Why you should care

Because don’t you feel guilty killing a helpless Douglas fir every year?

On its own, the notion of spending a decade growing a plant only to chop it down, put it on display for a few weeks and then throw it away is ridiculous. But call it a Christmas tree, and it’s a time-honored tradition. Dean Rafini, a Bay Area firefighter, knew there had to be a better way. One night, while he was watching Shark Tank with his wife, Rafini learned about Scott “Scotty Claus” Martin’s business plan to rent live Christmas trees. “It just made sense,” he says. Mark Cuban thought so, too, which is why he backed it.

Here’s how it works: Customers choose their tree’s type and size online, as well as delivery and pickup dates. Then the elves take care of the rest. The trees, which are kept in a pot, are maintained throughout the year, and when they grow too big to rent out, they’re replanted in urban landscapes or the wilderness. Prices range from $130 to $255, plus a delivery fee, and customers can request the same tree year after year.

Americans purchased 33 million real trees (at a cost of $1.16 billion) and 14.7 million plastic impostors (totaling $1.19 billion) in 2014, up from 24.5 million and 10.9 million, respectively, in 2012.

It’s costly, though, and Martin operates in Los Angeles, not the North Pole, where business is fueled by Christmas spirit. While Martin went on the reality show in 2012, he started The Living Christmas Company in 2008; it has yet to turn a profit. “We’re now at the point when we find out if this can actually work,” Martin says. That’s where Rafini comes in. After watching the program, he reached out to Martin and asked if he could partner with him. So they split the startup costs, and Rafini opened a satellite in Northern California.

San Francisco resident Denise Dettore ordered her first tree online in 2013 and says she’ll never go back. The 46-year-old is single, and, logistically, having someone deliver the 9-foot spruce to her 7th-floor apartment (and then remove it) makes life easier. But she also buys into the concept, which she says embodies the Christmas spirit better than buying trees. “It’s unbelievable we haven’t been doing this for the past 40 years,” she says.

Nurseries that lease trees do exist, but, for the most part, rental services are rare and have yet to be scaled up. Home Depot and Uber got together last December to deliver cuts of green door-to-door — but they were of the already-deceased variety, and the program met a similar fate. At least some tree renters, for either environmental or logistical reasons, wouldn’t otherwise partake in the festivities, says Rick Dungey, the director of the National Christmas Tree Association. “It’s giving people a choice they never had before,” he says. But more important to him, he says, is “anything that prevents people from buying PVC-pipe” fake trees.

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