The scary environmental impact of Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Amongst all of the sales, bargains and discounts, it’s easy to forget about the environmental impact of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This celebration of consumerism is one of the most wasteful and polluting periods on the calendar. While an item might appear to be cheap, the true cost of manufacturing, packaging and shipping on the planet is much higher. Listen on to find out what Black Friday means for the earth and what you can do to help. 

Before we get started, I want to ask if you’ve joined my zero waste in a week email challenge yet? It’s completely free and together we go through 7 different areas of your home and lifestyle to transform your impact on the earth:

How did Black Friday start?

Black Friday is an unofficial American holiday. While there are a few theories about the origin of the name, it’s generally accepted that it’s called “Black Friday” in reference to business jargon; suggesting the point when a business is financially profiting or “in the black.” 

In recent years, the US shopping phenomenon has spread across the world, in-store and online. It’s also expanded from being a single day of sales to a 4-day event including Cyber Monday – or BFCM for short. As we reach peak consumerism, some businesses have even begun offering “early” sales for up to 2 weeks around this period. 

Environmental impact of Black Friday 

According to EcoCart, Black Friday 2020 was the most polluting holiday yet. Consumers spent $9 billion shopping online which is up more than 20% on the previous year. An increase in global consuming means more products being manufactured and shipped worldwide. The UK, US, Europe and Australia all report large spikes in fossil fuel emissions that can be attributed to Black Friday shopping. 

Black Friday isn’t just an environmental issue. It fuels mindless consumerism – and encourages people to spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need. We’ve all seen the viral videos of shoppers stampeeding over each other, and in some cases getting physically violent, all in the name of getting a bargain. 

As more modern shoppers look to brands that value sustainability and positive impact, many conventionally exploitative businesses are looking to greenwash their images. Greenwashing is showing up more in Black Friday campaigns as wasteful businesses look to cash in on buyers who care. 

Unsustainable waste caused by Black Friday 

Black Friday uses tactics of scarcity and sales to encourage shoppers to make impulse purchases. This is because sales psychology says many people percieve an item on sale to be of higher value. Black Friday also plays on scarcity as many people think these prices and discounts won’t be available for at least a year. Though research has found that many Black Fridays discounts are in line with similar sales that are held throughout the year. Few businesses actually offer unique deals for Black Friday but rather cash in on the hype and hysteria. 

Most purchases trashed 

It’s not just money that’s being wasted. A report from think tank Green Alliance found that 80 percent of everything bought during Black Friday sales will end up either in landfill, incineration or at best, low quality recycling – often after a short life. It’s expected more than half of shoppers will buy electronic goods and almost a third will purchase clothes during Black Friday sales. 

Without a circular economy in place, the report found 4/5ths of household plastics and textiles are landfilled or incinerated. Meanwhile, nearly all electronic waste goes to low quality recycling where it enters the waste management system. 

Fashion Revolution says “hyper discount culture” encourages brands to produce too much stock that they’ll shift during the holidays. Companies generally plan to produce too much stock to capture every possible sale. They then get rid of whatever doesn’t sell by trashing it, donating it or discounting it. 

Wasteful returns

But after the shopping is done and delivered, it’s not the end of the environmental impact. Goods returned during the holiday season are hurting the environment too. 

How to have an eco-friendly Black Friday and Cyber Monday by shopping with sustainable brands minimising their environmental impact

American consumers returned $20 billion worth of goods purchased online over the holidays in 2015, according to logistics company Optoro. All that stuff isn’t just getting re-sold. Those returns lead to 2 billion kilograms of excess unused inventory being sent to landfill. 

Returned items are shipped at least three or more times to get through a chain of retailers, wholesalers and resellers. Optoro found the reverse supply chain of returned goods uses 1.2 billion gallons of diesel fuel and emits 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

The anti-Black Friday movement

In response to the environmental impact of Black Friday, many businesses and buyers are looking for something more than heavily discounted fast fashion and poor quality electronics. The fight against Black Friday began around 2011. That’s when Patagonia bought a full-page ad in the New York Times, featuring a photo of a fleece alongside the words “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” 

Since then, plenty of brands have taken a stand against Black Friday – and consumerism in general. Swedish fashion brand Asket acknowledges Black Friday by shutting down its website and store, encouraging customers to learn about the impact of fashion instead of buying something new. Dutch wallet maker Secrid offers free repair services for customers to mark the day. Meanwhile, upcycled bag brand Freitag closes its online store on Black Friday, directing people to barter and trade their bags instead of buying new.

Many shoppers are calling for people to Boycott Black Friday all together. Meanwhile, others are vowing only to support genuinely sustainable and eco-friendly businesses who are minimising their environmental impacts. 

Eco Action Step

Your eco action step for this Black Friday Cyber Monday period is to spend consciously and intentionally. If you genuinely need something, there’s no second-hand options and it’s available on sale, don’t feel guilty about buying it. But commit to no impulse purchases. If you’re compelled by a “once-in-a-lifetime sale”, walk away for a few hours and think about whether you really need it. 

Another fun way to kickstart your eco-friendly living journey is with my free Zero Waste in a Week email Challenge! Over 7 days, we’ll go through different rooms and areas of your home and lifestyle and look for ways to make them zero waste:

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