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The Environmental Dark Side of Black Friday

Ashley Robinson
November 16, 2023

Halloween is long gone, everyone is planning their Thanksgiving menus, and retailers across the world are starting to hype one thing: Black Friday deals.

Black Friday marks the start of the holiday shopping season and is the biggest single shopping event in the US and, increasingly, the global economy. And with the addition of online shopping and Cyber Monday, this year’s sales are projected to be the highest ever. Last year, Americans spent over 9 billion dollars on consumer goods over the Black Friday weekend.

Before the widespread adoption of online shopping, Black Friday was a notoriously hectic and, at times, violent day, where people rushed to the stores to get deeply discounted consumer goods. Now, with more and more options to get deals online, a lot of that shopping now happens without the drama but with a huge environmental cost. And the ease of the online deal has meant increases in Black Friday sales every year.

There’s some debate over whether shopping online or in-person (specifically in-person using a car as transportation) generates more emissions, but no matter how you slice it, Black Friday purchases and deliveries generate massive amounts of emissions. Every item that is shipped from a warehouse to a person’s home takes packaging, and the delivery itself can generate a lot of emissions, not to mention the cost of frequent returns for impulse buys. One recent study estimated that 2021 Black Friday deliveries in the UK alone generated 386,243 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the equivalent of 215 flights between London and Sydney.

And that’s not even talking about the consumer waste itself. Black Friday deals incentivize people to buy things they might not buy otherwise, which often means that these items are not meant to be used long-term. It’s estimated that 80% of Black Friday purchases end up in landfills or incinerated after a very short life. Cheap electronics and fast fashion items are big culprits here, and almost none of these items get recycled. This means the resources (sometimes rare resources, if we’re talking electronics) used to make the products are used just once before they are trashed. Long story short, Black Friday is a day that encourages rampant consumption, and the toll on the environment is sky-high every way you look at it.

Thankfully, both consumers and retailers are starting to question the value of Black Friday from ethical, environmental, and even economic standpoints. As the crisis of climate change becomes more and more evident, and the cost of living continues to skyrocket, a lot of people are starting to ask: why do we do this? And is there a better way?

Many retailers have begun to change the narrative around Black Friday in a few ways. REI was the first retailer to make Black Friday headlines when they chose to opt out entirely, closing their stores and not offering any special sales at all, instead encouraging people to skip the big shopping day and go outside instead. And in addition to the ethical and environmental concerns, many smaller retailers have begun to skip Black Friday sales entirely simply because they can’t afford to offer the deep discounts that giant corporations can. Whether for ethical or practical reasons, many smaller businesses are starting to question the hype of Black Friday.

Other companies are using Black Friday as an opportunity to talk about a circular economy, which aims to keep materials and products in circulation as long as possible. For example, this backpack company will give you a $50 credit if you send them your old backpack because they have a way to reuse the materials instead of that old backpack going into the landfill. This clothing company skips discounts, closes for Black Friday, and offers free repairs on anything you’ve previously purchased in hopes that the items can continue to be used for even longer. These are small pieces of the puzzle in reducing waste and creating a circular economy, but the growing movement towards these kinds of policies from retailers is a hopeful sign that we’re beginning to really question the true cost of rampant consumerism of Black Friday.

Some activists also use the day as a chance to protest and call for environmental leadership from megacorporations. One such protest is called Make Amazon Pay, which calls for consumers to skip purchasing from Amazon around Black Friday until the company addresses the role it plays in the climate emergency we face, along with a long list of labor demands. These activists want Amazon to address harmful product sourcing, high emissions from its fragmented delivery system, and the large amounts of waste created along all parts of the chain of its business. The climate emergency certainly isn’t caused by only one company, but these protests against the big global retailers are gaining momentum as consumers become more aware of the true cost of convenience and cheap consumer goods.

As an individual, it’s worth simply considering whether to engage with Black Friday at all. Since the 1990’s, a lot of people have celebrated Buy Nothing Day on the day after Thanksgiving, which is exactly what it sounds like—a day to not shop. If you’re considering the environmental cost of our consumer goods and the financial costs of modern life, just opting out entirely for the day is a great solution to the problems of Black Friday.

Every bit of marketing and promotion that goes into Black Friday is designed to get consumers to spend as much money as possible, regardless of the cost to individuals and the environment. But one of the best ways to combat overconsumption on an individual level is to avoid the trap of sales. Just because something is on sale does not mean it is a good deal, and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s a necessary and good purchase. The fact that 80% of Black Friday purchases end up quickly in landfills shows pretty clearly that we don’t really need a lot of what we buy that day. Those items took resources, labor, and energy to create, and the scale of waste we’re generating just to get a “deal” is enormous.  

While the deals might be tempting, the environmental reality of Black Friday is quite dark. This year, consider taking a beat before diving into the sales and ask if it’s really worth it. And if you’re going to do some shopping, try having a list of what you’re looking for to avoid impulse purchases, and as always, look to buy items that will last over time, not go right into the landfill. If possible, try to group shipments together to minimize the emissions generated with deliveries. And remember that you can always find a deal another day if you really need it.

If Black Friday and similar discount days are what you use to afford things you really do need, there is no shame in that. Life is expensive! Just be sure to do some thinking in advance to avoid wasting your money and contributing to environmental destruction if it’s not even going to improve your life in a real and lasting way.

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