Black Friday’s environmental impact is hugely negative, but does that mean you’re a bad conservationist for shopping the sales?
Where did Black Friday come from?
This American “holiday” now transcends international borders and encourages consumerism globally. So where did it come from?
First, understand that businesses use the term “in the red” to suggest a financial loss and “in the black” to suggest a financial profit. Black = business profit.
My research concluded that historians don’t really know who specifically started Black Friday or its exact origins. Many historians point to an Army-Navy game in the 1950s, which attracted mass crowds to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. People took advantage of the police’s inability to control the crowds by looting and stealing from stores. This Black Friday was a profit for the people who had stolen.
Historians at least know the initial origin of the term Black Friday. It stems from corruption that led to the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24th, 1869.
Keep in mind, the U.S. only left the gold standard (which is when an economy values its dollar off the amount of physical gold the U.S. had) in 1971. A crash of the gold market inherently crashes the value of the dollar with a gold standard.
Two men–Jay Gould and Jim Frisk–bought as much of the U.S.’ gold as possible, which increased the price of gold. They turned around and sold the gold for these new, higher prices. On that Black Friday in September, their conspiracy finished. The gold market fell apart. Wall Street bankers to Midwest farmers went bankrupt.
It was called Black Friday because two men (corruptly) profited off millions of Americans financial suffering.
Today, Black Friday is most similar to the Philadelphia concept. Shoppers “profit” off stores by purchasing stuff at heavy discounts. These bargains are “such a steal,” as the American saying goes.
However, these increased sales drive up profits for those businesses, which they desperately need to turn the year into an overall financial gain.
Let’s dig into why this is the case.
Corporations Aren’t Financially Managed Well
To understand Black Friday’s environmental impact, we need to understand how corporations run their businesses.
When coronavirus hit the U.S., politicians sent billions of dollars to large corporations suffering from profit loss. This government payout had the intention of stimulating the corporations financially so they didn’t go out of business, potentially leaving millions of Americans without work.
I must first say, I want Americans at work. I don’t want people to suffer. However, I think this government payout would’ve been unnecessary if corporations had managed their finances better. Let’s look at the airline industry as an example.
The three major U.S. airlines–United, American Airlines, and Delta–generate billions of dollars annually. Yet, when people stopped traveling for about two months (it should’ve been longer, but let’s be honest, Americans started traveling again around June), these businesses scrambled.
They fired employees, drastically cut employees’ hours, delayed promotions and raises, and more to cut expenses.
This is because these companies ran on tight profit margins. A profit margin is an easy math formula that’s then converted into a percentage:
Net profit margin = (revenue-cost) / revenue
So, if you have a lower percentage, you have a tight profit margin. This means you have less liquid (readily-available to spend) funds available for emergencies, such as a financial crisis or pandemic.
Small businesses and tight profit margins
Fact: Small businesses have tight profit margins.
This makes sense because they’re still growing.
- Banks are less likely to invest in small businesses because there’s more risk of a new or small business failing.
- Since the business isn’t as widely known as big corporations (Target, Nike, Publix), then the small business has to work harder and spend more money on advertising and marketing to attract more customers and get their name out there.
- Small businesses often have to price products higher in order to afford business operating costs, like the physical store and website. This, in turn, makes it more difficult to attract more customers because, why would the modern shopper go out of their way to shop small and spend more when they could easily get everything they need at once and cheaper at a big box store?
Small businesses aren’t at fault for running on tight profit margins. The business world is frankly stacked against them. This is why only 25% of new businesses make it past 15 years!
Every single small business has a family behind the name who is trying to make a dream work. They rely on their community to support them and help them grow. In return, small businesses are often some of the greatest proponents for developing their community.
I personally know a woman named Robin who owns Blue Ridge Fudge Lady in a small town in Virginia. In addition to selling her (amazing) fudge, she makes store space available to sell homemade products from local entrepreneurs. Robin understands how difficult it is to afford a storefront and she wants to share her small business success with others. She’s helped other entrepreneurs grow, further stimulating her local economy (even if her intentions were purely out of goodwill). Robin is also an active community member, leading movements to repair and grow the city!
Check out Robin (and her daughter) below!
This is only one example of a common small business truth–they’re important to their communities and the economy. Data proves this, too. Small businesses are responsible for 44% of economic activity and 2/3rds of job growth.
That’s right–small businesses produce the majority of U.S.’ jobs even though corporations produce over half of economic activity.
