Environment, class conflict, and economics: what stands behind Black Friday deals

As the holiday season is slowly approaching, people are more than eager to shop: be it essentials, presents for significant others, or simple knick-knacks smartly advertised to them by the retailers. Black Friday is known for its extraordinary deals, and, as a result, chaos in stores: research showed that around a quarter of customers feel anxious and stressed when shopping on this day every year, and police are often called to the stores due to increased reports of violence and disorder. This year the world didn’t witness annual Black Friday chaos in malls, which may at first sound upsetting for retailers, but in fact, customers cyber-crowded websites for online shopping. 

Did consumers spend less this year due to the corona-crisis and economic downfall? Statistics disagree with that: this year on Black Friday customers were spending around $6 million every minute in the US alone, which made it the second-largest online spending day in the history of the country. While stores experienced a decline of 8.6% in-store sales, the online sales escalated by 48.3% compared to previous years. Though consumers didn’t disappoint with the demand, the question of profitability for retailers didn’t get solved by that :a spike in online sales imposed retailers with additional costs of packaging and shipping the products. However, there’s better news for retailers: The Economist reported that holiday sales are expected to grow by 5% compared with 2019, as consumers saved on corona-unfriendly activities such as travel, restaurants, and other leisure, meaning they are more likely to boost their consumption in this holiday season.

It seems like Black Friday didn’t experience much of a downfall in 2020 as retailers were scared, but is it in fact a good thing?

While Black Friday is a great opportunity for people with economic restraints to purchase necessities, it perpetuates excessive consumerism for those who already own more than enough, which eventually leads to environmental consequences. It is no secret that consumerist mentality harms the environment — with more unnecessary items purchased, more items are thrown away. But not only more products are purchased, the products have become more disposable: produced of low quality material, they serve short for consumers, but stay long in our landfills and oceans, making it more likely for future archaeologists to find remains of synthetic joggers rather than fossils of animals. This year’s Black Friday was largely held online, meaning retailers were busy packaging and shipping their products, which is expected to generate massive amounts of unnecessary plastic waste and carbon footprint all over the world. 

Consumerism mentality, perpetuated by Black Friday, isn’t just an environmental issue. It is a socio-economic conflict, as well. Tax avoiding companies are the ones who profit most on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Since shoppers moved online this year, Amazon, Ebay, Apple and other giants of the industry are expected to receive huge revenues. Besides, many of the most profitable retailers are the least ethical ones: be it fast fashion stores, tech companies or retail corporations. Not only many of them avoid taxation, but they also don’t pay their workers fair wages, don’t provide adequate working conditions, and abuse child labor. During the coronavirus outbreak, various fast-fashion stores refused to pay garment workers for work done pre-pandemic, because there was a sudden drop in demand on behalf of consumers. Since orders (completed or mid production) worth $1.3 billion were cancelled and/or suspended, around 4 million workers in Bangladesh were unemployed overnight. None of the brands was held responsible, and they are even expected to gain more during this holiday season, while workers in the third world countries, where most of the production chain is located, are put onto more pressure. Retailers expect higher sales, so production needs to be increased prior to Black Friday. Not only do they have to produce more, but a big question of fair pay rises up again: with 90% sales and a spike in company’s profits during Black Friday, what in the end trickles down to workers? It’s been known that big corporations exploit people of color, children, ethnic minorities and women, but Black Friday sales exacerbate this conflicting side of the industry by putting more pressure on workers and generating more profit for the unethical retailers.

And while some brands stay notorious and rich, there’s still plenty of retailers that follow codes of conduct, provide fair wages and working conditions, use environmentally friendly materials for production, and are transparent about their chains of production. Many of them aren’t affordable to everyone, yet it is still possible to shop consciously by simply buying only what you need, even if it is not the most sustainable or ethical option. Haven’t had the chance to shop at sustainable stores this Black Friday? Doesn’t seem to be a problem this year: again, as retailers were scared of shrink in demand, many of them implemented a spread-out strategy for sales. In fear of losing profit companies make sales more spread now, starting the deals much earlier this year (a “pull-forward” strategy), as early as mid-October, and planning to sustain them throughout the beginning of holiday season. 

This year’s top picks are also very different from the history of Black Friday. Pandemic largely dictated this year’s shopping trends, bringing profits for stay-at-home categories, as people work remotely, exercise at home, cook more instead of dining out, and find new ways of entertainment at home as a complement for travel and going out. Likewise in the early months of corona-outbreak, slippers, sweatpants and camping gear have remained popular — people keep their attire comfy and casual and look for safe ways to socialize, such as outdoor hiking, dancing or running. And, noteworthy, e-commerce experienced huge growth in demand as most of the world’s population turned to their screens on Zoom for work and study, including all age groups from as early as kindergarten students. These industries were the most popular this year, and, hence, offered (or might still be offering) the most tempting deals.

Shop if you haven’t yet, but shop consciously — support niche and ethical businesses, seek out environmentally friendly alternatives when possible, keep your distance when shopping and keep in mind Jeff Bezos makes $150 thousand every minute you hesitate buying between fair brands and irresponsible corporations.