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Thanksgiving: Is it Sustainable?

Is Thanksgiving a sustainable holiday? How can you make your Thanksgiving more sustainable?
Green News

Thanksgiving: Is it Sustainable?

When I left my life in the U.S. to move to France, there were a lot of things I left behind that I knew I wasn’t going to miss that much: driving, short lunch breaks, big department stores and commercialism, American holidays like Fourth of July and Halloween… but the one American tradition I knew I would never part with was Thanksgiving.

Every year, just like any other American – my family and I take Thanksgiving pretty seriously. I bake two pies for the family, my mom does the cooking, my dad handles the turkey, family comes to visit us from around the country and now, I travel across the Atlantic Ocean just to sit down for the infamous meal.

However, some of the many typical Thanksgiving traditions I just mentioned aren’t the greatest for the environment. Is this beloved American holiday sustainable, or is it similar to Halloween – as in it’s unknowingly creating excessive emissions and waste?

What is Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is an American holiday that takes place annually on the last Thursday in November. Whether you're in pre-school, college, or working full-time – most Americans get Thursday to Sunday off, and when I was in high school and college: I usually only went to school Monday and Tuesday of that week. 

Unlike the rest of the world, Thanksgiving is often marked as the start of the holiday season – with many putting up their Christmas lights, decorations, and Christmas trees as soon as the week of Thanksgiving. 

Many believe that Thanksgiving started way back with the pilgrims – who came to America from the United Kingdom on a ship called the Mayflower back in the 1620s. The first Thanksgiving dates back to 1621, but it wasn’t as simple as some new colonists gathering for an autumn feast in their new home.

The Wampanog were a group of Native Americans that lived in what is now known as present day Massachusetts. They had several villages, and had been trading with European visitors for years – but they weren’t too fond of the new permanent settlers. This is because in 1616, Europeans brought a disease that killed much of the Wampanog, meaning they were worried when a new group of colonists arrived in November of 1620. 

These colonists weren’t prepared for the upcoming harsh Winter or their new life, and resorted to stealing food and valuables from the Wampanog. The two groups didn’t get off to a great start, but they eventually decided to be peaceful, with one of the Wampanog (who the pilgrims called Squanto) actually showing them how to plant crops to harvest. This marked the beginning of a friendship, which later brought about the meaningful intent behind Thanksgiving – because thanks to the help of Squanto, the city of Plymouth had a plentiful harvest by the next Autumn in 1621. 

The Wampanog ended up joining the colonizers for their feast, but since the colonizers didn’t have enough to feed everyone – the Wampanog went out hunting as well to partake in the harvest celebration. Therefore, it could be said this is where the concept of a “potluck”, a common tradition in Thanksgiving, came about – as many people are assigned to bring an individual dish or dessert to a Thanksgiving dinner.

The first “Thanksgiving” consisted of feasting on fish, corn, onions, carrots, spinach – and all of the other vegetables that were successfully harvested.

👉However, it wasn’t until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday as an attempts to heal the nation amongst the civil war.

Many of the popular dishes we eat today during Thanksgiving – such as turkey and pumpkin pie, were popular foods in New England in the 1800s, where Thanksgiving originated between the colonists and the Wampanog all of those years ago. 

That was how Thanksgiving came about then, but how do Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today?

How is Thanksgiving celebrated?

Most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today by spending time with family and friends, watching football, shopping for exceptional deals (and often for early Christmas presents) during Black Friday or Cyber Monday, and having a big feast with Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, cornbread, and casseroles.

It’s similar to Christmas, except you don’t exchange presents – and besides eating to your heart’s content, Thanksgiving is supposed to be about expressing gratitude for what you have in your life. This is similar to what the Wampanog and colonizers did back in 1621.

Is Thanksgiving Sustainable?

Thanksgiving is all about abundance, but it’s not such a great thing when it comes to how many carbon emissions the holiday is responsible for – given that so many Americans cook massive meals and travel across the country for Thanksgiving. 

