Two “holidays” are set to happen back-to-back during this week: Thanksgiving and Black Friday. According to the dominant American narrative, this period is supposed to be about family time, giving things and sharing love. But for many people, these aren’t really Holidays, especially if you work in the service industry at places like Amazon. Take their Warehouses for example, where during this period mandatory overtime pits workers against the clock, forcing them to stay on their feet 12 to 16 hours a day.
And this was not even considering 2020, a time when these workers will also have to face a life-threatening virus and work in possibly unsafe conditions in order to make their salary.
So, as this consumption centric day of sales is rapidly approaching, let’s take a deep look at Black Friday. Why do we care so much about it, and should we perhaps start to boycott it?
A quick history recap
Black Friday originated in 1960 when Philadelphia’s police department started to complain about the post-Thanksgiving shopping disorders. Since then, the Friday after Thanksgiving has quickly spiraled into a day of consumer mania, with stores like Best Buy, Amazon and Target slashing their prices on items like tech and toys to lure lines of customers into their store. The logic behind all this is pretty simple: once the customer is in the store, he will not only get that $200-off TV he came for, but he’ll also fill up his cart with stuff he never would have otherwise bought.
But regardless of it being an actual holiday or not, Black Friday is, after all, the beginning of the American consumer tradition that is the Holidays itself.
In 2018, in person shopping saw a 2% to 6% drop compared to the previous year. This is thanks to the internet, that allows shoppers to browse and buy directly from the comfort of their own homes. That same year in fact, Cyber Monday brought in a total of 7.9 billion dollars in sales, a number that grew to 9.5 billion USD in 2019. So while the crowds seem to be disappearing, they’re actually not. It’s quite the opposite actually, in fact it’s now become the most lucrative time of the year for many retail companies.
But what’s so bad about Black Friday, an event where companies slash their prices so that everyone can get their hands on the latest gadgets for cheap?
Although some people may be able to only buy actually necessary goods this Friday, much of what is pushing sales are unnecessary luxury goods like smart speakers, the latest Smartphone Pro Max 5G Fold 2 and giant TV’s. In short, Black Friday encourages people to consume regardless of need, and this over-consumption mindset has serious consequences for both the environment and our society. It also contributes to the avalanche of high interest credit card debt that was already existing in the United States, but that could be another topic by itself. As far as the environment, Black Friday packaging and shipping have serious consequences: in 2018, 44.5 million online transactions were made during Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday alone, and with the rise of online shopping, that number is only expected to grow. It will especially grow during this year, with Amazon having already posted the highest quarterly revenue thanks to the pandemic and lockdowns.
This means more wasteful packaging, more fuel burned from the transportation sector, more trucks and vans packing the streets to fufill those two days shipping. Even after those three days, the holiday season has always brought a massive boom in shipping volumes. All this extra shipping is slowly adding up to the emissions of the transportation sector, which already accounts for 30% of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions, the largest share of the bunch. Compounded with the issue of the waste generated from unwanted gifts, returned damaged goods and cheap items that wear out quickly (or are thrown away after a few uses), the shopping sprees of the post-Thanksgiving week are pushing consumerism further further into extremely dangerous territory for both our planet and for the workers that are pressured to fill orders and work for hours and hours in warehouses and retail stores.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday also reflect serious social problems: the arise of needless consumption is the result of a capitalist desire for uncontrolled growth. This has often resulted in valuing a person not on their character, their creativity or the strength of their abilities, but instead on how many luxury commodities they’ve accumulated. A huge part of our economies is devoted to trying to drive these things out of peoples heads, to make you think that all you want is more commodities. It also pushes consumers to ignore the ethical question of whether it’s ok to shop in a company like Amazon, that demand 12 or more hour days from its workers, that trat workers so poorly that one employee once felt like he was “a disposable part of a machine”, that can be thrown out quickly. And Covid-19 surely hasn’t done anything to prove those claims wrong.
So while this structure is terrible for the well being of people, communities and the environment, it’s certainly an excellent way for companies like Amazon to turn a profit.
Is there a solution?
So… can we escape Black Friday? It’s surely complicated, but I’d say yes. But remember that Black Friday is merely a symptom of an erroneous culture, it is not the cause, and there are luckily a few short and long term fixes. Short-term harm reduction strategies are relatively simple: buying less, boycotting unethical and environmentally destructive companies and — perhaps most importantly- embracing a mentality of repairing and caring for the products that you do already have. Essentially, trying to participate less in the harmful consumer culture in which we live.
In addition to short-term individual focused actions, what’s really needed is greater participation in the complex radical social movements for justice. There are already many movements working on long-term systemic changes, pushing for a true progressive climate action that funds decentralized green infrastructure and dignifies jobs.
But this year more than anything has proven that those can often be difficult paths to follow, as social distancing measures have often made it impossible to shop elsewhere: 2020 was the year in which e-commerce shopping became mandatory for many due to lockdowns and restrictions. It is also a year in which small businesses have constantly suffered more than big corporations, having to fire employees and struggling to lock in enough cash to survive. This is not to say that small businesses don’t make any money on marketplaces like Amazon, they’re just the ones that make less money on Black Friday deals because they tend to sell and advertise less through the internet.
And in a year with limited money for almost everyone, maybe we should help the places that need it the most, the ones that populate the streets of our towns and often the major contributors to our communities. After 10 months of difficulty, frustration, division and economic struggle, we should re-focus on what the holiday season is really supposed to be all about: an emphasis on care, interpersonal connection, and a strong relationship with the environment.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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