Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Buy The Thing On This Day – the holiday season is a minefield of sales, promotions and adverts. Irene Sullivan reflects on Black Friday and its place in a system of extractive consumption.

Contrary to popular belief, Black Friday did not originate as a way to create enough profit to put businesses “in the black”. The term is actually thought to originate in Philadelphia, where police began calling the hectic day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday,” as a result of the mayhem brought by shoppers descending on the city in advance of the holiday season. Sales days such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday are designed to encourage us to spend compulsively. By limiting the time period of a sale, price points create a sense of urgency – to buy during a scarce opportunity.

Does the consumer really benefit?

For many of us, sales days and cheap deals may allow us to purchase items that we wouldn’t normally be able to afford. This is important to note, as living sustainably is often more expensive than it should be. However, for many people, Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals simply encourage a wave of mindless consumption. Given that a survey by Finder of 1,201 Irish adults conducted in October 2021 found that 11% of those surveyed shopped on Black Friday due to boredom, it may be time to rethink our urge to participate. 

Additionally, Black Friday deals may not be the bargain they claim to be, with research by Which? determining that in 2020, a staggering number of Black Friday deals were fake, with 85% of sales items assessed being the same price or cheaper in the 6 months prior to Black Friday. Many of us are already suspicious of the legitimacy of Black Friday sales, with 10% of Irish adults believing that retailers increase prices before sales. 

Planet Earth in the Red

Black Friday is bad news for a number of reasons. Small companies and businesses lose profit to giant competitors, and so money moves from local communities to big corporations (many of which contribute comparatively little in tax). Black Friday sales and deals dupe consumers into spending large sums of money on items that are discarded quickly, despite having required a considerable number of natural resources for their production. Perhaps worst of all, online giants such as Amazon  dump millions of euro worth of returned or unsold items (and their packaging) annually, because it’s cheaper to do this than to return products to the economy through refurbishment, redistribution or reselling. Up to 80% of items (and their packaging) purchased on Black Friday are disposed after no use at all, or just a single use.

Research by AIB estimated that consumers in Ireland will spend approx. €25,000 a minute online during Black Friday, with almost a third of that being spent on clothing. Considering the devastating impacts that the fast-fashion industry has on people and planet, this is not good news. AIB has predicted that electronics will be the second biggest spending category, with €4,400 forecast to be spent every minute on electrical items. The U.N.’s latest Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report estimates that global e-waste (defined as being discarded products with a battery or plug) will reach 74 Mt by 2030. This makes e-waste “the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fuelled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few options for repair”. Staggeringly, just 17.4% of global e-waste was recycled in 2019. Though Ireland recycled a record level of electrical goods last year, WEEE Ireland claims that the boom in electronics sales during 2020 has made it difficult to meet recycling targets.

Following the destruction of decades of Black Fridays, campaigns such as #BoycottBlackFriday have gathered significant online participation. Buy Nothing Day, a campaign which encourages us to simply not participate in consumer culture for the Black Friday weekend, has also garnered attention. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged many of us to pursue activities which are much less carbon-intensive than shopping, a trend which once again raises the question of whether or not having lots of stuff really makes us happy. However, it’s understandable that we want to give and receive gifts during the holiday period. Therefore, the best approach to minimising spending and operating sustainably during holiday shopping is to think critically:

  • What do you really need to buy? 
  • Can you pursue the option of more sustainable gift options? 
  • What low-cost, sustainable gifting avenues can you explore?

Black Friday alternatives 

A wide selection of zero-waste and sustainable gift options is being sold by numerous eco-focused businesses, makers and artists in Ireland. Minimal-waste or zero-waste shops are becoming more and more ubiquitous in Irish cities and towns. If you can walk or take public transport to collect items at your store of choice, this can reduce the transport carbon emissions of your purchase. If you shop online, try to bundle your items to be shipped together, and choose standard rather than super-fast delivery, as this will reduce emissions from transport. A simple online search of “sustainable zero-waste gifts,” will return a list of websites selling a variety of Irish businesses selling Irish products. Spending in the local economy is beneficial for a whole host of reasons: it keeps the cycle of spending local, builds community wealth, and minimises carbon emissions from transporting goods. 

One can also buy “experiences,” for others, via tickets to live gigs or other events/venues. You could plant a tree, or donate to a cause of your choice, in the name of your loved one. Many charities, such as Oxfam Ireland and Choose Love, offer the option of buying gifts for those in need. These “gifts,” are often life-essentials, such as warm winter clothing, tents and medical care for refugees, or clean water and sanitation for those living without. Charities working to protect the environment also benefit hugely from donations. These gifts are a great way to help others while reducing your carbon footprint, preventing waste going to landfill, and put a smile on the face of your loved one (who might have enough stuff already – or is difficult to buy for!).

Choosing a different path

Those of us with a lower budget can maximise sustainability points by shopping second-hand online or in-store. Charity shops, second-hand stores and apps such as Depop offer a huge variety of potential gift items, all while supporting local people or good causes. Making something for a loved one is always a wonderful thing to do. You could try participating in MAKE SMTHNG, a movement which encourages people to make or repair items to give to others because, “If we want to have a chance of staying below 1.5C, we need a system change fuelled by many more people taking everyday climate action and changing the way we live, consume and behave (…).” 

Some studies suggest that we’re beginning to lose interest in big sales days which try to inspire us to buy and spend voraciously – particularly following the advent of Covid-19, which encouraged us to protect front-line staff and to value our time with loved ones. 

This year, let’s make informed, conscious shopping choices, and ensure that our purchasing power reflects our values.

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