Since becoming famous in the U.S. in the 1960s, Black Friday has spread worldwide. What used to be a one-day event filled with unbelievable discounts is now a fully-fledged global phenomenon “celebrated” in countries as disparate as Brazil, India, Poland and Nigeria. Stores open their doors as early as 4 a.m. before the turkey-induced haze of Thanksgiving has even begun to fade. Devoted customers queue for hours in the freezing cold, sharpening their elbows and preparing to fight tooth and nail over discount designer clothes and half-price televisions. It’s basically the Hunger Games of high street shopping, and it’s not going anywhere.
We know that the world is dying because we keep consuming. Discounts encourage us to buy things we don’t need and throw things away that we could really keep, re-use or recycle. We buy, we throw, we re-buy, we repeat. The problems with Black Friday are endless, well-documented and symptomatic of a society obsessed with a bargain — no matter who had to sacrifice their own livelihoods to ensure our discounts.
But it’s easy to take the moral high ground if you can afford these things at full-price, and the reality is that many of us can’t — especially young people. A crippling combination of student debt, inflation rates and rising mortgages means that millennials are more likely to be living under the poverty line in the U.S. and much less likely to own their own home. Recently-released Census statistics also show that people of color are more likely to be living in poverty than their white counterparts, as are single mothers and disabled people. The country’s economy may be growing, but so is the wealth gap.
We need to understand this before we allow ourselves to laugh at the footage of Black Friday shoppers being dragged out of stores by police clutching half-price products. These viral videos are the online equivalent of poverty porn — they make memes out of the disadvantaged and urge the rich to roll their eyes. Sure, some of it can be chalked up to mindless violence and our desperate need to always dress in the freshest labels, but other examples are more genuine. That single mother fighting for the last half-price microwave? We don’t know her story, yet the media likes to assume or, at worst, ignore it and mock her anyway.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be critical of over-consumption. We should. But it’s easy to preach about saving the planet by “buying better” if you have the money to do so.
Ironically, companies are becoming wise to the language of sustainability and manipulating it to convince us all to spend money on — you guessed it — more shit we don’t need. Aspects of the “wellness” trend are good examples of this moral marketing machine in action. What started out as innocent advice soon spiraled into an absolute shit-show that encouraged us all to travel with permanent zip-loc bags of almonds, healing mushrooms and “superfoods” which, unsurprisingly, aren’t as super as we were led to believe. People are still buying into it, too — apparently not even Gwyneth Paltrow steaming her vagina in the name of “healing” can stop the trend hurtling towards the trillion dollar mark.
Then, there are the well-documented problems with the fashion industry. Various films and organizations like Fashion Revolution have spent the years following the Rana Plaza tragedy showing exactly how many hands must bleed for your £2 T-shirt, but there’s still a widespread myth that “expensive” and “ethically-made” are synonymous. They aren’t. This year’s Transparency Index actually shows that consumers are now more critical of the high street than ever before, and this pressure is leading to actual change. Meanwhile, luxury brands are cagey on the details, meaning we essentially don’t know what they’re hiding.
It’s reassuring to tell ourselves that we’re doing the world a favor by sitting out Black Friday, but it’s not as simple as that — especially now we have Cyber Monday and countless other discount initiatives in place. The fact that companies can reduce their prices so significantly and still presumably make a profit only goes to show the extent to which prices are marked up; one handy infographic in Fashion Revolution’s first fanzine offered a cost breakdown of a sample €29 T-shirt and revealed that €17 was retail mark-up alone. If the sample shirt were made by garment workers being paid a fair wage, the cost would only increase by €1.57, so why is there such a glaring difference in price between high-street clothes and those marketed as “sustainable”?
Those of us who are quick to mock Black Friday still have the potential to be sucked into “moral” discussions rooted in class discrimination. We could all make quick, cheap changes to our lifestyles to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s as easy as learning to mend old clothes, growing our own vegetables and conserving electricity — but brands don’t make money from these facts. Instead, they profit from a guilt-based argument which can lead us all to uncritically buy into the idea that something is better purely because it costs more money.
This isn’t the kind of argument we need in a world increasingly divided by wealth. Poverty is still a widespread problem, even in the most privileged, wealthy countries, so is it really any wonder that some of us are willing to throw down for a cut-price toaster? Any critical mind can see that brands sell a myth that consumption equates to happiness. In turn, this convinces us to buy more discount items and often spend more money than we initially would have — we still can’t beat the lure of a bargain.
But we can’t just laugh and roll our eyes, assuming that all Black Friday shoppers are braindead morons buying into a system of greed. Poverty is more widespread than ever before, although its face has changed; it’s the young parent struggling to pay rent, the graduate struggling with student debts and the people of color failed by centuries of institutionalized racism. Meanwhile, the rich amongst us are being encouraged to wear sustainability like a badge of honor because it makes us better, more “conscious” than the shoppers on television. In reality, the language of marketing has just made us all less critical; the more ethical brands emerge, the less questions we ask. So, whether you’re queuing or not this Black Friday, be sure to avoid the moral high-ground, pray for the stressed-out retail workers and remember the one universal rule we can still put trust in: don’t be a dick.
Next up; here’s what you need to know about minimalist living.
- Photography: RSVLTS / YouTube