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EconomicsEnvironmentOff Campus

Black Friday, the tip of the melting iceberg

Reading time: 8 minutes

Black Friday is much more than the discounts delivered to your inbox or the huge posters inviting you to take your window shopping to the next level. Black Friday is one of the major symptoms and a fueler of some of the biggest problems of today’s society. During the recent COP27 conference the majority of us were infuriated by governmental inaction in terms of environmental reforms, but as soon all the shops started their “2 for 1” sales, only a few seemed to care about the melting ice caps and the environmental damage created by irresponsible shopping. Turns out, the bargains we can’t decline aren’t all sunshine and unicorns.

Black Friday is the most important event for shopaholics worldwide. It infects them with an unstoppable desire to purchase anything discounted, from clothing to electronics. Frenzy, physical injuries, scams, and more recently, exploited workers, overconsumption, and a huge environmental impact have been associated with it. Black Friday is one of the major symptoms and a fueler of some of the biggest problems of today’s society. During the recent COP27 conference the majority of us were infuriated by governmental inaction in terms of environmental reforms, but as soon all the shops started their “2 for 1” sales, only a few seemed to care about the melting ice caps and the environmental damage created by irresponsible shopping.

Black Friday has a relatively dark origin. “Black” usually denotes something negative in this context. On Friday, 24 September 1869 two Wall Street financiers (Jay Gould and James Fisk) crashed the American gold market. They wanted to own a large part of the gold supplies in circulation to sell them at a high price and make an astounding profit off of this business. The plan was prevented by the Treasury releasing a huge supply of gold, which caused prices to drop in a beat. This scandal went down in history as the Panic of 1869 or Black Friday. The day 29 October 1929, also known as Black Tuesday, marked the beginning of the Great Depression. In the early ‘50s, Black Friday was the day between Thanksgiving and the weekend when many workers called in sick to enjoy the short holiday at its fullest. Sometime later, the horde of shoppers and shoplifters taking over the streets on Black Friday and Black Saturday became the biggest nightmare of police officers in Philadelphia, these being the days when people started their Christmas gift-buying marathon. Some companies suggested using ”Big Friday” and ”Big Saturday” instead, to remove the negative connotations, but these terms didn’t stick. Another notorious day in financial history was Black Monday on 19 October 1987, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average (a pretty important market index) lost more than 20% of its value in a single day.

Given its dark past, retail business owners tried to improve people’s attitudes toward this day. They started spreading the story, that the name came from the colours used in financial records — red meaning loss and black meaning profit, insinuating that Black Friday turned businesses’ year-long loss into profit. The phrase as we know it today first appeared in the New York Times on 29 November 1975, where they referred to it as “the busiest shopping and traffic day of the year”. However, the term’s origin still says a lot about this day — the sinister side of large discounts is being (re)discovered.

Just like Thanksgiving, Black Friday is an American ”holiday”. But contrary to Thanksgiving, it has been exported to more than half the world, especially Europe. Retailers didn’t have much choice if they wanted to avoid being undercut by competition posed by online shops based in the US, especially Amazon.

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Black Friday has since evolved and been spread out to more days. There’s now a period called Cyber Week, which goes from the Thursday of Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday. The adjective “cyber” is used due to the fact that an increasing number of shoppers prefer to browse through deals from home. This has brought a significant decrease in the frenetic crowds flooding shops on Black Friday,[1] but it’s definitely bad news for the planet. As more people order products online instead of getting them at local shops, both the amount of shipping and packaging rises dramatically.

Black Friday already has a huge negative impact on the environment as it is. It brings an otherwise unseen amount of waste, carbon emissions, and general damage in just a couple of days. According to a 2019 report by Green Alliance, up to 80% of plastics, textiles, and electronic goods produced and sold go to landfill, incineration, or low-quality recycling. Combine this with data showing that consumers around the world spent more than 9.1 billion dollars online on Black Friday in 2022.[2] So, not counting the purchases made in person (about one third of people still go to physical shops), almost 7.3 billion dollars worth of products could end up wasted this year from Black Friday alone. And this is nothing compared to the estimated 4-5 trillion dollar retail e-commerce revenue worldwide in 2022.[3] Add to this the excessive packaging and the carbon emissions from shipping.  This year’s Black Friday produced more than 400,000 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions,[4] which is equivalent to more than 400 return flights between London and New York. It’s also equivalent to the weight of about 3500-4000 blue whales (consider that this is almost a quarter of the total number of blue whales in the world). It has been estimated that shipping accounts for 3-4% of human-caused carbon emissions[5] and this number could be as high as 17% by 2050.[6] This is outrageous, but not surprising since people demand fast and cheap delivery. In fact, on the Black Friday of 2017, the Guardian reported that a diesel truck left an Amazon fulfillment centre around every 93 seconds. Most of them weren’t even full, but shipping in two days from the other part of the country (if not the world) has a cost.