(Take that big business!)
Politicians know this, too. When COVID hit, politicians on both sides of the aisle were fighting to stimulate small businesses with grants and other funding. They passed the CARES act allocated $659 billion to help businesses with “job retention and certain other expenses.”
Yet, $25 billion went to the airline industry. If corporations don’t face the same obstacles as small businesses, what gives?
Corporations and tight profit margins
Research, innovation, and expansion are the main reasons a large corporation would have a tight profit margin.
However, corporations receive bank loans more easily since they’re reputable and have proven their place in the business world.
They don’t have to spend as much of their profit margin and should still have enough on reserve for emergencies. They spend these reserves on more research, more innovation, and more expansion because this will further increase profit.
While I fully support all three of these components, there has to be a balance.
As we saw in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, many large corporations took advantage of good economic times by treading on a fine balance, which resulted in their financial struggle unnecessarily.
As stated here, this eludes to “core problems inside of the company.”
I won’t go into specific details as to what exactly these problems are since I’m not qualified to, but please understand that these companies’ finances are not properly managed. COVID would’ve impacted their profit margins some, yes, but likely not as devastatingly as they had if there was proper financial management.
Improper management does not necessarily equal corruption, either. It mostly comes down to ethics.
- Letting go of employees because the business didn’t prepare for financial hardships
- Having full time employees struggle to fund basic necessities while management on all levels have plenty to live
- Cutting employees as the go-to during financial hardships instead of alternatives (slowing research, for example)
Time and time again, corporations value profit over people. I won’t say all corporations have, because I’m sure there are some good ones, I just don’t know of them.
People are constantly devalued by those in power, whether that’s in business or politics.
In fact, I’d argue COVID didn’t cause an economic crisis. COVID exposed financial mismanagement that has integrated itself so much into our country, that it became a bad norm, which eventually caused an economic crisis.
I mean, look at Germany. Why else are they not struggling as much economically? (There’s also debate around Germany’s economic policies, which is discussed in the article linked above)
All of this is key to understanding Black Friday’s environmental impact.
Black Friday’s Environmental Impact
Over the years, Black Friday has turned into an event lasting 4+ days. Deals start on Thanksgiving evening, then lead into Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, some deals lasting Sunday, and Giving Tuesday.
Have you noticed that Black Friday has been almost the entirety of November this year?
Due to financial mismanagement, businesses are more reliant on you to spend money this Black Friday in order to come out in black (profit) this year. They’re hoping that, by offering discounts more frequently (aka, the entire month of November), you’re more likely to spend money with them.
They’re thinking isn’t far-stretched. Consumption has increased during COVID because people are spending less money on traveling, whether to visit family for the holidays or leisure travel. People are compensating for this decreased expense by buying more gifts and stuff. Corporations are taking advantage of this.
Businesses are encouraging overconsumption to compensate for their financial mismanagement.
This is largely Black Friday’s environmental impact–overconsumption, one of the greatest climate issues.
Ideally, everyone buys what we need–plus some wants to satisfy some desires–and we buy things built to last for a decade or more. These products are likely more expensive because they’re built so durably. Hopefully, they also have a sustainable end of life, whether that’s composting or recycling.
Black Friday’s environmental impact represents overconsumption’s environmental impact as a whole. Here’s a snippet of the issues:
- The fashion industry contributes over 10% of carbon emissions annually. That’s the same amount of carbon as the entire European Union produces annually.
- 85% of textiles go to the dump each year. A lot of that was never even sold.
- Many of these clothes are produced with synthetic, polyester fibers. When washed, these clothes release microfibers. Sea creatures eat these microfibers and then eat each other and, through the process of biomagnification, we end up eating the weight equivalent of a credit card in plastic weekly.
- Then there’s the impact of clothing dye on water sources….
- Electronics are another major purchase item on Black Friday, yet only 20% of electronics are recycled. And it’s so easy to recycle electronics! I drop mine off at Staples, which is also where I recycled printer cartridges. Many tech stores recycle e-waste.
I could go on and on….
Story of Stuff sums up why overconsumption harms the planet perfectly: “Every product you buy has an environmental cost, from long before it hits store shelves to long after you toss it in the bin..”
You can read my blog post about overconsumption here.
Black Friday’s Societal Impact
How can businesses can afford to price products low?
(Hint: It’s not great)
They have already found the cheapest materials (aka, not environmentally-friendly) materials to produce the product.
