This year’s Black Friday takes place on the 27th November, between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, 30th Nov.
Despite growing concern over the ethical implications of Black Friday, 2019 saw transaction values increase by 16.5% and volume increase by 7.2% in the UK compared to 2018. In the US in 2019, Black Friday online sales beat all previous records, reaching $7.4bn, up from $6.2bn on Black Friday 2018, continuing the exponential upward trend of sales made on Black Friday, driven primarily by millennials.
Black Friday is theoretically a great way to boost shop sales made each year – 30% of all retail sales occur in the month between Black Friday and Christmas, giving a much-needed boost both to online stores and in most years brick and mortar stores too. It also allows people to purchase goods they need and would otherwise not be able to afford, such as white goods and electronics.
But what are the ethical implications of nearly 50% of items for sale being reduced each year for a weekend of mass shopping? How does this impact the supply chain and environment? Despite a slower increase in sales year on year in the UK vs. the US, there is significant harm caused by the surge of sales globally over the Black Friday weekend.
Where does your money go?
One of the arguments for Black Friday is that is boosts the economy and benefits many brands and businesses. However, the companies most likely to benefit from Black Friday are those with the largest mark-ups on their items, who likely do not have great ethical credentials and who benefit from tax havens, thus not contributing to the economy as much as you might hope. According to ecommerce stats, shops with over $1bn annual sales see a 62% boost in sales over Black Friday, whereas smaller shops see only a 27% growth. In 2018, Amazon, Ebay, Apple, Sony, Currys and Missguided profited the most from Black Friday sales in the UK – these are hardly small brands struggling for profit. Amazon’s tax avoidance has been known about since 2012, as well as their operations which run through Luxembourg to avoid paying any tax in the UK, thus not actually benefitting the UK economy as much as expected.
Small, independent brands have to compete with low prices from mass corporations such as these year round, thus profit margins are miniscule even when paying full price. These companies cannot afford to cut prices further over Black Friday, and thus aren’t the ones benefitting from the increased spending.
How can they cut prices so significantly?
When Missguided sells jumpers and dresses from as little as £5, it begs the question how much mark-up was on the products before, and how little the factory workers get when a dress sells for that little. In 2017 there were reports of UK garment factory workers being paid £3ph in Leicester – less than half the legal minimum wage at the time – in order to compete with clothing made in China and Bangladesh. Clothes made abroad often have even more significant problems, such as utilising child and/or slave labour. Worryingly, most brands these factories were producing for claimed to not even know that the factories were producing clothes for them, highlighting the need for transparency across the supply chain.
If we are to have a truly sustainable economy, we need to accept that good quality, ethically made clothing cannot be bought for £5. Better quality clothing costs more and has lower profit margins, but also is likely to last longer and be cherished more. Cheap clothes encourage wasteful behaviour.
In recent years, shoppers have move from shopping primarily at brick and mortar stores to shopping online, raising the added issue of packaging. Many small items will be wrapped in mounds of non-biodegradable plastic packaging, often in a box inside a box. This mound of packaging will likely primarily end up in landfill.
This year, with most Black Friday shopping taking place online, stories of injuries and even deaths thanks to the commotion of Black Friday are likely to be limited. However, these are yearly examples of how consumerism brings out the worst in shoppers. We tend not to make good decisions when stressed – simple neurobiology – and so Black Friday is one of the worst days to make purchasing decisions. 21% of Brits purchased something on Black Friday that they later regretted, at an average of £83 per person. The pressure of Christmas looming, limited items for sale and other shoppers going wild means that it’s unlikely Black Friday will be spent purchasing goods we need, instead leading to panic-buying items we’ll never use.
Shop and factory workers
Nothing is free. However much you save on an item, there will always be a cost somewhere. Unfortunately, during busy times of year this is often passed onto the workers who create and package up items to be dispatched. Working overtime in factories, dispatch centres and on the shop floor is gruelling, with reports of timed loo breaks or worse, nappies, as well as long days and unsafe working conditions. I personally received numerous messages when researching for this topic from retail workers who dread Black Friday yearly due to the horrendous behaviour of customers and stressful conditions in store.
With the UK panic-buying millions of items that are not needed, the volume of returns in the month after Black Friday skyrockets. This costs the retailers considerable amounts of money, resulting in a dip in profits, which again harms smaller businesses considerably more than larger ones.
Reports have suggested that it can cost a retailer twice the price of delivery for a product to be returned to the supply chain. In addition, the environmental costs are huge. When a product comes back to the warehouse it has to reprocessed, cleaned, repaired, repackaged and made ready to be bought again. In total, it will pass through seven pairs of hands before it is back on sale again – at which point it may be reduced and further devalued, perhaps even ending up in landfill, with devastating environmental effects. All of the above, combined with the extra packaging and shipping emissions mean that returning items en masse is both bad for business, and bad for the environment.
Black Friday encourages us to buy things we don’t really need, getting caught up in the frenzy of deals ‘too good to turn down’. Even people who are aware of the above issues can get carried away with the aggressive marketing tactics used by many brands – if you’re online or in town, it’s impossible to ignore. Even Instagram’s replacement of the notifications button with the ‘shopping’ button (who even knew Instagram was somewhere to shop?) is an example of the lengths brands and businesses will go to, to encourage consumers to consume more than ever before.
My Black Friday rules are to avoid all ‘big deals’ and instead support small brands and independent businesses to buy Christmas presents – it scratches the shopping itch while simultaneously benefitting businesses that otherwise lose out at this time of year to bigger brands. If I need something big (furniture, white goods etc.) I’m likely to wait for Black Friday (this year I’m moving house and will certainly be looking for goods I need in the sales), but otherwise I avoid the day altogether.
What are your thoughts on Black Friday? Are you a fan? Do you partake or avoid it? If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small contribution.
2 thoughts on “The Ethical Implications of Black Friday”
This is really eye opening, you don’t realise the impact of Black Friday until you read about it. Great Blog!
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In Canada, we have a department store called Canadian Tire which sells everything from automotive to pet food. If you plan on buying anything from there, it’s never a good idea to pay full price. They markup everything at least 200%. When a set of wrenches goes on sale it can go down to $60 from $300. They have sales like this often, on the same products. From a business standpoint, this doesn’t make sense to me. They’re either losing money on the sale or marking up the product insanely.