Black Friday — A black day for the environment?

In mid-November, much of the Western world gears up for a shopping season around Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving has been regarded as the beginning of the United States Christmas shopping season since 1952. Since the mid-noughties, the event has grown, in part because local retailers have attempted to promote the day to remain competitive with US-based online retailers. Black Friday is now an established event in dozens of countries worldwide, from Ukraine to the UAE.

For shoppers on limited budgets, Black Friday is a welcome opportunity to save money and buy goods they couldn’t otherwise afford. But more broadly, the day has become an orgy of consumption. This year, in which many consumers have been confined to their homes by COVID, is likely to be particularly significant. The benefit of many consumer durables increases with more time spent at home to enjoy them.

But many commentators now feel that the environmental costs have to be confronted. Black Friday’s impact on the environment is three-fold.

Firstly, millions of shoppers buy and then discard smartphones and TVs, for example, contributing to the 50 million tons of electronic waste that the world produces each year, which leaks toxic chemicals like mercury and lead into the soil.

Secondly, the delivery of these items is in itself a huge hazard. Black Friday will create a surge in vehicle emissions. The US Post Office estimates they will deliver 15 billion pieces of mail and 900 million packages between Thanksgiving and the New Year.

In cases where expedited shipping is used, like that provided for free to Amazon Prime members, emissions will be even higher. This is because these methods require more diesel-using trucks on the ground and less efficient shipping systems.

Thirdly, even promotion of Black Friday has an environmental footprint. Email volumes jump a gigantic 47% on Black Friday. Black Friday emails are responsible for massive carbon emissions equivalent to 4000 return flights from London to New York. Each email we send produces 1 gram of carbon due to the electricity used to send and display it.

There are already signs of a backlash. In France, last year the climate group Amis de la Terre (“Friends of the Earth”) blocked an Amazon warehouse in the suburbs of Paris with hay and old kitchen appliances, holding signs that read “Amazon: For the climate, for jobs, stop expansion, stop over-production!”.

However, the prevailing attitude is to join in the fun. In a recent survey of 2,000 respondents, only a tenth of people considered carbon-friendly delivery in their online shopping decisions, while almost three-quarters admit preferring retailers who offer free delivery.

Why is this interesting to Kitchen8? In a world where many marketers spend significant time communicating the commitment of their firms to greater causes, the negative impact of overconsumption has to be dealt with consistently, rather than ignored for Black Friday. We believe that brands can still participate, while encouraging consumers to be mindful. For example, shipping options can incentivise bundling or indicate where more eco-friendly methods can be employed — in some cases, online supermarkets already encourage their customers to buy at similar times to their neighbours.

There are also opportunities for brands to stand out by pricing keenly throughout the year, rather than prioritising bargain-hunters. This kind of transparency is increasingly valued by consumers. It’s increasingly the case that premium retailers are standing back from spot discounts and instead choosing to market cut-price wares through different channels rather than at different times: note for example the growing relevance of ‘factory outlets’.

At Kitchen8 we believe there’s nothing wrong with people enjoying the spending of their hard-earned money, but mindless consumption is far less preferable to the mindful enjoyment of the things we have.

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