Fall is here, and you know what that means: the mass production of pumpkin-infused products steadily flooding the market are in their full glory. Every storefront is ready with holiday decorations, along with seasonal items that push the festive Fall envelope, like pumpkin spiced Four Lokos, burgers or hummus. Whether or not pumpkin spiced Pringles are your thing, there is another natural cycle that seems just as pervasive during the holidays, and that is the celebration of consumption. The National Retail Federation (NRF), a private sector trade association and advocacy group, has the receipts on these trends.
In a national survey conducted by NRF, 90% of 18 to 24 year olds celebrate Halloween, up from just 84% a decade ago. These consumers plan to spend $3.2 billion on costumes (purchased by 67% of Halloween shoppers), with an additional 29 million consumers who plan on purchasing costumes for their pets, $2.6 billion on candy (95%), $2.7 billion on decorations (72%) and $390 million on greeting cards (34%). These findings indicate that Halloween has significantly grown in popularity over the years, especially among young adults with disposable income.
It can be difficult to isolate exactly how Halloween morphed from its pagan roots, where costumes and candle lighting ceremonies served to ward off wandering spirits, to its present day iteration that celebrates the hyper–consumption of cheaply made goods and serves as a launching point for the continued encouragement of spending through Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Christmas.
It is important to consider how these patterns of spending on decorations, face paint, and even pumpkins have consequences outside of the benefit of consumers and retailers. Seasonal decorations that are mass-produced are so affordable upfront because they are sourced from companies with unfair labor practices and use cheap materials. The long term effects of these items are just as environmentally damaging as they are cruel. According to environmental reports, an estimated 2,000+ tons of plastic waste are linked to costumes alone, most of which have only been worn once—not to mention the single-use utensils, decorations, and debris from wrappers of bulk candy that are generated.
Halloween has elevated the consumption of plastic-derived items by way of synthetic fibers used in costumes and decorations. While unwanted costumes can be donated to prolong their use, this is not a sustainable alternative. Since the passing of the 1953 Flammable Fabrics Act, children’s clothing and other items made with highly flammable materials, like synthetic fibers such as rayon, are made flame retardant using a chemical coating.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Sciences, these chemicals are associated with long term negative health impacts, such as endocrine and thyroid disruption (immune system), reproductive toxicity, cancer and disrupting neurological function. The children toward whom this policy is directed are most vulnerable to these adverse health effects.
The crux of the issue is that Halloween, like other end-of-the-year holidays, encourage these wasteful behaviors. This is because the holidays are deeply intertwined with our capitalistic system and its profit-driven objectives, with what seems to be at the expense of the environment, in order to participate in the holiday fun. Therefore, it is important to be conscious of the carbon footprint of our purchases during holidays, when we are at peak vulnerability. Practicing environmental consciousness during Halloween is important, because it is right on the heels of other holidays, most notably Christmas, that further manipulate our human wired need for connection—such as linking family and friends to making purchases.
That being said, I don’t hold anything against Halloween. I enjoy the collective suspension of belief that is in the air—where everything feels fantastical yet so commonplace. This sentiment can be observed when people transform themselves through full costume and emulate their idols, try on an alter ego, or explore the boundaries of identity. Inversely, I value the acceptance that is practiced by others who are comfortable in their own skin, who maybe aren’t dressed up but are not judging others based on what they are wearing, or even better, celebrating others for their self-expression.
The pressure to conform to gender stereotypes and their accompanying idealized standards of beauty is hyper-saturated in our media consumption. While these standards vary from community to community and country to country, they still involve weaponizing the feeling of inadequacy for not measuring up. The good news is that as a society, we do not have to wait 365 days in order to dare to wear what makes us feel most empowered, silly, or in short—alive. This reality is in tandem with the obvious fact that others do not have to tear people down in order to make themselves feel secure.
The rise in the participation of Halloween does not have to automatically equal an increase in single-use, fast-fashion costumes. It can shift just as readily as it has become a focal point of consumption through repurposing currently owned clothing for costumes, participating or creating clothing/costume swap parties, shopping at second-hand stores for select items that will be incorporated into your wardrobe, and buying items made from recycled content whenever possible. There’s a wealth of zero waste resources available online that can help minimize our collective impact on the planet—which seems like a great reason as any to celebrate pumpkin spice season.