China’s Yiwu village produces around 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations, but it’s hardly a jolly life for workers

While many of us would still like to picture the picture-book perfect scene of elves working away in Santa's workshop, wrapped up in a snow-covered fantasy, the story of our Christmas decorations is far from heart-warming.

Hidden away from Western consumers in the Zhejiang province of China, Yiwu village is home to around 600 factories that produce around 60% of all the decorations in the world.

The United Nation has declared the Yiwu International Trade Market (which is where all these decorations end up to be sold and shipped off around the world) to be "largest small commodity wholesale market in the world."

Covering an area of 4 million square meters, journalist Oliver Wainwright has described this mega-market as "a sprawling trade show of everything in the world that you don't need and yet may, at some irrational moment, feel compelled to buy".

“It is a heaving multistorey monument to global consumption, as if the contents of all the world’s landfill sites had been dug-up, re-formed and meticulously catalogued back into 62,000 booths.”
- Oliver Wainwright

300km south of Shanghai, this isn't a stop you'll find on a tourist map, nor do Santa's elves roam the streets. Instead, workers wear Christmas hats in an attempt to prevent the red dyes from staining their hair and skin.

According to the Guardian, the workers are "mainly migrant labourers, working 12 hours a day for a maximum of £200 to £300 a month." That's around $420-$620 Australian dollars, while shoppers in Sydney or Melbourne are earning on average $6,650 for the same period.

On top of the pathetic wages paid to workers, the environmental and health concerns are real. Workers get through "at least 10 face masks each day, trying not to breathe in the cloud of red dust", reports the Guardian.

A vast number of the products made here use plastic, polystyrene, paints and other unsustainable resources. What's more, the factory is churning this stuff year after year, fulfilling the demand of the Western world.

When you stop to think, it's clear that Christmas has become incredibly wasteful in many ways. For example, have you ever considered the environmental footprint of your artificial tree?

According to Labspaces, "the average lifespan of a PVC Christmas tree is around 6 years, which means in the 72 months post purchase…you'll see this thing for a total of 6 months."

"Then you'll haul it off to the dump where it'll sit for eternity, since PVC isn't readily biodegradable ... and if it gets hauled off to the incinerator? Yikes! Combusting PVC leads to the formation of dioxins which caused the Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee of the US Green Building Council to study PVC and see if it truly was consistently among the worst materials for human health impacts."

Even a chopped-down real Christmas tree ends up looking sad on the side of the road, awaiting collection, by January:

[Image: Shutterstock]

This story serves as a perfect reminder that we must always do our shopper research on carbon footprint before we buy.

Everything we buy and consume has its own carbon footprint story embedded in producing it and getting it to you. These sorts of Christmas decoration have huge amounts of C02 embedded in their production. As shoppers and consumers, we have power to drive change in what we buy, and therefore what gets produced and offered for sale, how we use and maintain things, and what we do with them when we don't want them anymore, or they've reached end-of-life.

What you can do

Become an informed and conscious consumer by researching the environmental, health and safety attributes or problems of the things you want to buy before you go shopping. Using an Internet search engine is an easy way to find consumer advice and endorsements from reputable sources including ethical businesses, government agencies and community-based environment and consumer advocacy groups.

Plan shopping trips by making a mental or written list of what you need to do and buy when you go to town and/or the shops so you do everything you can to make the most of each trip, saving you time and money, and helping the environment.

Study the labels to look for products that have credible environmental claims supported by independent verification, and ask the retailer questions if you have any doubts or queries about the claims being made or the origins of the product.

Finally, beware of generalised environmental claims such as 'eco-friendly' or 'climate neutral' unless they very clearly explain the benefit being claimed and have it independently verified.

Imagine the difference we can make together if we all commit to a low-waste festive season!

[Images: Sina and Imaginechina/Rex]

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