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Black Friday’s green dilemma

Can retail culture ditch the climate cover-ups and focus on getting the planet “out of the red”?

By India Bourke

Black Friday has always been an exercise in spin. America’s annual sales bonanza allegedly first earned its name from the traffic congestion as crowds raced to begin their Christmas shopping. Dismayed by the negative associations, retailers later claimed the term referred to the day companies’ profit margins finally entered “the black” (as in turned positive, having previously been “in the red”).

Before I sound like too much of a humbug, I should note that sales can of course be a welcome thing, especially in these cash-strapped, inflationary times. There are large, useful purchases that discounts make affordable. And there are the gifts that Christmas culture demands, especially for kids. I’ve personally got my eye on a vacuum cleaner.

But as Black Friday has mushroomed into a global event (with some stores even raising prices before the sale) it has exacerbated drives to present the negatives of binge-consumption as positives. One in three shoppers returns what they buy, according to IMRG, an ecommerce association, and deliveries of last year’s Black Friday sales contributed 429,000 metric tonnes of emissions to the UK economy, 0.12 per cent of the country’s entire annual emissions count.

As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental strain that fast-fashion and planned obsolescence have on the planet, the attempted cover-ups are breaking down. The recent concept of “Green Friday” encapsulates this. Some companies have been pushing their environmental credentials to try to excuse the purchase (and over-purchase) of their highly polluting products. Plastics are advertised as “compostable” even when that has been shown to fail in practice, while fast fashion’s recycling promises clothes still too often end up in landfill

Cathay Pacific Airways is a prime offender here, with its Green Friday offer to offset double the usual amount of carbon emissions for each ticket sold. “Companies linking offsets to promotional deals may reinforce the false impression among consumers that their emissions don’t need to be reduced and can simply be compensated through offsets,” warns Rob Macquarie, policy analyst at the Grantham Research Institute, a climate change think tank. The carbon removal schemes that such offsets are attached to vary widely in quality, with some having the potential to undermine climate action (because they support only reforms that would have happened anyway) and harm human rights (through encouraging land grabs).

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“Full transparency” is needed, Macquarie and others argue, before companies’ use of such offsets can be considered legitimate. Not to mention the need for tighter supply-chain commitments and carbon taxes on things like frequent flying (as the New Economics Foundation has argued, the latter would limit aviation emissions while “ensuring a more progressive distribution of flights”).

Amid the Black Friday greenwashing, however, are also businesses trying to counter the event’s culture of careless consumption. Before the clothing brand Patagonia decided to give away all its profits to combating climate change, it already did so with all profits from sales made during the Black Friday weekend. Similarly, for the fourth year in a row, the beauty brand Deciem will close all its stores and has blacked out its website, citing concerns around encouraging “panic-buying”. Individuals are also taking the trend even further, and committing the occasion to get out into nature or start a green habit, like eating more plant-based food.

Via good and ill therefore, Green Friday initiatives are helping to guide our modern, hyper-consumerist economy towards an existential confrontation with planetary limits. The answer is to “buy less and buy better” as the Green Alliance charity has advised. But whether retail culture can ditch the greenwashing and focus on getting the planet “out of the red” remains to be seen.

[See also: The dangerous conceits of the green revolution]

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