The fight before Christmas: real trees vs. fakes

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For years, consumers tired of schlepping to tree farms and vacuuming up pine needles have turned to artificial Christmas trees. Now, growers and suppliers of real Christmas trees are battling back, and the fight is getting nasty.

The Web site of the National Christmas Tree Association refers to some fake trees as "big green toilet bowl brushes." The group has also started distributing an online game called "Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees," where kids can vaporize garishly colored conifers by pelting them with virtual snowballs.

Name-calling aside, the real-tree industry's main tactic is to tap into consumers concern for the environment. Environmental experts generally agree that real trees are the more earth-friendly choice since wood is a renewable resource, and trees provide oxygen and help reduce carbon dioxide -- a contributor to global warming. Artificial trees are usually made with petroleum.

"Buy a Real Tree So We Can Keep Making More Oxygen for You," proclaim new signs posted this year around Sunrise Tree Farm, in Kings Valley, Ore. Tags attached for the first time to trees this year at Yule Tree Farms in Aurora, Ore., tell customers the business is dedicated to "sustainable agriculture practices." One new ad for Aldrich Tree Farm in Belmond, Iowa, says: "Fake Trees Can Do More Harm than City Fellers on a Farm."

The moves by the real-tree industry follow years of growing sales of artificial trees. Advances in artifical-tree design have made them more appealing to many consumers: Some fake trees are more realistic-looking while others come in funky colors and have wacky features. One latest offering from the Web site christmastreeforme.com, for example, has a transparent plastic trunk filled with colored bubbles. Another, the black Christmas tree, was one of the site's most popular products this year, says owner Bill Quinn, and was sold out by early December.

Many consumers also see faux trees -- which last for years, don't need to be watered and can come dressed with lights -- as more convenient. While more people still opt for real over artificial, sales of fake trees have been climbing in recent years. Approximately 9.3 million American households purchased an artificial tree in 2005, up 27 percent from 2001, according to surveys by the National Christmas Tree Association, an industry group in Chesterfield, Mo. Meanwhile, 32.8 million households bought a natural tree in 2005, up just 18 percent in the period.

Many of those artificial trees are imports: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 9.6 million plastic trees were imported last year, up from 8.8 million the year before.

Stephanie Doerr, of Jacksonville, Fla., said her black faux Christmas tree allowed her to be more creative with her decorating. She put the tree in her black-and-red dining room, she said, and covered it with pearly red-and-white lights and Asian-themed ornaments, such as tiny pagodas. "You could do it with a green tree," she said, "but when you put lights on a different-color tree, you get a different effect."

Still, the message of the real tree industry is leading some former faux-loving families to make the switch back to the real thing. Several years gao, Brian and Sallie Hirst of Boonville, Mo., bought an artificial tree because it was easy to set up and didn't require any watering. This year, they decided to switch back to a real tree because they missed the pine smell and the fun of an outing to a nearby tree farm. Mr. Hirst, an insurance agent, also said environmental reasons played a role. "It's a natural organic compound that will enrich the soil when it decays. Plastic doesn't do that," he says.

Environmental experts, however, say there is a downside to real trees: After real trees are discarded, they will emit carbon dioxide when they burn or decay.

Some tree farmers are encouraging the sale of more than one tree per family and have even gone from referring to "cutting a tree" to "harvesting a tree" as a way to emphasize that trees are a renewable resource.

Becky Rasmussen, a communications specialist with the industry association, says the group is trying to battle the perception among some people that they are robbing the forest if they buy a real tree. Instead, she says, trees are grown on farms like crops. "When you cut corn people don't say you are killing the corn plant," she says. "It's the same thing with trees."

Other retailers are selling trees people can plant when Christmas is over. Garth Herring, president of www.noblefir.com, started offering potted trees for the first time this year, as did Yule Tree Farms, which began selling the three-foot to four-foot potted trees on its Internet retail site, oregonsnoblevintage.com, for $80, including delivery.

The latest tree farm advertising efforts are part of a broader campaign by the National Christmas Tree Association that was expanded in 2004 to combat declining sales. Among its other efforts: convincing people well-watered trees are less flammable then fakes. The association posted pictures of singed artificial trees and sent a video to news outlets showing a firefighter trying unsuccessfully to torch a real one. A "fake tree" section on the industry's Web site says artificial ones were invented by a toilet brush company and "the first fake Christmas trees were really just big green toilet bowl brushes."

The industry association is also playing up the American-made angle, pointing out that most artificial trees are manufactured in China, while the U.S. tree industry creates more than 100,000 U.S. jobs.

Organic tree farms are also cropping up around the country, capturing the interest of more eco-conscious consumers. One is Chestnut Charlie's in Lawrence, Kan., where owner Charles NovoGradac says he sells about 100 to 150 trees a year. He says most customers are local people who just want a fresh tree, but some "specifically want organic."

Meanwhile, the artificial tree industry is ramping up its offerings. This year, new retailer Balsam Hill offers 16 models of trees, some with branches that are molded from real trees and subtle color variations so the needles look and feel real. The company's Vermont White Spruce starts at $279. The 12-feet-tall version with lights, which goes for $2,300, was sold out Dec. 10.

High-end retailer Frontgate also redesigned its Noble Fir this year to create a more lifelike tree. Online retailer treeclassics.com this year added three new models made from polyethylene, which gives the branches a more natural look. In addition, the company stocked slimmer trees, which are about 43 inches wide, compared with 58 to 68 inches for a standard tree. They appeal to some consumers because they take up less space and are easier to set up, says company owner Leon Gamze. Older people "don't want the hassle. They just want something that says Christmas," Mr. Gamze says.

Ellen and Jim Cochran were tired of spending each December searching for a tree with the right shape and then painstakingly putting up the lights. This year, they decided to spend more than $800 on a high-end imitation Noble Fir instead. "To look at it from a distance, you wouldn't know it was fake," says Ms. Cochran, an administrative worker in Huntsville, Ala.

Despite the variety of designs and easier maintenance of artificial trees, many consumers still opt for the real thing. "It's more Christmassy than pulling something out of a box," says Troy Lenger, a truck operator who was recently buying a tree at Starr Pines Christmas Tree Farm in Boonville, Mo. "It probably takes just as much time to water than to read the instructions of how to put together a fake one."



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