on single-use costumes, decorations, and junk food. While there’s a tremendous amount of fun to be had in celebrating our wacky/scary side and enjoying all the sugary treats, perhaps we can scale it back by reducing the amount of spending, waste and empty calories generated by this holiday. We can also make an effort to re-use our decorations and costumes.
Back to School
Did you know that back-to-school shopping comes second, after Christmas, in the amount spent by Canadians on a seasonal event? According to the Toronto Star (https://www.thestar.com/business/2016/08/10/back-to-school-shopping-is-big-business.html), in 2016 Canadian parents were expected to spend $461 on their children, including school supplies and clothing, an increase of $132 over last year’s average (based on a survey conducted by retailmenot.ca). The advertising period for this event has, in the last 10 years or so, moved up from the last two weeks of August to the end of July.
A significant amount of the cost is driven by trendy items, such as brand-name clothing and shoes, the latest versions of electronic devices, and fad-focused clothing and accessories (such as those based on the latest children’s movies). One irritating marketing trend is the gender-specific apparel produced these days. We can’t really pass on a perfectly good pair of running shoes from an older daughter to a younger son if said shoes are pink or decorated with ponies and princesses, and the same goes for most other clothing. Where possible (and this is VERY difficult), buy clothing and supplies that are non-gender-specific to avoid this dilemma. And as always, we need to reduce, re-use and recycle whenever we can. Another issue is peer pressure among tweens and teens. Involving our older children in budget discussions on a regular basis can help them to understand the importance of living within their means and help them develop the necessary financial skills.
What is the event where the average cost is equal to that of a brand-new SUV or a sizeable down payment on a house? Many Canadians with a newly-wed adult son or daughter can (unfortunately) surely answer this question.
A nice wedding back in the 1970s (based on a British website (http://www.weddingideasmag.com/wedding-costs-decades/) would have cost about £100 (three times the average weekly wage back then), but now couples, according to the Weddingbells’ Annual Reader Survey, can expect to spend over 30 times the average weekly wage of $952!
A Slice article pegs the actual average cost at $31,100, honeymoon included. This includes a $1,850 single-use wedding gown, a $600 cake, single-use party favours costing $450, decorations and floral arrangements in the amount of $1,400, and jewelry and wedding rings at nearly $3,000, not to mention catering costs of over $9,000 and a $5,500 honeymoon. (Slice is a Canadian English language Category A specialty channel owned by Corus Entertainment) (http://www.slice.ca/weddings/blog/how-much-does-the-average-canadian-wedding-actually-cost/63019/).
Who’s on the hook to pay for all this? Well, this is usually where the “something borrowed” comes into play. And if the parents dip into their own savings to help out, that accounts for “something blue” – namely, the parents’ comfortable retirement.
And then there are the even more environmentally destructive options such as destination weddings and the unconscionable “trash the dress” fads.
Christmas. Halloween. Back to School. Weddings. These special celebrations and events have become part of our lives because they are meaningful. Christmas is a wonderful occasion to reunite with family and friends, spend time with them eating delicious food, and show our affection through our companionship and thoughtful gifts. It’s also a cheerful event to look forward to as the days get colder and darker. Halloween is based on a pagan festival that appeals to our fascination with the supernatural and our sense of fun. Back to school is a celebration of a new year of learning for children and (usually) young adults. Weddings are a celebration of love and the start of a new life together with a cherished partner. Yet all of these events have succumbed to commercialization over the years, money-making ploys that transfer hard-earned money from people to the pockets of major corporations, and that recklessly pillage our planet. While it’s true that hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on our consumption, isn’t there a way to moderate this so that our spending doesn’t jeopardize our financial future, and our planet’s future too? We know what needs to be done – so let’s just do it!