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26 November 2021

Why Extinction Rebellion is justified in challenging Amazon on Black Friday

Our model of consumption is incompatible with effective climate action. Activists are right to call out companies.

By Philippa Nuttall

Extinction Rebellion is blocking Amazon deliveries across the UK and Europe to protest against Black Friday. This may be an inconvenience to some, but it is arguable that, given the state of the climate and nature, the protest group’s actions are fully justified.

Black Friday is when retailers encourage consumers to cash in on “bargains” and buy more stuff. The world is awash with stuff, and purchasing has never been easier thanks to Amazon – with a few taps on a smartphone, users can purchase whatever they want, whenever they want. Enormous warehouses, known as fulfilment centres, have sprung up to house products, with lorries whizzing in and out to ensure people receive their purchases as fast as possible.

This model has helped enable Jeff Bezos become the richest man on Earth. He is now worth an estimated $205.4bn. But at what cost?

PwC predicts about 60 per cent of adults in the UK will make purchases this Friday, spending an average of £280 each. Yet many are unlikely to be saving money on products they think they need. An investigation by consumer rights group Which? found that 98 per cent of Black Friday deals in 2020 were the same price or cheaper in the six months before the event.

[see also: Black Friday’s carnival of consumerism feels increasingly untethered from reality]

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Amazon is being singled out by Extinction Rebellion because of its sheer size. The company has enjoyed huge sales growth in the UK over the past decade, taking net sales from roughly $4bn to over $26bn, making it the second biggest European market for Amazon after Germany. And this growth is only set to continue. The company is expected to account for a third of all UK chain retail sales added between 2020 and 2025 and to overtake Tesco as the country’s largest retailer in the next four years.

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The move to online shopping has been bad news for the high street, a trend exacerbated by Covid. More than 17,500 chain store outlets disappeared from high streets, shopping centres and retail parks across Britain last year.

But the biggest problem Extinction Rebellion has with Amazon is the size of its carbon footprint. Activities tied to the company’s businesses emitted 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year – more than Denmark, and the equivalent of burning through 140 million barrels of oil. Amazon’s carbon emissions grew 19 per cent in 2020. Unlike other companies its business, and therefore emissions, soared during the pandemic and have risen every year since 2018, when it first disclosed its carbon footprint.

This growth is all the harder to take given Bezos’s words about climate change. The billionaire has committed $10bn to fight climate change this decade through his Earth Fund. And he told delegates at the Cop26 climate conference after arriving in Glasgow on his private jet, “nature is beautiful but it is also fragile”. Describing 2021 as a critical year, Bezos urged humanity to “stand together to protect our world”.

Standing together to protect our world means reducing emissions by changing from fossil fuels to clean energy sources such as wind and solar. It means swapping petrol and diesel cars for electric vehicles. But is also means behaviour change and lowering our consumption.

As Helen Thompson wrote recently in the New Statesman, we all need to use less energy if we are to hold global warming at 1.5°C over pre-industrial temperatures. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this means reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 8 per cent every year until 2030. “This is far less than the 6.4 per cent reduction in emissions that followed the global lockdown of 2020,” says Thompson. “Carbon dioxide emissions cannot fall by the necessary amount by 2030 without reducing energy consumption.”

This is why Friday’s activities by Extinction Rebellion are justified.

“Is this how our story is due to end?” asked the distinguished naturalist and TV presenter David Attenborough at Cop26. “A tale of the smartest species doomed by that all too human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals.”

Are we too stupid to realise that we are wasting our money, and fuelling climate change and destroying the environment, by buying goods we don’t need just because a marketing campaign says it is Black Friday?

“As we work to build a better world, we must acknowledge no nation has completed its development because no advanced nation is yet sustainable,” continued Attenborough, urging all nations to have “a good standard of living and a modest footprint”.

These are wise words from a wise man that we would all do well to heed.