Black Friday – widely considered the first day of the Christmas shopping season – is celebrated this year on 26 November. “Celebrated” might not be the best term to use, however, when you consider the injury and death toll the day has historically brought.
Since Black Friday always falls on the Friday following the American holiday of Thanksgiving, its appearance in the UK and elsewhere across the world is at best culturally irrelevant and at worst crass. It’s mainly used to ramp up consumer demand to a feverish intensity as Christmas approaches.
There is nothing inherently wrong with consumers having the opportunity to buy products at a discount – although last year in the UK, over 90% of Black Friday offers had been listed at the same price or cheaper during the previous six months – but the day has become overwhelmingly defined by shocking images of mindless consumerism.
During the UN climate conference COP26, held this month in Glasgow, world leaders were unable to successfully commit to categorically phasing out fossil fuels. Their failure to take sufficiently ambitious action is an opportunity to reflect on the gap between ideals of ecological reform and the reality of consumerist lifestyles. When it comes down to it, it’s incredibly hard for both countries and people to give up the short-term gratification of materialism to protect the long-term future of our planet.
There is now a growing acceptance that sustainability is not simply a matter of consumers’ individual accountability and choice. Our governments and companies must not be let off the hook for their failures to properly regulate excessive burning of fossil fuels. And our culture of consumerism is equally to blame for its effect on emissions: household buying habits, often driven by a desire to signal social status or keep up with trends, contribute to over 60% of greenhouse gas output globally.
Look away from the bright lights of Black Friday adverts and the truth will appear. If we are to reduce the impact of climate change, we are all going to have to rethink the prominence of consumerism in our lives and economies. This is no small matter when retail is, according to the British Retail Consortium, the UK’s biggest private sector employer.
And as a sector, it is showing signs of making a green transition. At a moment where demand is shifting ever faster away from high street outlets and towards online shopping and global shipping, corporate leaders are signing pledges to decarbonise their businesses.
Many major UK retailers like Morrisons, Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2040. To achieve this, they plan to decarbonise shops and domestic deliveries, as well as to eventually make all products bought in the UK net zero. Although this sounds promising, it’s a strategy that fails to address our society’s consumerist mindset by simply encouraging us to buy the same amount of stuff – just at a lower carbon cost than before. Retailers’ grand commitments must be contextualised alongside current practices, which remain far from sustainable.
If you look at the websites of many major retailers today, you’ll see that they are still aggressively competing with each other to sell brand new, energy-guzzling smart TVs, cheap clothes and digital gadgets as part of Black Friday deals. If retailers were serious about climate change, then we would expect to see them transition away from such unsustainable commodities and encourage purchasing more second-hand or clearance items.
Instead, Black Friday presents us with a retail sector doubling down on deeper consumerism: a stance that is both tone deaf and increasingly incommensurable with the reality of the climate emergency.