Black Friday also brings numerous social issues to the table. Many regard it as a representation of the dark side of consumerism. The heavy discounts fuel overconsumption and because everyone wants to get the most out of this day and the stock is limited, customers are pressured into compulsive purchases they might regret later. This adds to the misconception that our value is based on the commodities we own. At this point it doesn’t matter whether somebody really needs that product, the important part is how much they ”saved” on it or how convenient of a ”deal” it was. There’s a ton of psychological research[7] on how limited-time offers affect our minds. Fear of missing out plays a major role here. Even if we agree that low prices are a great advantage and sometimes make it possible to buy products people otherwise couldn’t afford, usually this isn’t the case. Besides, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid scams. Several stores rake up the prices even as early as September[8] in order to then bring them down to the normal level, which is the ”bargain” people feel forced to harness.

Climate activists have been protesting against this day for years. In 2018 Greenpeace placed a huge gift box made of plastic waste in Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of the most frequented shopping alleys in Milan.[9] In 2019 on Black Friday thousands of people gathered in Milan and other major cities for one of the ‘Fridays for Future’ protests to express their disapproval of excessive consumerism. Their motto was ‘Block Friday’.[10] Protesters positioned blockades outside Amazon warehouses in Paris and staged sit-ins across European cities. This year on 25 November people demanded to ”Make Amazon pay” in front of the company’s pop-up store in Brera, Milan.[11] In 2019 even the French Parliament addressed the situation and some politicians urged to ban Black Friday.

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Another social issue that even violates human rights is worker exploitation. Amazon is one of the worst in this aspect, too — on this day warehouse employees often work 12-16 hours in an unsafe environment to meet the high demand, and they are utterly underpaid. They’re treated like disposable parts of a huge mechanism.[12] The money we save is often the money stores don’t pay their workers. CEOs, directors, and managers are making just the same amount.

It’s not only the climate activists who are protesting – “ethical” brands are organizing anti-Black Friday campaigns as well. Fashion Revolution has launched a campaign raising awareness about the drawbacks of Black Friday. In 2011 an American clothing brand, Patagonia asked people not to buy clothing or other products with their ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ ads placed in the New York Times. In 2020 a Canadian cosmetics brand Deciem boycotted Black Friday (‘Bye-bye Black Friday’) and instead decreased prices for the whole month, which they named Knowvember to raise awareness about climate change. Several other brands from around the world shut down their online stores to promote local shopping or completely closed for the day, online retailer Buy Me Once sent out a survey to its customers asking them to vote for the products they really wanted but couldn’t afford. They then only discounted the 10 products which received the most votes. Some brands donate part of or their entire revenue from Cyber Week to charity. Others open resale stores or platforms to encourage second-hand shopping among consumers.[13]

Besides countless campaigns against it, there are several alternatives to replace Black Friday. Green Friday promotes responsible shopping, such as purchasing from small local stores or buying second-hand items. Colour Friday and Small Business Saturday support small independent businesses that aren’t able to match international retailers’ offers. They propose to celebrate the creativity brought by them. Buy Nothing Day is the complete opposite of Black Friday. Giving Tuesday is the day after Cyber Monday when people are encouraged to take part in or initiate solidarity projects, or even just donate food, clothing, or their time to people in need. Shop Local generally motivates people to shop at local physical stores instead of ordering online.

Despite Black Friday still bringing in a lot of revenue for retailers worldwide, the amount of their income has been stagnating for the last three years following a steady growth between 2014 and 2020.[14] This has several reasons. One of them is that retailers started to extend their deals to the whole week (Black Week) or even the whole month (Black Month). When people have much more time to make their purchases, they won’t concentrate them on one day, plus they won’t make as many inconsiderate decisions. Covid is also one of the reasons, although online stores didn’t suffer from it, quite the opposite, they increased their profit. However, this year the inflation, the economic recession, and, as strange as it may sound, the FIFA World Cup also had a say in the matter. A risk retailers might worry about is that offering so many discounts throughout the year will make customers wait for those periods, buying less at normal prices.

