Black Friday's Downside: Fueling Overconsumption, Earth's Strain, and Mounting Waste

Black Friday, traditionally the day following Thanksgiving, has become one of the year’s most anticipated shopping events. Shoppers eagerly await this occasion for the exclusive offers and discounts that numerous retailers provide. While this shopping spree can bring consumer delight, there is a huge environmental distress. These deeply discounted items drive billions in revenue, yet they fuel a culture of overconsumption leading to increased carbon emissions and extensive waste. Thus, examining the drawbacks of Black Friday is crucial.

Did you know that Black Friday's roots trace back to Philadelphia in the 1950s, where police officers used the term to describe the chaotic day after Thanksgiving? The city would fill up with both tourists for the Army-Navy football game and shoppers looking for deals, leading to traffic jams and busy streets. Retailers then adopted the term to describe their busiest shopping day. Over time, with the rise of online shopping and global retail trends, it evolved into a worldwide shopping phenomenon extending beyond its American origins.

The biggest shopping event of the year happened on Friday 24th of November this year. Last year, nearly 200 million Americans shopped during Black Week according to CNBC. Furthermore, over the last years, our shopping behaviour has shifted online after the coronavirus pandemic. Global online sales surged by 3.5% to reach $65.3 billion, resulting in a significant rise in deliveries which leads to devastating environmental repercussions. Online shopping, with its demands on warehouse energy and emissions from home deliveries, contributes notably higher emissions compared to in-store purchases. During last year’s Black Friday week, approximately 1.2 million tons of CO2 were estimated to have been released in Europe from trucks transporting goods—a staggering 94% surge compared to an average week making it more polluting than ever as reported by Good Energy. The surge in emissions isn't solely due to more deliveries; the entire product life cycle must be taken into account. This includes manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and the use of the products which collectively contribute to this environmental burden. 

Ultimately, this excessive consumption doesn’t just lead to emissions; it results in massive waste. Shoppers tend to make impulsive and unnecessary purchases due to those attractive deals. In fact, the Green Alliance reported that nearly 80% of items purchased on Black Friday, along with their packaging, end up being thrown away after only a few uses, and in some cases, without being used at all. Furthermore, according to National Geographic, electronics that were originally in demand end up as discarded electronic waste, dumped into landfills, risking the release of harmful toxins into the air posing significant environmental risks. Not only that, a substantial quantity of plastic is employed in product creation, with almost 91% of it not undergoing recycling and instead finding its way into the ocean. Between Black Friday and the New Year, waste in the US increases by a staggering 25%. This mounting waste, combined with the staggering use of non-recycled plastic, illustrates a pressing need for a shift in shopping habits.  As a society, it is crucial to rethink how we shop and what we buy, considering the impact it has on the environment. The holiday season pushes society’s problem with waste to an extreme. 

Making more thoughtful choices while shopping can help reduce environmental consequences of our choices which endure for years. There exists other alternatives to celebrating the holiday season and embracing the joy of giving without causing as much environmental harm. Before you reach for your wallet, the first step to take to cut back on how much the holiday shopping harms the environment is to buy with intention. Do not simply buy because it is cheap. Environmentalists like Greenpeace heavily encourage consumers to think long term before purchasing an item to avoid impulsive decisions. The second advice is to spread out purchases. Clearly, Black Friday creates supply chain problems. Even if production starts well in advance, the huge shock in demand during the holiday season disrupts the supply chain. Shopping early and allowing for slow shipping cuts back on carbon emission whereas a free-shipping period where everyone bulk purchases at the same time is only free for the customers. The environment bears the cost of our actions. Therefore, it is imperative to shift from an unconscious to a conscious consumer behaviour and to have a more mindful approach to Black Friday.

Furthermore, the holiday season does not need to solely revolve around excessive shopping. Exploring alternative ways that are more environmentally friendly to celebrate and give back can significantly minimise the environmental impact. Engaging in activities that focus on experiences, homemade gifts, or supporting local businesses promote a more sustainable approach to the holidays and a more meaningful celebration which reduces the environmental strain caused by consumerism.

Finally, taking place on the same day as Black Friday, a growing counter-movement against consumerism has been trending lately: The Buy Nothing Day. Founded by artist Ted Dave, it originated in Canada in September of 1992. To participate, the rule is simple, The Buy Nothing Day essentially demands you to take action through inaction. Hence, it is a day of protest encouraging consumers to abstain from shopping during Black Friday. This rising popular alternative to traditional holiday shopping aims to raise awareness of how to be a more ethical consumer and helps to protect the environment.  

As we concluded another eventful Black Friday last month, it is crucial to consider the broader implications beyond the attractive sales and discounts. The environmental consequences are undeniable and demand our attention. All this excessive consumption and resultant waste present an alarming concern. Yet, as consumers, we hold the power to make a change. Through deliberate decision-making, thoughtful purchasing, and a reimagining of holiday traditions, we possess the capacity to redirect this cultural phenomenon towards a more sustainable approach.

About this article

Written by:
  • Celina Madaschi
| Published on: Dec 06, 2023