The Ethical Implications of Black Friday

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

Packaging problems

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.

Consumerist behaviour

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 factoriesdispatch 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. 

Returns

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

World Environment Day – increasing biodiversity from home

Biodiversity loss has been highlighted as the third biggest risk to the world both in terms of likelihood and severity this year, ahead of infectious diseases, terror attacks and interstate conflict. Let that sink in. 

As we sit in the midst of a pandemic, it is easy to look only inwards, turning our backs on the changes that need to be made in our world for humans to continue thriving. However, now, more than ever, it is outwards that we need to look and wonder how we got ourselves here in the first place.

Biodiversity is the abundance and variety of life on earth. Humans are entirely dependent on biodiversity for the air we breath, food we eat and water we drink. Almost half of global GDP – around €40 trillion – depends on nature and the services it provides.

The recent COVID pandemic has brought to light just how much this is true, with scientists positing that the increased incidences of viruses such as Ebola, Bird Flu, Dengue Fever and COVID are exacerbated, if not caused, by biodiversity loss, deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade.

Today is World Environment Day, an international awareness day built to engage and motivate environmental action within governments, businesses and the general public. Each year WED has a theme, focussing efforts on one element of environmentalism in an effort to educate, share resources and make a difference.

This year’s theme is Biodiversity, a term which has seen the light of day more and more in recent years. The United Nations even labelled 2010 to 2020 the ‘decade of biodiversity‘, implementing strategies to improve it worldwide. However, a recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), found that nature is being eroded at rates unprecedented in human history, leading to the acceleration of climate change and demise of our natural world. Businesses are also not doing anywhere near enough, with most countries on track to miss the targets of the Paris Agreement.

“The more one thinks, the more one feels the hopeless immensity of man’s ignorance”. Charles Darwin, More Letters of Charles Darwin, 1903.Apt, but today we don’t have ignorance as an excuse.

Climate change, biodiversity loss and our own wellbeing are all intrinsically linked. Biodiversity loss in Europe alone costs the continent around 3% of its GDP each year, around £400m pa. It is in our best interest to do as much as we can to prevent further loss of the natural world, and start rebuilding where we can.

Biodiversity loss is not only an environmental issue, it also impacts upon many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including those tacking food security, poverty, peace, justice and development. As mentioned by Sir Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES, biodiversity is “a security issue in so far as loss of natural resources, especially in developing countries, can lead to conflict. It is an ethical issue because loss of biodiversity hurts the poorest people, further exacerbating an already inequitable world. And it is also a moral issue, because we should not destroy the living planet.” (Guardian, Nov, 2018). Closer to home, biodiversity in green spaces is inextricably linked to mental health and wellbeing for all of us.

“This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve. It has eaten the storms – folded them into genes – and created the world that created us. It holds the world steady”. E O Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 1992.

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This destruction of ecosystems has led to a million species (500,000 animals and plants and 500,000 insects) being threatened with extinction, potentially many more (UN). Figure from Guardian 2018

 

But what can we do from home?

I would argue that most of us interested in the natural world generally already know ways in which we can help, from changing to a green energy provider, cutting back on travel, switching to an ethical bank and changing to a meat-free diet, and it’s just a case of enacting this. However, there are many more small ways to improve biodiversity from home.

Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has turned our sights away from many parts of the world where threats to biodiversity are greatest, from illegal bycatch in fishing vessels and the deaths of those who regulate this, to the deforestation of sacred indigenous land in Sierra Nevada, Colombia, to make room for tourism (you can support a petition to end this illegal activity here). Because of this, it is important to look not only in our own backyards, but also what we can do to support efforts across the globe.

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While many backs are turned due to COVID, sacred regions within Sierra Nevada, Colombia, have been invaded and damaged by tourism projects and mining. Sign a petition to end this.

Close to home:

Leave wild spaces around your home.

  • If you have a lawn, leaving it for longer between mowing, or avoiding mowing patches altogether. This will not only improve the biodiversity of the plants, but also provide shelter for small mammals and insects.
  • Consider piling up wood, stones and garden cuttings to provide homes for more types of insect and mammal, as these are becoming rarer with the loss of woodland and increased obsession with ‘clean’ spaces. Composting organic matter also increases bacterial, fungal and other decomposers, providing a healthier garden all round.
  • Providing bird feed and water in your garden will also provide vulnerable bird species with a better chance of surviving harsh winters and being able to raise more young. Offer a mix of food for the widest variety of birds and provide protection from cats where possible!
  • Planting a window box with flowers that pollinators love can help maintain biodiversity in urban spaces. Having greenery at home is also great for your mental health!

Shop eco friendly.

Understanding how food and other crop production impacts the environment is a huge topic that deserves an entire literature review of its own. However, there are a few small steps we can make to ensure everything we buy is as biodiversity-friendly as possible.