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Each of us can do something individually to reduce personal waste. Stopping for a moment to think about whether we really want or need something already makes a huge difference. But if we don’t trust ourselves, let’s bring along that eco-friendly friend of ours to pull us back to reality before hastily jumping on every bargain. When shopping, it’s also good to check the material (especially with clothing) and the country of origin of the product. This doesn’t have to feel like we’re restraining ourselves. Rather, focusing together on creating positive experiences around consuming less helps us push forward the Earth overshoot day and benefit from our planet’s natural resources for a longer period.[15]


[1] Black Friday Death Count. “Black Friday Death Count.” Blackfridaydeathcount.com, 2018, blackfridaydeathcount.com/.

[2] Ahn, Ashley. “Black Friday Sales Rake in a Record $9.12 Billion from Online Shoppers.” NPR, 26 Nov. 2022, http://www.npr.org/2022/11/26/1139274449/black-friday-sales-inflation-online-shopping.

[3] Chevalier, Stephanie. “Global Retail E-Commerce Market Size 2014-2021.” Statista, 21 Sept. 2022, http://www.statista.com/statistics/379046/worldwide-retail-e-commerce-sales/.

[4] Haqqi, Salman. “The Dirty Delivery Report 2021 | Money.co.uk.” Www.money.co.uk, 18 Nov. 2021, http://www.money.co.uk/credit-cards/dirty-delivery-report.

[5] Nate Berg. “The Environmental Cost of Shipping Stuff Is Huge. Can We Fix That?” Vox, Vox, 23 Dec. 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/12/23/10647768/shipping-environmental-cost.

[6] European Parliament. Emission Reduction Targets for Aviation and Shipping. 2015, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2015/569964/IPOL_STU(2015)569964_EN.pdf.

[7] Swain, Scott, et al. “How Time Restrictions Work: The Roles of Urgency, Anticipated Regret, and Deal Evaluations.” ASSOCIATION for CONSUMER RESEARCH, vol. 33, 2006, pp. 523–525, http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v33/v33_10303.pdf.

[8] Galiute, Ieva. “30 Times People Were so Annoyed with Evil Black Friday “Deals”, They Just Had to Expose Them Online.” Bored Panda, Nov. 2022, http://www.boredpanda.com/black-friday-pics/.

[9] Redazione ANSA. “Greenpeace Protesta Contro Black Friday – Lombardia.” Agenzia ANSA, 23 Nov. 2018, http://www.ansa.it/lombardia/notizie/2018/11/23/greenpeace-protesta-contro-black-friday_2aba4669-bed4-4d12-8082-0f4f706e6b25.html.

[10] Il Giorno. ““Block Friday” a Milano, Sciopero per Il Clima E Protesta Contro Il Consumismo/ FOTO – Cronaca.” Il Giorno, 19 Nov. 2019, http://www.ilgiorno.it/milano/cronaca/friday-for-future-1.4911634.

[11] GIANNI, ANDREA. “Black Friday: Protesta Fuori Dal Pop-up Store Amazon in Brera – Economia – Ilgiorno.it.” Il Giorno, 25 Nov. 2022, http://www.ilgiorno.it/milano/economia/presidio-store-amazon-1.8322494.

[12] Hamilton, Isobel Asher. ““They Treat Us like Disposable Parts”: An Amazon Warehouse Worker Is Waging War on Working Conditions in a New Anonymous Newspaper Column.” Business Insider, 21 Nov. 2018, http://www.businessinsider.in/they-treat-us-like-disposable-parts-an-amazon-warehouse-worker-is-waging-war-on-working-conditions-in-a-new-anonymous-newspaper-column/articleshow/66735665.cms.

[13] Pinnock, Olivia. “The Businesses Running Anti-Black Friday Campaigns.” Drapers, 23 Nov. 2021, http://www.drapersonline.com/news/the-businesses-running-anti-black-friday-campaigns. 

[14] Ahn, Ashley. “Black Friday Sales Rake in a Record $9.12 Billion from Online Shoppers.” NPR, 26 Nov. 2022, http://www.npr.org/2022/11/26/1139274449/black-friday-sales-inflation-online-shopping.

[15] Overshoot Day. “Earth Overshoot Day 2019.” Earth Overshoot Day, 2018, http://www.overshootday.org/.https://www.overshootday.org

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Articles written by the various members of our team.

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I’m a first-year BAI student from Budapest. Being Italo-Hungarian I always found it challenging to define where I belong, in all the places I’ve been to I found a piece of home. Travelling and learning languages are my favourite hobbies, beside reading and writing. I have a deep passion for science and research

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