Black Friday—and its evil twin, Cyber Monday—is just around the corner (have you started getting spammy newsletters yet?). This week, we talk about the origins of this consumerist holiday, and why we should consider ditching it in 2020. But most importantly, we also talk about what you can do to spend Black Friday better. PS: you’ll want to take notes for this.
Why “Black Friday”?
Here’s a short history lesson on the supposed real history of the term. According to Wikipedia, the earliest evidence of the use of the term “Black Friday” (as we know it) originated in Philadelphia, from around 1961. It was used by police officers to describe the heavy traffic that would occur the day after Thanksgiving. The city and merchants tried to improve the traffic conditions, and they in fact tried to rebrand the days to “Big Friday” and “Big Saturday”. (Evidently, it didn’t catch on.)
As time went on, an alternative explanation emerged, around the 1980s. This explanation is probably the one you’re familiar with. It starts with this basic assumption: retailers operate at a financial loss for most of the year and only make a profit during the festive season. And in financial records, old accounting practices would use red ink to show negative amounts and black ink to show positive amounts. So Black Friday would mark the period in which retailers would no longer be “in the red”.
Whichever theory you buy (pun intended) it really doesn’t matter, because it’s what’s happened in the recent decades that made Black Friday the consumeristic mayhem it is today. That is major retailers, dropping ridiculously massive discounts and opening for longer hours. Which triggered the horrifying stampedes in stores in the 2000s. Thankfully, that’s not a thing anymore (although, last year, Bloomberg did publish an article titled “The Black Friday Stampedes Will Continue”).
Digital frenzy, the rise of online shopping and Cyber Monday
No, the consumerism didn’t die out with the stampedes. Unfortunately, it stayed, with some of it migrating to the virtual space. Yes, we’re talking about Cyber Monday. “Cyber Monday” as a term, again according to Wikipedia, was coined by Ellen Davis, first used within the e-commerce community during the 2005 holiday season. Apparently, as the New York Times reported, the name “grew out of the observation that millions of otherwise productive working Americans, fresh off a Thanksgiving weekend of window shopping, were returning to high-speed Internet connections at work Monday and buying what they liked.” (Ah, back in the day when high-speed Internet wasn’t everywhere.)
Anyway, Cyber Monday was a big hit. With the rise of the Internet, people didn’t need to get out of the house, squeeze with a bunch of strangers, to snag discounts anymore. It’s no wonder that Cyber Monday transactions have gone up every year. To give you a sense of how big the market has gotten: in 2010, comScore reported the first-ever $1 billion online shopping day. In 2019, according to Adobe Analytics, total online sales reached a record $9.4 billion. Oh, and did we mention these numbers are only from the US?
To top it all off, not only do we now have both Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but we’ve also been seeing the rise of discounts ongoing for the week before and after. Which means that consumerism has just really through the roof.
What’s so bad about discounts?
We have to get one disclaimer out of the way first. And it’s that discounts are important—sometimes. Especially if we’re talking about making things more affordable for those who can’t afford these items usually. Not to mention, many of us probably wait for discounts to purchase big-ticket items anyway. This is why boycotting discounting is still up for debate. (A total boycott, sans context, would thus reek of classism.)
But the flip side of the coin is this: most people camping for Black Friday discounts don’t need those discounts. And they probably don’t need to buy anything, to begin with anyway. Much of what’s pushed nowadays are the unnecessary wants. Think: a snazzy new speaker, another pair of jeans, or other stuff that will just end up collecting dust on your shelf. And unnecessary stuff translates to a culture of mindless consumption. Which, in turn, feeds into our “take, make, dispose” linear economy. This also means serious environmental impact: wasteful packaging, transport emissions, on top of the emissions produced from making all these products. And if they’re so cheap, they’re probably not going to last, so they’ll go into the bin after a couple of uses.
We haven’t even begun to talk about the human cost of such frenzied overconsumption yet. Warehouse workers, transport and logistics operators, shop floor staff, are just some of the humans that are overworked during this consumption-heavy season. “It’s a depressing work culture because I’ve seen countless people get chewed up and spit out at this job”, a worker at Amazon fulfilment centre shared. Yes, Amazon is the worst of the lot. But poor pay, long hours, tense work environments are common during the Black Monday peak.
Who is Black Friday really for?
The point is this: even though this holiday is advertised to make things more affordable for the everyday, working-class person, it also involves a hell of a lot of exploitation of the very same working-class people. And in the end, this means only big companies, like Amazon, win. Not to mention, the cut-throat discounting that happens before, during, and after Black Friday makes it hard for small and ethical businesses to compete.
They already have a hard enough time normally, but during consumerist holidays, it gets worse. Especially because ethically-made products just can’t be discounted as easily. Fair wages don’t come easy, people. Small businesses have already had it extremely hard this year, not least due to the global pandemic. They’ve had to jump through hoops and reinvent themselves, in order to stay afloat. And if not small businesses, consider the local businesses that also lose out during Black Friday.
The other question is this: what is Black Friday for? Thi video puts it perfectly. (And it’s also a great way to not-so-subtly explain to your friends and family why Black Friday is problematic—just send it without explanation.) “Black Friday and Cyber Monday also reflect and perpetuate serious social problems. The rise of needless consumption is the result of a capitalistic desire for unfettered growth. This has resulted in valuing a person not on the way they care, their creativity, or the strength of their community, but instead on how many commodities they’ve accumulated.”
We’ll just let that stew for a little bit.
So what now?
The video suggests many actionables. “Short term harm reduction strategies look like buying less, boycotting unethical and environmentally destructive companies like Amazon, and embracing a mentality of repairing and caring for the materials that you do have. Essentially, you’re trying to participate less in the harmful consumer culture in which we live.”
It acknowledges, however (and rightfully so), that these are merely short-term fixes. And it’s kind of like slapping a band-aid over a gushing wound. You’re not getting to the root of the problem. So it suggests, in addition to short-term, individual action fixes, “what is really needed is greater participation in the complex and radical social movements for justice“. Why? Because such “justice-oriented movements are trying to de-emphasise a constant drive for profits and instead invest in supporting the people and places which they serve. Only when we create new modes of operating beyond a profit-centric model will we be able to form healthier cultural norms that attempt to foster what the holiday season is supposed to be about: an emphasis on care, interpersonal-connection, and a strong relationship with place and the environment.”
Which is to say, yes: participate in movements like Fashion Revolution’s Black Friday and the newer Circular Monday. Support small businesses, BIPOC businesses, conscious businesses. Or buy local, buy less or don’t buy at all. Maybe even do something radically different, like hosting a swap with your friends. But we also want to be looking at longer-term, structural fixes. Which can look like you volunteering for your local, radical movement. Or just to start: rethinking what festive seasons should be about. If the goal is to love ourselves, each other (and the planet) better, must we really buy things to begin with?
Featured image by Karolina Grabowska
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