Black Friday hasn’t always been about big sales in the run-up to Christmas.
Some of the earliest uses of the term ‘Black Friday’ were in reference to the US gold market crash of 1869 and stock market crash of 1929. In the 1950s, police in Philadelphia used the term ‘Black Friday’ to refer to the day after Thanksgiving and the chaos that ensued when huge crowds would descend upon the city for the start of the Christmas shopping season. This side of the pond, the emergency services nicknamed the last Friday before Christmas Eve ‘Black Friday’ – one of their busiest nights of the year due to the many Christmas parties that take place.
Black Friday as we know it began in the late 1980s, as retailers linked it to their post-Thanksgiving sales. But it wasn’t until 2010 that Black Friday arrived in the UK, beginning with Amazon and other American-owned retailers. Nowadays, Black Friday isn’t confined to one day or weekend, with deals brought in weeks or even months beforehand.
Despite Black Friday arriving in the UK relatively recently, many of us now regard it as the best time to snap up some great deals and potentially save huge amounts of money. In fact, shoppers in the UK are expected to spend £9.2 billion in 2021. But attitudes are shifting, and Black Friday is increasingly being recognised as a festival of consumerism, exacerbating the harmful impacts of over-consumption.
Put simply, Black Friday encourages us to buy things we don’t need, purely because they’re cheap. In the weeks leading up to the event, articles are published advising us of the most ‘unmissable’ deals and savings. And, psychologically, we are susceptible to these offers. The short-lived deals and intense competition compel us to act impulsively due to fear of missing out. We’re rewarded with a sense of “winning” – we outsmarted the other consumers and the retailer by scoring the best deal, and we feel good about it.
This need to buy and take advantage of the sales even fuels violence. In 2008, a Walmart employee died after being trampled by desperate customers and several shootings have occurred after arguments outside of shops in the US. In 2014, police were called to 15 different Tesco locations as people fought over discount electronics and other goods.
The environmental implications of mass consumerism are also huge. Producing all these items is extremely costly for the planet, with high levels of water and resource usage, waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the textile and fashion industries alone use an estimated 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, and account for 20% of industrial water pollution. What’s more, Black Friday deliveries are responsible for an annual surge in CO2 emissions, as well as enormous volumes of plastic packaging.
Similarly, as we are encouraged to buy new products, our old ones make their way to landfill. In fact, a report by Green Alliance states that up to 80 per cent of plastics, textiles and electronics go to landfill, incineration, or low-quality recycling after being discarded. Those purchases you regret and return? They likely end up in landfill too. A large proportion of returned goods are not resold, as many companies instead send them to landfill – a choice that saves money by eliminating the need to check and repackage each item. And the old clothes you donate to charity to make room for more? An estimated 70-90% are shipped abroad, largely to Sub-Saharan Africa, where they are sold for pennies and undercut domestic textile production.
There are other ethical implications of our mass consumerism, too. In an effort to produce goods for the lowest possible price, many companies base their operations in developing countries with lax labour laws, and force employees to work long hours in unsafe conditions for a low wage. Even in the UK, companies such as Amazon are known to subject their employees to mentally and physically intense conditions in order to increase efficiency and reduce labour costs.
Some retailers, particularly small and independent businesses, are beginning to respond with Black Friday boycotts. They are refusing to cut prices, switching their websites off, planting trees, donating profits to charity, or otherwise engaging in “Anti-Black Friday” campaigns. Some consumers are also choosing to boycott the day by simply buying nothing.
So, how can we navigate this? One option is to engage in the boycotts, whether that means refusing to buy at all on Black Friday, or only buying from retailers who aren’t engaging in the sales. Alternatively, give your support to independent retailers and small businesses, who may or may not be offering discounts. If you’re choosing to buy on Black Friday – or any day – be mindful and intentional about what you’re buying.
Ask yourself whether you really need it, whether it’s built to last, and whether you’d be buying it if it wasn’t on sale. That speaker you’ve been saving up for, or the new raincoat you need? Go for it! But those novelty stress ball stocking fillers, or that funny “gag” gift that will end up in the bin on Boxing Day? How about the cheap jumpers that look suspiciously similar to the ones already in your wardrobe? Perhaps you ought to reconsider.
– M Shelton
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