It's that time of year again: the pre-Christmas consumer frenzy also known as Black Friday. During the biggest shopping event of the year, retailers slash their prices. But what does that mean for the environment?
The season for bargain hunting has begun. Or so we are told. Every year come the end of November, retailers bombard potential customers with mails and ads about impossible deals in the hope of pushing remaining stock before Christmas.
In the US, where so-called Black Friday originated, the shopping frenzy usually generates billions of profit dollars in a single day, with revenue increasing annually.
But in recent years, the trend has also caught on in other countries. And while many consumers get excited about the heavily discounted products, the sales extravaganza comes with a very hefty price tag for the environment.
Rise in emissions
"Black Friday is an extremely worrying trend," said Phil Purnell, professor of Materials and Structures with the School of Civil Engineering at the UK University of Leeds.
"The consumption of all of that material has an enormous environmental impact, not just in terms of the pollution that's created during mining and the depletion of natural resources to create the things you buy, but also in terms of carbon from transportation," he said.
An increasing amount of Black Friday shopping happens online, with a dedicated day — Cyber Monday — designed to prolong the hysterical consumerism. And because buying online implies delivery, it has a much higher carbon footprint than shopping in local stores.
The global transport sector currently accounts for up to 4% of the world's emissions, and the European Parliament estimates that emissions from the global maritime industry alone could rise as high as 17% by 2050.
Black Friday and Christmas shopping, where offers like free shipping and free returns are commonplace, contributes to this problem.
"Our research shows that 400,000 tons of CO2 will be admitted into the atmosphere as a result of transport for Black Friday in the UK this year alone," Purnell said.
A 2021 report by UK price comparison website Money.co.uk supports these findings. Deliveries from Black Friday sales were estimated to release over 429,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That's the equivalent of 435 return flights from London to New York. Or around 0.12% of the UK's total annual emissions for a comparable year.
Waste not, want not
Yet Purnell says the volume of CO2 related to transport of goods is "absolutely trivial" compared to that spewed out during manufacturing.
"Producing your average laptop releases 100 to 200 kilograms [220-440 pounds] of CO2 into the atmosphere and your average tablet probably releases 50 kilograms," he said. "Buying a shirt releases many times more kilograms of CO2 than the kilograms that the shirt weighs."
And much of what is bought during the Black Friday season is not destined to have a long life.
A 2019 study based on research by Purnell, who is also co-director of the UK-based Textiles Circularity Centre that is working towards a circular textiles economy, found that Black Friday purchases are often thrown away after being used just once. The study also found that up to 80% of household plastics and textiles end up in landfill or being incinerated.
Living beyond our means
So why do we purchase things we don't actually need — especially in light of growing environmental awareness?
"People like shopping. There's a psychological dimension to it. We're trying to fill a void, we're trying to fulfill an emotional need," said Mathis Wackernagel, founder and president of the international research group Global Footprint Network.
He says people regard the resource constraints that go hand-in-hand with climate change as "an inconvenient truth."
But it's a reality, he adds, that needs to be made clear as the world is currently using resources 75% more quickly than Earth can renew them.
According to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone on the planet lived like a citizen in Germany, we would need the resources of at least three Earths. If everyone consumed as much as people in the US, we'd need five Earths.
Purnell says people "consume for the buzz, the endorphin lift" and the good feelings they get from consuming. "So what we need to do is find alternative, less damaging ways to give people that satisfaction."
Rethinking our values
As far as Wackernagel is concerned, consuming less is a question of self-interest.
"Every euro we spend on something that doesn't help us make our lives more valuable in a world of climate change and resource constraints, is spent on building our own demise."
He wants the discussion to shift from individual moral responsibility to a pragmatic way of thinking about what's best for us, and what is the logical thing to do.
"That takes away the anxiety. It's like brushing your teeth," he said, explaining that we learn to do it because it is good for our health. "The same should be applied to keeping our planet healthy. Let's learn to consume less because it's simply what makes sense in the current climate."
For Purnell, it's also about changing business models.
"We still have an economy which is dominated by businesses who make their money essentially by digging stuff out of the ground, turning it into products, selling it, and then persuading people that they need to buy that thing again."
Green Friday and other alternatives
An increasing number of companies are already boycotting Black Friday for environmental reasons, or are offering alternatives.
Swiss bag and accessories retailer Freitag, for instance, wants to change Black Friday "from a shopping day to a swapping day”. As such, it is closing its online stores during this time and instead opening swap stores around the world, where people can exchange their old bags rather than buying new ones.
American outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia is not running a campaign but instead is donating 100% of its sales during the Black Friday weekend to environmental causes.
And for the whole of November, beauty company Deciem has been advertising "slow shopping" using its social media channels to raise awareness of the negative impacts of Black Friday.
At the same time, "Green Friday," which promotes responsible shopping, such as purchasing from small local stores or buying second-hand items, is also gaining traction as an alternative.
Wackernagel welcomes these trends. "We need to build a desire to change our behavior instead of morally pressuring people. It's about creating positive experiences around consuming less. That will create the shift we need to adapt to a world of climate change and limited resources," he said.