Black gift boxes arranged on dark background referencing black Friday discounts and gift buying leading to overconsumption.
November 27, 2023
 in 
Lifestyle

Why Black Friday is Bad: How to Avoid It and Make Better Choices?

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reathless. Tight chest. Sweaty palms. No, we’re not describing a panic attack, just the physical effects of being constantly bombarded with Black Friday and Cyber Week sales.

If it seems like the sales have started earlier and earlier each year, you’re not imagining it. Retailers like Walmart already began slashing prices at the start of October and it’s nearly impossible to go on social media right now without seeing Black Friday adverts. Everywhere you look, another sale, another discount, and another frantic push to get us to somehow spend less by buying more. But even the biggest discounts come with a cost

The buying surges that happen around this time of year can be hugely damaging for both people and the environment. Keep reading for an in-depth look at the origins of Black Friday, how it's playing out today, and the dark side of all those markdowns. We’ll also highlight some ways to shop the sales more sustainably, how to avoid them altogether, and 8 brands doing Black Friday differently.

Get in, we’re going shopping … or are we?

Table of  Contents

What is Black Friday?

People in a warm clothing crowd near the store entrance during the sale. Shoppers enter the mall on Black Friday.

Black Friday has become such a massive marketing and shopping phenomenon that most of us don’t even remember where the tradition began. Usually the Friday after Thanksgiving, here’s a look at how this holiday started and where it’s ended up today:

The Origins of Black Friday

There are a few different theories that explain the origins of Black Friday. According to a recent WSJ article, the first use of the term appeared in 1951, in a New York publication bemoaning workers not showing up at their factory jobs the day after Thanksgiving. The term became cemented, however, in the 1960s when Philadelphia police officers took to naming the day Black Friday due to the sea of traffic and people that the sales would bring.

The other version of events is that after weeks of being “in the red”, retailers would finally make enough during Thanksgiving weekend shopping that they would hit “the black”. Regardless of the exact origins, Black Friday has been an American shopping holiday since at least the 1980s. It’s traditionally marked a day of big sales for pre-holiday shoppers to take advantage of.

The bigger the sales got over the years, the bigger and more notorious the day seemed to become with shoppers taking increasingly extreme measures to get deals. Overnight queues, brawls, and looting were just the start. In 2008, the first death occurred when a Walmart employee was trampled to death.

What Black Friday Looks Like Today

That first Black Friday death gave enough retailers a fright that the event largely shifted course from then on. Deals became more spread out and as the internet took off, many sales became “online only” to help avoid the big shopping crush.

Today, Black Friday is a weeks-long event, rather than just a day. While this has obvious benefits for the safety of both shoppers and retail staff, it’s also meant that opting out feels near impossible. You can’t go anywhere at this time of year without seeing Black Friday deals advertised for weeks on end. It’s also gone global. What was once a uniquely American occurrence has spread around the world.

Another way that Black Friday has shifted is with the sale margins we’re seeing. Doorbuster sales with 80% price cuts used to be common but as  the video below from Future Proof highlights, most discounts now sit at about the 30% mark:

The kinds of items that shoppers are using the sales to buy have also changed. Once a day for holiday gift buying or purchasing big ticket items like TVs,  the need has shifted significantly with grocery stores and supermarkets making up the bulk share of US consumers' Black Friday and Cyber Week shopping in 2022.

How are Cyber Monday and Black Friday Different?

Cyber Monday is essentially an extension of Black Friday, taking the first Monday after Thanksgiving weekend. Most cyber sales however start well before Black Friday and only end the Sunday after. Some call that “Cyber week” but every retailer defines it slightly differently.

At their core, events like Cyber Monday, Cyber Week, and Black Friday are marketing events. The main difference with the “cyber” side of things is that it’s internet-based and it’s when you’ll see digital stores holding their biggest sales.

Why is Black Friday Bad?

Garbage landfill abundance, Aerial view garbage truck unloading garbage to a landfill referencing why black friday is bad as millions of tons of waste ending up in landfill annually

With fun, viral advertising campaigns like the recent Mean Girls spoof from Walmart, you may be wondering why Black Friday is bad. Marketers paint is an unmissable event with huge benefits for shoppers, but the truth is a little more complicated …

Overconsumption

In 2022, Black Friday online spending hit a record high of $9.12 billion. That’s an almost inconceivable amount of money and while roughly 40% of that was spent at grocery stores and supermarkets, clothing and accessories made up 36%. Some call it a shopping holiday, but it may be more accurate to call it a day of overconsumption.

