Bargain hunting season has begun. Or so we are told. At the end of November each year, retailers bombard potential customers with emails and impossible-deal announcements in hopes of pushing their remaining stock before Christmas.
In the United States, where Black Friday originated, the shopping frenzy usually generates billions of dollars in profit in a single day, with revenue increasing every year.
But in recent years the trend has also taken hold in other countries. And while many consumers rave about heavily discounted products, the extravagance of the sales comes at a steep cost to the environment.
Increase in emissions
“Black Friday is an extremely worrying trend,” said Phil Purnell, professor of materials and structures at the School of Civil Engineering at the UK’s University of Leeds.
“Consuming all that material has a huge environmental impact, not just in terms of the pollution created when mining and depleting natural resources to create the stuff you buy, but also in terms of carbon dioxide from transportation,” he has declared. .
An increasing amount of Black Friday shopping takes place online, with a dedicated day – Cyber Monday – designed to prolong hysterical consumerism. And because online shopping involves delivery, it has a much higher carbon footprint rather than shopping at local stores.
The global transport sector currently accounts for up to 4% of global emissions, and the European Parliament estimates that emissions from the global shipping industry alone could rise to 17% by 2050.
Black Friday and holiday shopping, where deals like free shipping and free returns are commonplace, contribute to this problem.
“Our research shows that 400,000 tonnes of CO2 will be released into the atmosphere as a result of Black Friday transport in the UK this year alone,” said Purnell.
A report from 2021 from UK price comparison website Money.co.uk supports these results. Deliveries of Black Friday sales are estimated to release over 429,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent of 435 return flights from London to New York. Or around 0.12% of the UK’s total annual emissions for a comparable year.
Don’t waste, why not
Yet Purnell says the volume of CO2 related to the transport of goods is “absolutely insignificant” compared to that emitted during production.
“Producing your average laptop releases 100 to 200 kilograms [220-440 pounds] of CO2 into the atmosphere and your average tablet probably releases 50 kilograms,” he said. Buying a shirt releases many times more kilograms of CO2 than the kilograms the shirt weighs.
And much of what is bought during the Black Friday season is not destined to have a long life.
A 2019 study based on research by Purnell, who is also co-director of the UK-based Textiles Circularity Center which is working towards a circular textile economy, found that Black Friday purchases are often thrown away after only being used once. The study also found that up to 80% of plastics and household textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated.
Living beyond our means
So why do we buy things we don’t actually need, especially in light of growing environmental awareness?
“People like to shop. There’s a psychological dimension to that. We’re trying to fill a void, we’re trying to fill an emotional need,” said Mathis Wackernagel, founder and president of the international research group Global Footprint Network.
He says people view resource constraints that go hand in hand with climate change as “an inconvenient truth.”
But it’s a reality, he adds, that needs to be clarified as the world is currently using up resources 75% faster than the Earth can renew them.
According to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone on the planet lived as German citizens, we would need the resources of at least three Earths. If everyone consumed as much as people in the United States, we would need Cinque Terre.
Purnell says people “consume for the buzz, the endorphin surge” and the good feelings they get from consuming. “So what we need to do is find alternative, less harmful ways to give people that satisfaction.”
Rethink our values
For Wackernagel, consuming less is a matter of personal interest.
“Every dollar we spend on something that doesn’t help make our lives more valuable in a world of climate change and limited resources is spent building our end.”
He wants the discussion to move away from individual moral responsibility to a pragmatic way of thinking about what’s best for us and what is the logical thing to do.
“That takes away the anxiety. It’s like brushing your teeth,” she said, explaining that we learn to do it because it’s good for health. “The same should apply to keeping our planet healthy. We learn to consume less because that’s simply what makes sense in the current climate.”
For Purnell, it’s also about changing business models.
“We still have an economy dominated by companies that make their money by essentially digging stuff out of the ground, turning it into products, selling it, and then convincing people they need to buy that thing again.”
Green Friday and other alternatives
A growing number of companies are already boycotting Black Friday for environmental reasons or offering alternatives.
Swiss bag and accessory retailer Freitag, for example, wants to turn Black Friday “from a day of shopping to a day of trading”. Therefore, he will close his online shops during this period and instead open swap shops around the world, where people can trade in their old bags rather than buy new ones.
American outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia is not running a campaign, but is instead donating 100% of its Black Friday weekend sales to environmental causes.
And throughout November, beauty company Deciem advertised “slow shopping” using its social media channels to raise awareness of Black Friday’s negative impacts.
At the same time, “Green Friday”, which promotes responsible shopping, such as shopping in small local shops or buying second-hand items, is also gaining ground as an alternative.
Wackernagel welcomes these trends. “We need to develop a desire to change our behavior instead of putting moral pressure on people. It’s about creating positive experiences around consuming less. This will create the change we need to adapt to a world of climate change and limited resources” , he has declared.
Edited by: Tamsin Walker