  • Buy organic where possible. This does not always make a difference, but many of the farming practises that are intrinsic to organic farming (prohibition/reduced use of chemical pesticides and inorganic fertilisers, sympathetic management of non-cropped habitats and preservation of mixed farming) benefit local flora and fauna. On average, organic farms have 12% more biodiversity than equivalent non-organic farms. Look for the Soil Association label to make organic shopping easier. 
  • Buy shade-grown or bird-friendly coffee. This is vitally important as coffee is grown in some of the most biodiverse but rapidly changing environments, meaning that it can either support or harm endemic wildlife. Here’s how you should choose your coffee.
  • When buying furniture, only buy FSC certified wood. The FSC holds businesses to a standard that helps them carry out sustainable management practices to ensure forests thrive today and in the future (FSC).
  • Buy from ethical clothing brands. The fashion industry is immensely polluting, encourages deforestation, and if the fashion industry were a country, its emissions would rank almost as highly as the entire European continent. This is evidently bad for biodiversity. Buying less and choosing ethical companies can reduce your impact. Brands such as Veja are leading the way in supporting, rather than exploiting, the ‘guardians of the forest’ in the locations they source their materials, working with locals to promote biodiversity, instead of simply deforesting as many other brands do. Have a look at Good on You and EcoAge for other brand recommendations.

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Further afield:

Donate, support, fund, share.

We can make changes in everyday life and do what we can to maintain diversity, both close to home and further afield. However, the work of charities, NGO and certain businesses takes this a step further, keeping an ear to the ground to call out environmental injustices, hold governments to account and support local communities around the world. Here are just a few – comment your favourites below!

NGOs

  • Traffic, a NGO, supports efforts to end the illegal wildlife trade and combat wildlife crime. They focus on educating governments on sustainable wildlife management and regulation systems, reducing reliance on poaching and unsustainable trade. Donate here.
  • Amazon Watch works with indigenous people to protect large swathes of the Amazon rainforest. Recent research demonstrates that while the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples make up less than five percent of the total human population, they manage or hold tenure over 25% of the world’s land surface and support about 80% of the global biodiversity. Protecting Indigenous people is protecting the environment they live in and vice versa. Donate here.
  • African Biodiversity Network (ABN), a UN accredited NGO, accompanies Africans in voicing their views on issues such as food and seed sovereignty, genetic engineering, agrofuels, biodiversity protection, extractive industries and the rights of small-holder farmers. They ‘focus on indigenous knowledge, ecological agriculture and biodiversity related rights, policy and legislation’. I cannot find anywhere to donate but do check out and share their work!
  • National Biodiversity Network works closer to home (UK) to record and analyse data collected about UK wildlife, enabling conservation efforts to be focussed on areas that really need it. Knowledge is power! Donate or join here.
  • Cool Earth work to end deforestation and environmental degradation in rainforests, some of the most biodiverse places on earth. Rather than exerting top-down control, they work with local people to help them benefit from protecting their surrounding forests. Donate here.

Businesses

While NGOs and charity organisations are excellent, some estimates suggest they receive only 10% of the funding needed to avert a biodiversity crisis. Engaging the private sector to fill in the gaps is a necessary and productive next step.

  • Treedom supports biodiversity by allowing people to purchase native trees and plant them in small, sustainable agroforestry systems around the world. Trees contribute to biodiversity by providing shelter, food and homes for animals, insects and other plants, increasing the number of pollinators and natural pest predators, like birds (thereby supporting the pollination of the world’s crops), capturing CO2, preventing soil erosion and much, much more.
    The trees people sponsor with Treedom support smallholder farmers and their families, providing either food or an added income source. For transparency, all of their trees are geolocated and photographed, and customers receive regular updates about their tree and the project where it is planted.
    Treedom have planted over 1.1 million trees across 16 countries, offsetting over 340 million kgs of CO2 and providing food security and income for over 66,000 farmers. If you’d like to purchase a tree or two, the code FLORA10 gets you 10% off! Please do let me know if you buy one, as I’d love to share 🙂
  • There are many re-wilding projects also happening in the UK, returning deforested woodlands to their former diverse glory. You can learn more about rewilding projects here.

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Trees are vital for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem health, but also are excellent for your mental health too! Photo Johny Cook.

 

Nature provides us with everything we have, and we cannot afford to lose more biodiversity on this planet. While we may have long ago destroyed much of the biodiversity in the UK, there is still a chance to make an impact with our actions and reverse some of the damage, both close to home and further afield. The best time to at was yesterday. The next best time is now.

Many thanks to Hattie Webb for helping research this post – there was SO much more I could have put in, but in the interest of people actually getting to the end, I have saved this for another time. I hope you enjoyed reading! Please share it if you found it useful, tagging @foodfitnessflora and @hattie_eco on Instagram. Do add any ways you have found of increasing biodiversity, as well as any charities you like to support. Thanks for reading!