REAL OR FAKE?
Choosing a Christmas tree can be an ethical quagmire for environmentalists
- Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005
The cultural minefield of December has another politically loaded question to tiptoe around: Will you purchase a real tree or an artificial one?
And then, what will you call it?
Your answer will speak to your commitment to protecting American jobs, reducing the trade deficit, preventing environmental destruction, helping us breathe and, of course, showing where you stand on the Rev. Jerry Falwell's
efforts to counter what he calls the anti-Christian "war on Christmas."
The choice between real and not real is especially painful for some environmentalists. Either they desecrate the Earth and chop down a tree or buy a fake one that's full of landfill-clogging polyvinyl chloride, which is kryptonite to greenies.
Salting a tree with pesticides, then chopping it down for a mere two weeks of display time isn't a great option. Ask San Francisco forest activist Kristi Chester Vance. When she invited friends to a party at her place this month, she
warned her environmentalist pals on the guest list:
There will be a tree here.
"I'm a forest activist, and there's a dead tree in the middle of my house," she said. "Geez, if I have a tree, why not nail the last snow leopard to the wall, too?"
She acknowledges, though, that most Christmas trees are farmed like an agricultural product. "It's kind of like corn," she said. "It would be best to get an organic one, of course."
As an alternative, Sierra Magazine, a Sierra Club publication, suggests: "For a natural look, try making your own tree of trimmed evergreen boughs, a storm-felled branch, or a piece of driftwood."
San Francisco's Department of the Environment began a program this year for those averse to stringing lights on driftwood. For $90, the city will bring a live, 7- to 9-foot potted tree to your home for you to decorate. After Christmas, the city will retrieve it and plant it in one of San Francisco's tree-starved neighborhoods, like Bayview-Hunters Point.
But the city isn't offering pines. Officials said pines don't make the best street trees.
Instead, they suggested hanging tinsel on a primrose, a Brisbane box tree or a fruitless olive tree. The program proved so popular that it sold out its stock of 100 trees in four days. It will return next year.
Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, a field marshal for the conservative counter-campaign against the "war on Christmas," will be happy to know that San Francisco called this its "Dreaming of a Green Christmas" tree program. Not that there wasn't discussion about other names.
"Some people wanted to call it a 'peace tree' or a 'holiday tree,' " said Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. "But we figured that only people who would be celebrating Christmas would want one for the most part."
Deciding between real and fake trees wasn't always an ethical nightmare. The decision used to be more about one's tolerance for cleaning up pine needles.
But several years ago, America's tree growers started noticing that artificial trees were steadily gaining market share. In 1990, about half of U.S. tree-displaying homes were putting up artificial trees. In 2002, that number had grown to roughly 60 percent, say growers and fake-tree makers. Purchases of real trees declined from 32 million in 2002 to 23.4 million in 2004, according the National Christmas Tree Association.
So Christmas tree growers got serious about telling their story. They hired a marketing firm that for decades had specialized in Republican political campaigns. The firm, Smith and Harroff, advocated reaching out to Generation Y (now there's an animated "Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees" interactive game on the National Christmas Tree Association's Web site), Latinos (the association's materials are being translated into Spanish), first-time home-buyers and gays.
Now, as possibly only a Douglas fir can do, Christmas trees have bridged a cultural divide. The firm that once consulted for the Republican National Committee was cooing about landing a pro-real-tree reference on TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" show last year.
Farmers talk about how buying a real tree protects U.S. jobs. China -- the leading exporter of fake trees -- shipped $69 million worth of artificial pines to the United States from January through August of this year, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Overall, the artificial-tree trade deficit last year was $145 million, according to census statistics.
More than 100,000 Americans are employed by the real Christmas tree industry, according to its trade association.
"Do you want to keep your money in the state, or do you want it going to China?" said Sam Minturn, executive director of the 450-member California Christmas Tree Association. He has run a tree farm near Manteca since 1970, hiring students to help him out.
Farmers say buying a Christmas tree is about protecting the environment. The National Christmas Tree Association takes it a step further, boasting that an acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people. And it's trying to be a do-gooder, too, donating 4,000 trees this month to U.S. military personnel.
The artificial-tree industry has taken notice. And the handful of U.S. manufacturers have started to swing back.
"The tree farmers have definitely been more aggressive with their marketing the past couple of years," said Daniel Hanley, an administrator with Holiday Tree and Trim, which points out that it has been making artificial trees for 40 years with good ol' American workers in Bayonne, N.J. "But we're really on the same side as the tree farmers in terms of not wanting to see American jobs overseas."
The artificial-tree builders boast a celebrity endorser to counter the tree farmer's new friends from "Queer Eye." They recently were the subject of a favorable profile on "Made in America," a Travel Channel program hosted by John Ratzenberger, best known for his work as Cliff on "Cheers."
Hanley disputed the farmers' contention that fake trees generally end up in landfills after six to 10 years of use. "We offer a warranty for 50 years," he said. "We intend for them to be heirlooms, something that is passed down from one generation to another.
"Plus, that means that a tree has not been cut down," Hanley said. "And think of all the pesticides and fertilizers that are used to keep that (real) tree going. And it's only going to be used for two weeks. Are they all recycled after that?"
San Francisco curbside recyclers collect about 775 tons of Christmas trees each year and chip them into mulch, make them into compost or use them for biomass fuel to generate electricity, Westlund said.
Hopelessly torn, with Christmas breathing down your neck? Eric Antebi, national secretary for the Sierra Club, offers an out:
"Allow me to put in a plug for Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of a little bit of oil lasting eight days," he said.
"You've got to love a holiday that's all about energy efficiency and eating potato pancakes," he said. "With only the finest organic potatoes, of course."
Number of people who can live on the amount of oxygen produced by one acre of Christmas trees.
Percentage of homes with trees that displayed faux fir in 2002.
Number of Americans employed by the real Christmas tree industry.
Value, in dollars, of the fake Christmas trees imported from China this year.
E-mail Joe Garofoli at firstname.lastname@example.org.