By Connie Doxat
And so we enter that liminal time of year again in the world of commerce; Halloween is behind us but the full swing of Christmas sales and shopping hasn’t yet begun. But trust the insatiable consumerism of America to come up with its own solution to this profit problem: Black Friday.
For those of you lucky enough to have escaped the recent bombardment of advertisements and promotional emails, Black Friday is a sales event that falls annually on the Friday following Thanksgiving — and because the concept has been exported across the Atlantic, the fourth Friday of November for non-Americans. Although Black Friday has only been a relatively recent phenomenon in Britain for the last 5 or 6 years, its conception in the States dates back to the 1950s.
At the time, police in Philadelphia began using the term to describe the chaos that ensued when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists would flood into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on the post-Thanksgiving Saturday of every year. The city was so busy that Philly cops were rarely allowed to take the day off, and were instead often placed on extra-long shifts to deal with the crowds jamming the city.
While the term continued to be used this way, it wasn’t until the 1980s when Philly retailers recognised the economic potential of the day and started to refashion it as a day for pre-Christmas discount shopping. Nowadays, Black Friday is seen across most Western economies and its sheer scale is staggering; it has routinely been the busiest shopping day of the year in the US since 2005 and spending in Britain alone this year has been predicted to hit around £9.8 billion.
While the antics of Black Friday (and now Cyber Monday) do provide an undeniable boost to the economy, the ethics over what the event has become are pretty questionable. Fundamentally, the very essence of the consumerism that Black Friday promotes is debatable; in a time where inequality in Britain is actually rising, it seems wrong that others are simultaneously frantically spending money on items often purely for the sake of discount.
Then there’s the almost primeval competitiveness that arises from the discount culture of Black Friday. We’ve all seen the shocking footage of shoppers wrestling each other to the ground over cheap TVs or showering fellow customers with abuse about who deserves that half-price kettle the most. It simply engenders a dog-eat-dog attitude where the potential to accumulate more stuff seems to preside over our manners for each other — since 2006, 11 people have actually died and more than a hundred injured in the US via Black Friday related incidents.
The environmental ethos surrounding Black Friday is also arguably one of its dirtiest characteristics. When items are literally reduced by 100% (as Pretty Little Thing has infamously done this year), it’s clear that our planet must be paying the price — alongside the maltreated workers who manufacture it. Cheap production almost always equals poor quality and the waste that arises in the wake of the sales event is outrageous: an estimated 80% of electronics and clothing — plus the plastic packaging they are wrapped in — purchased in the period ends up in landfill or incineration within 5 years. It’s frustrating that merely weeks after talks at COP26 emphasised our collective need to reduce consumption, the promotion of discounts this Black Friday on low-quality goods has still been so prominent.
To top it all off, the very purpose of shopping on Black Friday is itself questionable, and there is reason to believe that many of the sales are merely an illusion made possible by sneaky marketing and gullible consumers. According to Which?, 98% of the discounts advertised on Black Friday were actually available for the same price or cheaper in the six months following the sales. Alternatively, many products are just simply marketed at inflated prices throughout the rest of the year, to create the deception in November that the products are under sale.
There has, however, been a noticeable degree of backlash against the event this year, and with rising concerns about the state of our planet and the financial difficulty experienced by many over the past 18 months, some forecasters predict that the days of Black Friday are reaching their zenith. A campaign promoted by many independent retailers for ‘Colour Friday’ aimed to celebrate the creativity and quality of products offered in small shops across the country, while some larger high-street names, such as M&S and Next even avoided participation in this year’s event altogether. So while you may not feel able to single-handedly stop the tide of our throw-away consumerist culture — and it may even be too late as you sit enjoying a new phone or pair of jeans you purchased last Friday — the power is ultimately in the hands of us as consumers, and our greatest influence is where and when we choose to spend our money.
Image: Powhusku via Wikimedia Commons