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Valentine’s Day Is an Environmental Travesty

The carbon costs of greeting cards

Jessica Rinaldi/Getty Images

Friday is Valentine’s Day, the most saccharine holiday of the year.  Ignoring it is noble social protest but, I can report from experience, risky domestic policy. Which is why, over the next two days, millions of consumers will be buying their significant others ridiculous red cards.

According to the industry’s trade group, some 145 million Valentine’s cards are sold in the U.S. every year. Those cards are ridiculous not just because of the sappy sayings on their covers. They’re ridiculous because, on a planet of seven billion people, it’s nuts to buy a piece of card stock, place it into a paper envelope, and give it to someone who (I love you, honey) will smile at it, stuff it in a sock drawer, and, almost certainly, never glance at it again. It’s even crazier to buy said piece of card stock, drive it to the post office, and have the U.S. mail truck it to an airport and then fly it to its destination.

Sure, you could criticize on environmental grounds all manner of small pleasures, such as eating burgers, or driving gasoline-powered cars, or drinking frostily refrigerated beer (all habits in which I happily engage). Yet sending a greeting card is worse as an example of personal carelessness, because its greener alternative is so painless and, indeed, so much more convenient. I don’t like veggie burgers, I can’t afford a Tesla, and I hate warm beer. But forsaking a paper greeting card for an emailed Valentine? I’m pretty sure I—as well as my family and you—could live with that.

Reason is no match for emotion, of course, so it’s no surprise that the dead-tree greeting-card industry continues to thrive. Sentimental pastimes die hard, and greeting cards aren’t Superfund sites. Still, the continued survival of the greeting-card tradition neatly underscores why it’s so difficult to affect far bigger environmental change. At the very least, it suggests people are being less than honest when they tell pollsters they’re interested in making environmental tweaks in their lives, even tweaks that are easy and cheap. It’s hard to believe large percentages of Americans will abide a stiff carbon tax when they’re not willing to stop using throw-away pieces of shiny cardboard to send their love notes.

Not that consumers don’t like to be told that their card-giving is environmentally benign. The greeting-card industry is using all its marketing skill to peddle its products as green.

A U.K. company, Britannia Cards, advertises on a set of earth-friendly greeting cards, each bearing a photo of a flower, lion, or some other icon of nature. The cards are “fully recyclable & biodegradable,” the listing says. They’re also “carbon-neutral,” the company says, because the firm has bought enough “carbon credits” — chits representing investments in projects somewhere on the planet that have the effect of curbing emissions— to offset the carbon that’s emitted in making the cards. (The ad doesn’t address the carbon emissions produced in mailing the cards to the Amazon buyer, or in mailing the cards from the Amazon buyer to the cards’ recipients, or in manufacturing the pen used to write on the cards.)

Leanin’ Tree, a Colorado greeting-card maker, boasts that it prints its cards and envelopes on recycled paper made from trees grown in sustainably managed forests and printed with soy-based ink. “Our products,” the company says on its website, “are made with Mother Earth in mind.”

Americans buy some 6.5 billion greeting cards each year, down slightly from the 7 billion they bought a decade ago, according to the Greeting Card Association. Individual cards average $2 to $4 a pop, but many cards are sold in boxed sets, so, in total, the industry racks up about $7 billion in annual sales. Valentine’s Day is the nation’s second biggest card-selling holiday, behind Christmas, for which 1.6 million cards are sold. According to the trade group, seven of ten card buyers who were polled called greeting cards “absolutely” or “almost” essential to them. Emailed greeting cards haven’t taken any significant bite out of the paper-card market, the association says, because most consumers aren’t willing to pay for a digital greeting.

One piece of information the Greeting Card Association says it doesn’t have is the impact all those cards have on the environment. The pulp-and-paper industry is a major carbon-dioxide emitter and water user. But an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman said the EPA doesn’t track numbers for greeting cards.

Among the measures of a product’s environmental impact is its “carbon footprint”: the amount of carbon dioxide that’s emitted in the product’s manufacturing and use. But, as with Britannia Cards’ Amazon ad, measuring a product’s carbon footprint is dicey business, because the answer depends on what’s included in the calculation. Manufacturing? Manufacturing and transportation? Manufacturing, transportation and consumer use? The list of variables goes on and on.

Assessments of the difference between the carbon footprints of a paper greeting card and an emailed card vary hugely. One estimate claims that making and transporting the average paper holiday card produces about 18.5 grams of carbon dioxide, roughly 600 times the 0.03 grams that it says is generated by the average email. Another puts the carbon footprint of an average greeting card at 60 times the footprint of an email — one-tenth of the first estimate.

Whatever the number, it wasn’t on the mind of a gray-haired man browsing the Valentine’s card aisle at a California bookstore one afternoon this week. He was hardly unthinking about the environment; he wore a bright yellow cycling jacket and held the helmet he wears to commute to and from work. He was there to buy several cards, one for each member of his family. The man, who wouldn’t give his name, said he tried emailing Valentine’s cards years ago but soon returned to paper because his relatives assumed when they got the emailed greetings that he had forgotten to buy them a real card. “The best you could do is email?” he recalls them saying.

The aisle he was browsing that afternoon brimmed with Hallmark cards. One was bigger than most. Its shiny red cover was sheathed in protective plastic. Its two inside flaps were trimmed in velvety black fabric. Its back cover bore this message: “Visit This card is made with recycled paper.”

The website lists a host of environmental moves undertaken by the big greeting-card maker: excess food at employee cafeterias is donated to local food banks; sawdust produced in making card-display stands is recycled; paper used to make cards sold in North America comes from forests certified by third parties as sustainably managed.

To anyone who actually reads the back of the card, that sounds like a reassuring mix. Most people, of course, never will bother to look. I understand why. Literally as I started writing this paragraph, a message flashed onto my computer screen. It was from my 10-year-old daughter. Her request: That, on my way home from work, I stop at the store and buy her a box of Valentine’s cards to hand out to her classmates at school. I laughed. And then I did what any upstanding father would do when faced with a conflict between the good of the environment and the consumerist expectations of his daughter: I bought her the cards.

Jeffrey Ball writes the biweekly Resources column at The New Republic and is scholar-in-residence at Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, a joint initiative of Stanford’s law and business schools.