The corporations also ignore the negative environmental impact of the unsafe production of their goods, resulting in poor water quality, damaged ecosystems, and unsafe air.
Finally, workers suffer financially.
Consumerism, specifically discounted consumerism, comes at a high cost for workers across every industry.
Corporations do not pay every employee on their supply chain living wages.
Sweat shops still exist abroad.
Some countries don’t have as strict of worker’s laws as the U.S. Corporations save money by not having to meet stricter work safety guidelines or pay as high of minimum wage as they would if those workers were in the States. Many of these workers even die on the job.
Sweat shops exist in the U.S. too.
Over 2 million prisoners are in the American prison, and many of them are in for-profit prisons who are incentivized to have more people imprisoned. Many of these prisoners work in modern-day sweatshops, earning up to 50 cents an hour.
How do corporations get away with this?
The 13th amendment, guaranteeing equality for all, comes with a caveat: “except as punishment for crime.”
If a business can slash 40%, or more, off their prices, realize it’s because they’re unethically sourcing and producing those products.
If you want to learn more, I recommend following @ajabarber on Instagram. She’s an expert on sustainable fashion and the negative environmental and worker impacts of fast fashion.
Is Buying Nothing the Solution?
Many conservationists believe in buying nothing on Black Friday to combat these issues.
Spend time, not money.
If you have what you need, then a “Buy Nothing Friday” is a great option for you.
Abstain from the chaos. Spend time outside, with family, volunteering, or doing anything else but running in stores fighting for discounted goods or online searching for the best deals.
I encourage people to find alternatives for overconsumption!
Buy Nothing Friday isn’t a possibility for everyone, though. It’s important to recognize this.
For many people, Black Friday is the one time a year they can afford the products they need in their life.
Life’s necessities are expensive, especially if you’re trying to shop sustainably.
For example, I am furnishing my first apartment, which means I need a lot of stuff. While I am sourcing as much of this secondhand as possible, there are some things I’m struggling to find in my area or don’t feel comfortable buying secondhand (non-toxic cooking pans and a mattress, respectively, for example).
It’s more expensive to buy these sustainably, but with the Black Friday deals I’m able to afford these sustainable goods without giving up my personal beliefs.
I’m shopping on Black Friday, without Black Friday’s environmental impact, and here’s how I’m doing it sustainably.
How to Sustainably Shop on Black Friday
Thankfully you don’t have to feel like a bad person for taking advantage of Black Friday deals. Here’s how I’m shopping sustainably on this shopping “holiday” and how I suggest you do too.
- Ask yourself what you really need. Are there things you already own that you can repurpose? Can you borrow or rent some of these things? Is there a secondhand option? Will this new item truly bring you joy?
- Make a list of the things that meet the above requirements and stick to the list! Don’t get caught up in “buy 2 get 1 free,” and other deals that encourage more consumption. Make a list, buy what you need, and stick to it.
- Find the perfect sustainable item. Do some research as to which stores sell exactly what you want. Make sure it’s the perfect item so that you’ll love it for year to come!
- Buy with your Black Friday discount! Take care of the object and use it for years. When you’re ready to get rid of it, dispose of it properly (reuse it? mend it? recycle? compost? donate it?).
How do you know if a store is sustainable? Here are things I consider when purchasing a product or from a business. I opt for the business or product that checks the most boxes!
Does the business/product…
- have eco-certifications, such as B Corp, Leaping Bunny, or Global Organic Textile?
- transparently show their production process and wages and display reliable efforts to ensure workers’ rights?
- have a good end-of-life, meaning the packaging/product can be returned, recycled, or composted?
- have longevity, so that it’ll last for years to come?
- donate 1% of profits to environmental organizations or support charities in some other way?
- made from recycled or rescued materials?
- support a small business?
- support a BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and/or women’s business?
- reduces packaging and uses eco-friendly packaging for the rest?
- aim for zero waste goals?
- encourages reusability?
- fulfill multiple purposes?
- only mark products up to 40% off? (anything more suggests unsustainable business practices)
(What would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!)
Have A Sustainable Black Friday
Hopefully you’ve learned how serious Black Friday’s environmental impact is, and how it has embedded overconsumption in our society.
Feel free to use the plan I shared above to shop as sustainably as possible on this Black Friday!
Comment below with your favorite sustainable small businesses that pass the list so we can help them grow, especially in these hard times.