Black Friday falls at the end of this week (Fri 26th Nov) and I am sure we've all seen the madness it invokes. People queue outside shops or scout online stores for hours to grab a 'bargain' deal on the latest technology and products, but are these really a bargain or are they costing the Earth?
Black Friday sees the prices of items slashed - just last year we saw 'Pretty Little Thing' selling clothes for as low as 8p. This is likely to persuade people to buy more; driving consumption. Not only this, but the price cuts means people value their purchases less making them more likely to throw away their items. This means more items in landfill.
Landfills are not only an eyesore - we've all seen the soul destroying images of piles of refuge. They release methane - a highly potent greenhouse gas - and impact biodiversity by contributing to habitat loss and contaminate rivers and lakes nearby if irresponsibly managed too.
This increase in waste leads to more being diverted to incinerators where its combustion is often used to create energy, but also emits damaging greenhouse gases. In the Global North waste is frequently exported to the Global South as to lessen the burden on our own infrastructure in practice termed 'Toxic Colonialism', and included in this waste is a whole host of electricals.
Rare Metals and E-Waste
Black Friday is predominantly known for its deals on technologies; when I think of Black Friday it conjures memories of people running manically around stores carrying huge TVs. Cheap deals can encourage people to buy products they will only use a handful of times or to replace perfectly functional electronics.
The impact of this is twofold. Firstly, many electronics require rare earth metals in their production. Headphones often contain neodynium, the smartphone you're likely using to read this likely contains tantalum and indium, and the list goes on. The more electronics we consume and demand the more rare metals we need. This creates huge human and environmental problems as they are mined using techniques that require chemicals which contribute to air pollution and leach into groundwater sources.
Secondly, if we see more incumbent products being replaced by new electronics there are more thrown out. Globally, we generate over 40 million tons of e-waste each year, about the same as 800 laptops a second, accounting for 70% of all toxic waste. As mentioned early, e-waste often features in the waste exported to the Global South where it is often young children working to sort through the waste; it has been found that the mercury, lead and other toxins the waste releases can impact children's development.
General trends in retail have been towards online shopping in the last decade - a transition accelerated recently by the pandemic. Research last year uncovered that home deliveries for Black Friday in 2020 alone generated 429,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions - which is equivalent to 435 return flights from London to New York and the same weight as 61,308 elephants (if that makes it any easier for you to visualise).
The shift to online shopping and home deliveries also means more delivery vans, trucks and cars on our roads. It is especially true now we demand instant delivery as it requires smaller and smaller quantities to be transported in each vehicle. This has both a local and global impact. Our streets will see increased air pollution, congestion and more as traffic levels rise, and this spike in vehicle use will contribute to the global greenhouse gas emissions.
It is clear Black Friday is driving consumerism (a social order encouraging buying in ever-increasing quantities), the generation of excessive waste and damaging the environment. It is costing the Earth.
Moreover, these reflections highlight the international impact of our consumption decisions. Leeds (or any other town, city or region) is not an island, and when making our decisions we must consider their impact beyond the boundaries of our locale.
Yes that's right - you'll be glad to hear there is another way!
Black Friday and the excessive consumerism over the festive season leading to deep environmental damage are not the only option. We can make our own more intentional, measured and environmentally friendly decisions.
One of these is to avoid Black Friday altogether - to some this sounds simple and to others it may feel radical. By taking this decision we can buy less this festive season, allowing us to minimise our environmental impact, push back on the structural desire for unconstrained consumption driven growth, and protect our bank balances. It's a win-win situation.
When gifting we can also considering giving experiences and not things. I am sure we've all had a gift or two at Christmas that we've not been enamoured by and has ended up in the back of a cupboard. So, why not switch it up this year? Try gifting local days out, vouchers for meals out, walking tours, local brewery tours, and much more. Here in Leeds we are blessed with a city full of culture and excellent independent places to eat.
Likewise, we can consider buying ethically and locally. Again, in Leeds we are privileged enough to have a whole host of local independent stores (some physical and some online) selling handmade goods using ethically sourced materials. By supporting local we can feel more connected to our purchases - we are buying from and supporting people in our community. We can support our local economy too - research has shown that £10 of spending in your local store means up to £50 into the local economy. What's more, by buying locally we can help reduce emissions from transportation.
Graphic by the fantastic Zero Waste Leeds
Here are some examples of what you could gift if you live here in Leeds:
Tickets for live music at local venue Brudenell Social Club
Buy secondhand from your local charity shops
Gift a voucher for your favourite coffee shop (mine is Fika North)
What we can do
We (the consumers) do have the power to invoke change. By altering our spending practices and rejecting consumerist practices, such as Black Friday, we can send a message to business and government that we demand change. Collective community action is also key. Talk to people in your communities, networks and families, ask them how they plan to spend (or not) this festive season. Together we can send a big message.
Of course, it is not solely our responsibility, and the people who have the power to make decisions for our country and beyond need to be leading us in the right direction, and fast. Yes, consumers do possess power and can send messages through their spending, and as communities we can take local climate action. But, we need a drastic shift away from rampant consumerism, a change in what our economy values, and an economy that balances human needs and environmental health.
So what do you choose this Black Friday? What's the phrase...every pound spent is a vote for the world you want to live in....
by Sam Townson