Waste-ing away Valentine’s Day

Love is in the air. Or maybe it’s consumerism.
Walking into any store in America in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, it seems that love is not so much a feeling as it is a product.
Massive Valentine’s Day-themed stuffed animals greet you at the entrance of your local Walmart. Flawless white and red roses wrapped in plastic are not-so-subtly placed next to heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, and home decor items in shades of pink and red implore you to redefine your space, however temporarily.
Brick-and-mortar stores are not the only culprit: check your email, scroll through Instagram or catch a TV commercial in February, and you are sure to be inundated with ads for flower-delivery services and personalized jewelry. Every message surrounding the holiday seems to say that this item — practical or not — will communicate love and appreciation.
But what happens when the flowers die and the fuzzy stuffed bear sits on the shelf? What have we done to the planet, and ourselves, in the process?
Associate Professor and Chair of Environmental Science and Sustainability Beth Choate explained that virtually every aspect of the holiday as we experience it now has a negative environmental impact.
“Really, it’s excess at its finest,” Choate said, referring to a chart on her computer indicating that Americans are expected to spend $25.9 billion on Valentine’s Day this year. That number has only grown over the past decade, with spending on the holiday increasing by $2 billion from last year, according to statista.com.
As someone who specializes in life-cycle analysis, Choate is well aware of the environmental impact that the holidays have, especially ones like Valentine’s Day, which demands that every element be perfect.
“Flowers for cut-flower production is a very insecticide-intense process because you don’t want those flowers to have any blemishes on them,” Choate said. “Nobody wants roses that are browning on the edges or have little chunks taken out of them by bugs.”
From flowers to teddy bears to the wrapping paper we package our gifts in, holiday consumption is particularly resource-intensive.
“If you think of the life-cycle analysis of wrapping paper and the footprint that leaves behind, there’s paper involved, but then there’s also dyes that have to be put on to make patterns, and there’s cardboard tubes,” Choate said. “So everything has a huge footprint, and when you think about how much of that stuff some people are buying and consuming, it gets pretty overwhelming.”
Most concerning is the shift from simply romantic love around Valentine’s Day to include platonic love as well. Valentine’s Day now extends to classmates, friends and family, adding to the need to consume.
Choate said that, as a parent, the expectation of consumption is all-too prevalent.
“I don’t see it as an option to not send valentines in, because (my son) would feel left out,” she said. “There’s a whole social construct around this.”
The construct is one that relies on our expectation, in two directions. We want to receive gifts as a way of knowing that someone appreciates us, while also feeling the need to give gifts to keep up with the norm.
This phenomenon is one that Associate Professor and Department Chair of Psychology Lydia Eckstein explained is so strong that we are likely to participate in the holiday because it is the norm, regardless of our true feelings toward the day.
“There’s so much marketing around (Valentine’s Day) that suggests that there’s a cultural norm,” Eckstein said. “In order to show our love and care and affection, we should get something and we should give something. Whenever there’s a norm, when we violate that norm, that makes us feel like we’re in the wrong or we’re the odd ones out.”
Katie Burgess, ’24, believes that the expectation to buy for friends and partners can be overwhelming, especially this time of year.
“It’s nice to get things for the people you care about,” Burgess said. “But gift exchanges can be a lot, especially after Christmas and the holidays.”
For those looking to have less of an impact on the environment, there are several alternatives to traditional Valentine’s Day celebrations.
“One of the alternatives is we push back against it,” Eckstein said. “In psychology we would call that reactance, whenever we feel like, ‘I actually don’t have a choice here.’ The other alternative is to find ways to express care and affection that are not hinging on mindlessly consuming.”
The idea is not to abolish Valentine’s Day. It can be nice to take a day to show love for the people in your life, but that message does not have to come in the form of a tangible object. Cooking a meal, making a playlist or going to a concert with your significant other are all ways to demonstrate love without putting strain on the planet.
“There are lots of studies that show that experiences — and actually having that experience with someone — has a lot more meaning and makes you feel better in the way that purchasing does for a very short-term,” Choate said.