For instance, the carbon footprint of a traditional    Thanksgiving dinner is enormous – though, this may not come as a surprise to many seeing that Thanksgiving is the only national holiday to be (for the most part) all about food. 

The average Thanksgiving table hosts twelve people – around five times the size of the average American household, showing how many people travel. At that Thanksgiving table, while the dishes are bound to vary, over 80% of Americans make sure to roast a Thanksgiving turkey for their dinner – which is the highest carbon emitting part of the meal. 

Those twelve guests means a twenty pound turkey needs to be roasted, which can emit a whopping 60 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions alone – and that doesn’t include the additional cooking time, where most have their turkey slow roasted in their ovens for hours at a time. That’s a lot of electricity for one dinner, and the turkey isn’t all that’s cooked – the oven stays on for a couple additional hours depending on how many pies you cook, for the stuffing, and casseroles. After those marshmallows on top of your sweet potato casserole won’t broil themselves. 

When Americans put additional meat in their stuffing, it can produce an additional twenty four pounds of carbon dioxide emissions if made for the average Thanksgiving table of twelve people. Making cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pies are also carbon intensive – as many of these classic Thanksgiving dishes require exorbitant amounts of butter and milk, which also create a carbon footprint. When all is said and done, a typical Thanksgiving dinner creates over 100 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

Before many people get the chance to sit down at the Thanksgiving table with their families, they have to travel to get there first. In fact, Thanksgiving 2021 saw over 53 million people traveling for the holiday weekend. Whether Americans opt for a Thanksgiving road trip or fly – Americans produce X pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually when it comes to Thanksgiving travel.  

Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, a big tradition associated with Thanksgiving – aren’t innocent, either. The two in combination, predominantly both taking place online following the Covid-19 pandemic: left behind a monstrous total of ​​386,243 tonnes of carbon emissions in 2021. 

Lastly, while it may seem trite – it’s important to note one of the biggest Thanksgiving traditions: watching football. In fact, the NFL saw their highest ratings ever for Thanksgiving 2021 than they had since 1998 – meaning that even in the age of social media, recording, and instant replays: people are opting to watch football live. This also means that millions of T.V.s stay on for hours at a time on Thanksgiving – burning through electricity in an era where energy needs to be conserved the most.

Which part of Thanksgiving is the least sustainable?

How can you make your Thanksgiving more environmentally friendly?

Just like Halloween, there’s no need to give up on Thanksgiving entirely – but there’s a lot we can all do to adjust our Thanksgiving habits to make them more environmentally friendly. 

For instance, the incessant amounts of cooking that come with Thanksgiving take up a lot of energy – and the food itself is carbon intensive. To make your Thanksgiving more sustainable when it comes to your holiday menu – one of the best things you can do is make your Thanksgiving more vegetarian friendly by cooking with more vegetables and less meat. My mom makes stuffing with sourdough bread, mushrooms, celery, vegetable stalk, and sage – no one ever misses the meat. It’s easier than you think to switch out turkey Also, shop for local produce if you can – odds are, all of your Thanksgiving recipes require ingredients that are in season. This way, you don't contribute to the emissions it took for the produce at your grocery store to get there from where it came from. 

Don’t have the T.V. with football in the background or a recipe you don’t need on your computer for cooking if you don’t need it. After all, Thanksgiving is about spending time with family – electronics shouldn’t be on all of the time anyways. 

When it comes to traveling during Thanksgiving, the best thing you can do is to try and not travel – or stay where you are throughout the holiday season. With remote work a reality for many, why travel just to come back home in three weeks again?

However, if you’re like me and avoiding high carbon emitting travel isn’t really possible – you can do one of two things: opt to take a train if possible to avoid driving, or pay to offset the emissions from your flight with a carbon offsetting project.  

What About Greenly?

If reading this article about the sustainability of Thanksgiving has made you interested in reducing your carbon emissions to further fight against climate change – Greenly can help you!

Greenly can help you make an environmental change for the better, starting with a carbon footprint assessment to know how much carbon emissions your company produces.

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