Around F.C.

An Evergreen Holiday Debate: Real vs. Fake Trees

“You Want Lights? I got Lights,” says Falls Church Home Depot’s assistant store manager Blake Storey, who’s gesturing to the store’s artificial tree selection. Consumers say they still prefer real trees, despite surges in fake tree sales as recently as last year. (Photo: Patricia Leslie)

It may be a new holiday season with new presents to wrap and new meals to whip up but one age-old debate still flickers on — whether locals will buy a real or fake tree to decorate their home this season.

Statistics suggest most homes prefer organic options, as the National Christmas Tree Association says from 2004 – 2016 Americans continued to prefer natural trees to artificial ones.

That trend has remained strong despite a climbing price for real trees and a recent surge in fake tree sales. Higher prices for natural trees this year are a reflection of fewer trees planted seven to 10 years ago due to the bigger supply then as well as the recession. Last year, U.S. buyers purchased 27.4 million farm-grown trees and 18.6 million artificial trees. Since 2006, real tree sales have held steady but last year, fake tree sales shot up by almost 47 percent over 2015 sales.

But customers browsing the artificial Christmas trees at Home Depot’s Falls Church store last week had come and gone. A few walked by the row of options when one couple stated, “We’re just looking at the lights.” Nobody was buying.

Early on, the retailer’s $1,000, 7-and-a-half-foot tree with thick branches and 10,000 lights sold out, said assistant store manager Blake Storey, and Home Depot ordered more of them and cut the price in half.

The home improvement store carries more than 300 varieties of artificial trees with prices ranging from $14.99 to $5,000, dependent upon the number and kinds of lights, height, branches, shape and remote control capabilities.

Home Depot has real trees, too, which outsell their synthetic cousins about 10 to 1, Storey said.

Over in the real tree department outside, customers trading dollars for trees proved his point.

Virtually every seller and buyer interviewed by the Falls Church News-Press mentioned the Christmas tree smell which Home Depot does not sell in a can.

Arlington’s Roberta Thibodaux, who said she tried an artificial tree but gave it up after a year, was there to buy a real one. “I like the idea and the smell of it. It has more memories with the smell of Christmas,” she said. “I like to decorate with the leftover greens.”

Another customer, Alex Lizarraga also from Arlington, echoed Thibodaux’s feelings. She had an artificial tree for five years until she and her family ditched it for an earthly grown tree two years ago.

“We like the smell. Putting the [artificial] tree back in the box is a real pain” which she said twice to make her point, “and that goes for putting it together and then back in the box.”

Over at East Falls Plaza, Chris Anastasio has been selling wreaths and Fraser Firs from North Carolina in the parking lot for 15 years.

Anastasio and his assistant Charles Deveaux said customers like to take home tree clippings to use for decorations and some even spread the cuttings in their artificial trees for the smell.

Joe Rivera had come from McLean to shop at the lot as he has for years. “It’s a tradition that I buy from these people. They are fair-priced and you avoid the McLean excise tax.”

He buys real because he can afford one, he says, unlike when he was a child and grew up with a rotating silver lighted aluminum tree which is now worth big bucks as an antique.

“People collect the weirdest things,” Rivera said.

Falls Church’s Julie Andre arrived at the tree lot straight from work.

“I always buy a real tree. I buy for the smell, the authenticity of it. I grew up with one,” she said, as she took in the tree fragrance and glanced at branches on the cold and cloudy day. She says she’d never consider an artificial and would pay twice as much in McLean for a real tree.

Real trees aren’t for everyone though. Claire Emory of Arlington bought her first artificial tree this year “because I wanted a white tree and natural trees don’t come in white.” White matched her color scheme for the big Christmas party she hosts every year, and she was looking for white, ivory, gold, blue and silver.

And sometimes, the convenience of an artificial tree is too enticing to pass up. Jim Edwards-Hewitt of Fairfax said he and his wife inherited her parent’s artificial tree which the Edwards-Hewitts have had for five or six years. “I like real trees better but we are too lazy to get one. We don’t always put up a tree but we always put up garlands and strings of lights and particularly our Star Trek ornaments.”

Consumers justifying their purchase of real trees over artificials, or vice versa, to stymie harmful ecological effects may be overstating any repercussions. In several studies reviewed, the environmental benefits of each are more or less the same when considered over their life spans.

Although it takes more resources to make an artificial tree, over its average lifespan, cost for an artificial versus a real trees cost is lower. However, artificials do contain polyvinyl chloride which produces carcinogens when the trees are manufactured and disposed.

Real trees are sustainable since 98 percent of them are grown and harvested on farms, birds enjoy them, they are recyclable (fakes are not), and they soak up carbon dioxide. And there’s the beauty: tree farms are lovely and refreshing to see.

To reduce transportation costs (80 percent of fakes come from China), it’s better to buy locally and if it makes you feel better and the smell is critical, buy what you want and don’t feel guilty about it.