A study that looked at 2022 Black Friday spending found that 60% of shoppers regretted their sale purchases. It makes sense. So much of the marketing at this time of year operates a scarcity mindset to make us feel that we have to buy now, or we’ll miss out.

It amplifies the very worst kinds of consumerist messaging that’s harmful to shoppers and the environment alike. If you’ve found yourself getting swept up by the Black Friday ads and impulse buying, you’re not alone. The system is actively working to push these overconsumption habits.

Environmental Cost

While there’s no way to quantify exactly how much of the approximately 292,5 million tons of landfilled waste in the USA comes directly from Black Friday purchases, it certainly plays a significant role. Black Friday is the pinnacle of consumerist culture and that inevitably has an environmental cost.

As we buy more in the sales, so it supports many of the dangerous mining and manufacturing processes that harm our planet. There are also increased emissions to consider from the many deliveries that will be going out. A study found that 400,000 tons of CO2 would be generated by Black Friday sales in the UK alone.

While of course, some argue that these purchases would have been made anyway and the emissions unavoidable, the frantic buying of the day would suggest otherwise. Black Friday advertising actively encourages buying more than we need and this only adds to the current sustainability crisis.

Social Cost

There is also a human cost to Black Friday activity. This article on The Financial Diet from a former retail worker details experiences that are equal parts hilarious and horrifying. Mobs of shoppers and physical altercations are a sad norm of the day and it’s up to the, often underpaid, retail workers to deal with it.

In fact, just as we were researching for this article, 400 workers at Macy’s locations in Washington State announced a Black Friday strike. This is in response to ongoing alleged unfair labor practices and general dissatisfaction with a company whose profits past the $1 billion mark in 2022 but whose retail employees are still having to beg for wage increases.

Last year, Amazon workers in the UK enacted a similar strike. It points to the irony of these big companies and their considerable Black Friday profits that tend to benefit the very few.

Negatively Impacts Small Businesses

Another answer to the question of why Black Friday is bad is the way in which the sales tend to dwarf small businesses. Massive advertising campaigns from big retailers take over social media with price cuts few small businesses can match. High consumer spending at bigger brands also means less to go around for small companies. 

The Financial Reality of Most Black Friday Deals

The big selling point of Black Friday is that you’ll save money, but not everything is as it seems. Here are two of the biggest Black Friday myths:

  • “The best savings!”: Many brands will use this line to convince people to take part in Black Friday deals lest they miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime savings opportunity. Don’t be fooled. Depending on the brand and product you’re after, there may be post-holiday sales to take advantage of and other discounts throughout the year. A consumer group in the UK found that just 2% of products on sale for Black Friday weren’t available cheaper or at the same price within six months. This is yet another reason to go into Black Friday with at least some caution.
  • “You’ll save money!”: This is a myth that haunts not just Black Friday, but most big sales. Check out this video from the Financial Diet on why sales often make us spend more, not less:

Tips on Avoiding Black Friday Sales

Whether you’re ethically opposed to the day or just not interested in spending right now, here are some tips on avoiding Black Friday sales:

  • Get clear about your goals. If you have certain savings goals you’re trying to reach or are passionate about the sustainability side of things, take a second to note that down. Having a clear “why” in mind will help you resist the maddening temptation of these sales.
  • Stay off social media for a bit. One of the big reasons why Black Friday is bad is that it takes over every visible inch of the internet for a period. The best way to avoid it is to take a little time off your phone if you can.
  • Stay away from big stores over the Thanksgiving weekend as much as possible. It’s likely to be packed anyway.
  • Unsubscribe to promotional emails and texts. These are insidious but scarily effective at reeling us in, even when we’ve sworn off sales altogether.
  • Scratch that shopping urge by looking at second-hand options, such as Plato’s Closet.
  • Watch Confessions of a Shopaholic. It’s a funny, cozy watch and it really drives home why overconsumption and spending don’t make us as happy as the advertising tells us it will.

