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The real cost of Black Friday: The consequences of our problem with stuff

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Every November, millions of people across the country descend on shopping centers to spend billions of dollars in a single day. The bizarre consumerist cultural phenomenon that is Black Friday has become a standard that retailers and marketers hungrily inflate every holiday season. The holiday season itself creeps earlier every year, with Halloween replaced by Christmas overnight on October 31st and Black Friday advertising typically in full swing well over a month before consumers hit the stores.

Every year, the number of dollars spent on Black Friday increases. In 2019, 84.2 million people shopped in stores on Black Friday itself and 124 million visited a store over the course of Thanksgiving weekend. While the pandemic may have slowed in-person shopping in 2020, it had the opposite effect for online retailers. Cyber Monday 2020 became the largest online shopping day in U.S. history, with consumers racking up a total of $10.8 billion in online purchases in a single day – an increase of more than a billion dollars over Cyber Monday 2019. Amazon alone delivered a record-breaking 1.5 billion packages over the holiday season.

Like all binges, however, Black Friday and its cyber offspring come with a bad hangover – an environmental one – that demonstrates the repercussions of our society’s unhealthy relationship with “stuff.”

U.S. households throw out 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day than at any other time of the year. Much of that trash is packaging, but a surprising amount of the trash discarded consists of useful products. Every year, more than 5 billion pounds of waste is generated from returned products – both the return packaging, but also in many cases the products themselves. Between 30% and 40% of clothing sales are returned, but only 10% of all returns are restocked on shelves to be resold. The rest may be shipped off to the landfill or the incinerator.

Trash isn’t the only damaging by-product of our holiday season spending. With shipping services pushed to their limits, carbon emissions rise as well. Many shoppers are lured into making online purchases by the promise of free two-day shipping, but this is the least efficient scenario for shipping. When shipments are sent out with shorter notice, the shipping center has less time to pack trucks to their full capacity, with the result that more trips have to be made. Free returns add to the problem: for every item that is returned, the trip is made twice.

As a society, we have a problem with waste. The holiday season pushes that problem to an extreme, and while the purchasing throughout the Black Friday weekend tapers off after a furious three to five days, the environmental ramifications of the decisions we make during those days can last for decades.

While retailers continue to wave heavy discounts, repetitive commercials and eye-catching products to consumers, there are other ways to celebrate the season and indulge in the spirit of giving, with much less impact.

  • Buy with intention. This advice is as simple as it gets – don’t buy a product just because it’s there or because it’s cheap.
  • Spread out purchases. Clearly, Black Friday shopping creates supply chain problems. Shopping early and allowing time for slow shipping cuts down on carbon emissions. Free two-day shipping is only free for the customer – environmental costs bear the real load.  
  • Support small businesses over big box stores. Individual-owned shops often provide their own product sourcing information and use sustainable practices. That way, the environmental impact is easily traceable compared to that of mass-manufactured products.

There are a number of specific gift alternatives that minimize waste and carbon emissions. U.S. PIRG has compiled a series of gift ideas for this holiday season that forgo the big box stores. The blogs can be found here.

Shopping consciously and reducing the importance of “stuff” in our holiday celebrations and our lives, we can still enjoy the magic of the season, but without the hangover for our wallets, our closets or the planet we share.

Photo: Steve Rhodes via Flickr, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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