Five Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint this Thanksgiving

The holiday season is a time for reconnecting with friends and family, giving and receiving, and honoring our long-held traditions. It’s also a time that we might press pause on the things we do throughout the year: we make an exception to our diets, spend a little more than we might otherwise on presents or goodies, or we go a little overboard on the champagne. But the holiday season doesn’t have to be an occasion to undo a commitment to sustainability - indeed, it can be a terrific opportunity to spread the love while reducing our carbon footprint (and lots more). Thanksgiving can be one of the highest emitting holidays of the year, so here are five ways that you can cut your impact and make a difference.


1. Consider going meatless. Of all the dishes at the Thanksgiving table, turkey is by far the highest carbon consumer. According to the Carnegie Mellon Institute, one 16 pound turkey creates 34.2 pounds of CO2, which is the equivalent of roasted Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, biscuits, and apple pie combined. Instead, why not try some plant-based alternatives this year like Tofurky or The Pardon from No Evil Foods? There are so many possibilities for a festive and fulfilling table, you might not even notice that there’s no turkey. If you nonetheless feel like no Thanksgiving is complete without a roasted bird to carve, connect with local farmers to find free-range or heritage birds that will travel shorter distances and have better, more well-rounded diets.

2. Shop Local. While you’re at it, why not try to buy everything locally? That means going to farmers’ markets, or doing a quick search of farms or cooperatives in your area that grow grains, vegetables, fruit, or other ingredients. Locally grown foods will travel shorter distances and leave a much lighter footprint, making them a better choice for your conscience as well as for your recipes. After all, the fresher the food the better!

3. Stay Local. If food that travels a shorter distance is good for the environment, just imagine how much good we’d do if our own journeys were abbreviated. Car or plane travel generates the lion’s share of carbon, and the consequences of this are felt long after the holiday season ends. Consider this: a one way flight from New York to Los Angeles generates 1.1 metric tons of carbon, an amount that would require more than an acre of forest growing for one year to offset it. While no one wants to miss out on seeing their friends or family over the holidays, considering methods like train travel or hybrid car sharing might make a huge difference in the long run for all of us.

4. Wasting Less Means Sharing More. Every year, more than 200 million pounds of turkey gets thrown away over Thanksgiving, making the carbon debt even more astounding and compounding the problem of sustainable holiday eating. Annually, 30-40% of the food supply in America is wasted, but Thanksgiving can be a time for us to think differently about the foods we eat and how much we need. Even if we can’t shop locally all the time, we can shop smarter and reduce the amount we buy as well as using up ingredients that we already have on hand. And if you’ve got leftovers, try composting or using scraps for creative dishes the day after, so that nothing goes to waste.

5. Rethink Tradition. Have you ever looked at the menu for the first Thanksgiving? Think less mashed potatoes or cranberry sauce and more porridge, corn, or guinea fowl. Indeed, the first people to celebrate the holiday did what they could with what was on hand, and celebrated their shared survival from the harsh conditions of early settler life. If we really want to think about a sustainable holiday, we need to think less about upholding the traditions that we think matter and more about making new traditions that reflect our current world. The climate crisis is at a crucial point, and we need a collective effort to bring about positive change. Luckily, we have more food technology and innovation at our disposal than ever before in our human history, and Thanksgiving is the perfect time to see how far we’ve come.