How to Shop Black Friday More Sustainably (For You and the Planet)

Not all Black Friday deals are bad. The problem is the confusing haze of marketing and pressure that convinces us to purchase things we wouldn’t normally. Here’s how to shop the deals in a way that’s more sustainable for you and the planet:

  • Check the fine print: Many retailers won’t let customers return sale items so double-check that before any purchases. So much of the waste incurred from the sales is down to purchasing items that can’t be returned.
  • Green points: Also look at the sustainability features such as fabric content, manufacturing processes, whether the brand is giving back in any way, and delivery practices eg. plastic-free, carbon neutral, etc.
  • Make a list: Decide in advance what the items are that you really need or want to purchase. This will help prevent getting side-tracked by sneaky marketing tactics.
  • Set a budget: Knowing how much you want to spend and sticking by that figure is the best way to avoid overspending.
  • Call a Friend: Before a purchase, call a friend and get a pulse check. They might be able to talk you down from an impulse purchase.
  • Support small businesses: Where you can, support smaller and more local sellers. It’s better for people and the planet.
  • Giving Tuesday: Started as an attempt to counteract the excessive spending of Black Friday, Giving Tuesday encourages people to give back to charity during the sales. Consider picking somewhere to donate to and even getting friends involved so that the neediest members of our community aren’t overlooked during the shopping frenzy.

8 Brands Skipping and Re-Thinking Black Friday This Year

With the waste and overconsumption associated with Black Friday shopping, many brands are choosing to opt out this year or at least, do the sales differently:

Patagonia

Patagonia brand logo.

Patagonia has been skipping the Black Friday sales for years – a rarity for a brand of its size. In an explanation of the decision, they shared that “The frenzy of Black Friday doesn’t sit well with us. Let’s slow our roll and consider our impact.”

Everlane

Everlane brand logo.

Sustainable clothing brand Everlane has taken a slightly different approach. While they do hold sales, they also have an annual “Black Friday Fund” in which they donate money to an organization for every $100 sent.

This year, they’ve partnered with The New Zealand Merino Company to support regenerative, organic wool farming. It’s not a perfect solution to the ethical crisis of Black Friday, but giving back is certainly a step in the right direction.

Veja

Veja Brand Logo

This sustainable sneaker brand has taken a major stand against Black Friday mania by offering free shoe repairs at their stores for the day, rather than any discounts. Highlighting circular fashion practices is a brilliant way to counterbalance the overconsumption of this sale season.

Jade Yoga

Jade Yoga Brand logo

Other brands, like Jade Yoga, have made no announcement about Black Friday and instead, quietly opted out. Even in silence, it’s a powerful stand against the pressure that so many businesses are under to participate.

Rei

REI brand logo.

Outdoor brand Rei has been running their “OPT OUTside” campaign against Black Friday since about 2015. Not only do they refuse to participate in the sales, they instead use this time to highlight the Outdoors for All Act which aims to build more parks in areas that lack green spaces.

Davines

Davines brand logo.

Like Everlane, haircare brand Davines is giving a portion of their Black Friday profits to a sustainable cause. 20% of net sales from November 24th will be donated to Scolel'te, a non-profit that supports forestation projects.

Rixo

Rixo brand logo.

The stylish and sustainably minded clothing brand Rixo has often opted out of Black Friday. This year, they seem to be back in, but only on limited items that they have excess stock of. Like the “Green Friday” events at Everlane or Davines, it’s not a perfect approach but any brand choosing to be more mindful of their Black Friday participation is still a win.

The Ordinary

The Ordinary brand logo.

The Ordinary don’t just skip Black Friday sales, they close their website and stores for the day. To counteract the impulse buying of the season they run a “Slowvember sale” which offers 20% off for the month alongside advertising that encourages customers to slow down and only buy what they need.

Do Black Friday on Your Own Terms

Some Black Friday mark-downs can feel like a godsend, especially in these trying economic times, and there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage. Just do it on your own terms.

Take a beat when considering your next purchase and make sure that you’re acting of your own accord and not because you feel pressured by big advertising campaigns. Why Black Friday is bad isn’t just down to the excessive buying it encourages, but the intense FOMO it thrives off. 

The best way to approach the big, scary system of overconsumption at work is by moving mindfully. The planet, and your bank account, will thank you in the long run.