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24 November 2021

Black Friday’s carnival of consumerism feels increasingly untethered from reality

British consumers have already racked up more than £4bn in outstanding debt this year.

By James Bloodworth

Over recent years various “awareness” days and months have increasingly appeared in our calendars. For example, November is simultaneously “National Diabetes Month”, “Men’s Health Awareness Month” and even “National Novel Writing Month”.

Big business has managed to get in on the act and carve out its own awareness day. “Black Friday” – as it is officially known – is the resulting orgy of consumption that now afflicts us in the final week of November.

A cultural imposition from the United States, the term Black Friday was first coined in 1869 after plummeting food prices caused the stock market to crash. Since then it has unfathomably morphed into an all-out celebration of shopping, a day on which stores offer highly promoted sales at heavily discounted prices. In the US, it is routinely the busiest shopping day of the year. An estimated 72.4 million American adults plan to shop on Black Friday, which falls on 26 November this year.

Those who intend to stay at home needn’t feel left out. Black Friday offers something for non-participants/combatants too. Videos of people trampling each other to get their hands on things they could never normally afford – an unedifying and ghoulish spectacle – have in recent years become a source of popular online entertainment, with “Black Friday brawl” videos clocking up tens of thousands of views on YouTube.

Public entertainment has often been derived from watching poor folk fight each other (in this case for fridge freezers and widescreen televisions). But you needn’t engage in poor-baiting to recognise that Black Friday truly brings out the worst in people. Black Friday falls on the day after Thanksgiving in the US. Thus a mere 24 hours after being “thankful” for what they have, frenzied consumers lay siege to retail stores and the unfortunate staff who work there. Who said Americans don’t understand irony?

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There is a human cost to all of this. The “Black Friday death count” website records the grim tally of Americans killed and injured while out foraging for bargains (14 deaths and 117 injuries since 2010). The former includes Walter Vance, a 61-year-old pharmacist who collapsed at a Target store in West Virginia in 2011. Rather than coming to his aid, frenzied shoppers stepped over Vance’s incapacitated body as they searched for discounted goods. He later died in hospital.

A few years before, in 2008, a Walmart worker was killed when “out of control” shoppers smashed down the doors of one of the company’s stores in Long Island, New York. According to police and witnesses, store officials who rushed to the victim’s aid were also trampled and reportedly shouted at when they tried to close the store because of the death.

Black Friday first arrived in the UK in 2010. Announced initially by the online retailer Amazon, as a celebration of consumerism it didn’t truly take off until 2013 when supermarket chain Asda (owned at the time by US retail giant Walmart) started promoting heavily discounted deals. Along with the emergence of the exploitative “gig” economy, this formed part of a broader attempt by business to return capitalism to profitability in the aftermath of the global financial crash. As governments in the West tightened their belts and announced solemnly that there was “no money left”, citizens were urged to shop even harder as consumer spending powered the recovery.

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Today, as we emerge from the pandemic, we appear to be tiring of the destructive hype. A report by Sitecore, a digital marketing agency, finds that 40 per cent of Brits believe Black Friday no longer offers good deals, while more than a third (35 per cent) associate the day with overconsumption. The same poll records that nearly six in ten of us (58 per cent) prefer experience-based gifts over “more stuff”. Another survey by GlobalData found that nearly two-thirds of shoppers (62 per cent) are not intending to buy anything on Black Friday this year.

Black Friday’s carnival of consumerism feels increasingly untethered from reality in what are for many people financially straightened times. British consumers have already racked up more than £4.1bn in outstanding debt this year. Moreover, the Bank of England is preparing to wean us off of record low interest rates and inflation sits at its highest level in a decade. In the US, household debt now stands at a whopping $15.2trn.

As the emails and promotions arrive in our inboxes this week enticing us to buy things we would never normally buy, there is an even bigger elephant in the room. A 2019 report, which looked at 94 of the world’s biggest cities, found that the consumption of goods and services “including food, clothing, aviation, electronics, construction and vehicles” was responsible for 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Black Friday (together with Christmas) plays its own part in environmental degradation. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, American household waste reportedly increases by more than 25 per cent.

Mindless consumerism may power the economy but it is hastening the destruction of the planet – and at a time when most of us are looking to government to reverse climate change. According to 2020 polling, two-thirds of Britons want the government to take action on climate change; a similar figure was polled in the US.

Yet outsourcing it all to government is a cop out: as individuals, we must undoubtedly reform our own behaviour too. We might kickstart that process by staying at home on this Black Friday (also known simply as “Friday”) and eschewing the “bargains” that are rarely any such thing (nine in ten Black Friday deals are no cheaper than the rest of the year).

As a country we needn’t slavishly follow every cultural fad emanating from the United States – the home of possessive individualism (to possess; to grab). There is also more to life than shopping. Indeed, sustaining a liveable planet depends on each of us acknowledging as much.

[See also: “Dark stores won’t conquer grocery delivery”: Beelivery’s Paul Gott on the future of shopping]

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