Black Friday is nearly upon us. Over the last few years, companies have been in an arms race to start their sales earlier and earlier in order to snag a greater share of the $68.6 billion consumers will spend over the Thanksgiving weekend. These sales can be incredibly enticing. Last year, many brands slashed prices by 30% to 40% during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.
This year, the sales will look a bit different, as the pandemic continues to rage across the U.S. Historically, brick and mortar stores began their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving, but many have chosen to to remain closed until Friday to avoid large crowds, including Target, Walmart, and Best Buy. On the other hand, the National Retail Federation has noted that many retailers have been heavily pushing online deals and starting their sales as early as October to stretch out this promotional period.
It’s hard to say no to all the sales, especially since brands use psychological tactics to entice us to buy things we don’t need. But the pandemic has shifted some of our shopping behaviors for the better: There’s some evidence that we’re shopping more purposefully than before, investing in items we really need, rather than getting sucked into trends. So perhaps this is the year to change our relationship with Black Friday and shop more conscientiously.
The downsides of impulse buys
Look, I’m as guilty as the next person of indulging in unnecessary purchases on Black Friday. I’ve upgraded my perfectly functional TV for a newer model. I’ve filled my cart with beauty products to reach the threshold for a free toiletry case I’ll never use. I bought a cute mini waffle maker even though we already have a normal-size one. But the data shows that these impulse buys are terrible for the planet.
For one thing, we tend to return a lot of these holiday purchases. More items are returned between Thanksgiving and Christmas than any other time of the year: UPS estimates that 1 million returns were made every single day during December 2019. As I’ve written before, these free returns have an enormous environmental cost, from the carbon emissions required to ship them back to warehouses to the fact that many of the returned items can’t be resold, so they end up in landfills. This means that all the raw materials, labor, and greenhouse gases required to manufacture these products are completely wasted.
There are signs that the pandemic may be changing our shopping behaviors. This is partly because so many people are suffering financially: 78% of consumers say they’ve been economically affected by the crisis. In September, 2.4 million Americans had been unemployed for more than six months. Around the country, people are tightening their purse strings: 42% of Americans intend to spend less money this holiday season compared to last year.
Still, between January and September, consumer spending on goods went up by 7.2%. (This was buoyed, in part, by the stimulus checks that went out during the summer.) McKinsey found that Americans are spending more on essentials, like food, household supplies, and children’s products, and less on discretionary items like clothes, footwear, and cosmetics. People are also spending more money on long-term items such as cars, particularly secondhand ones; home workout equipment; and, to a lesser extent, furniture for our homebound lifestyles.
This shift from frivolous, disposable items to more conscious, durable products is more sustainable. For decades, Americans have consumed more than their fair share of the world’s resources: The average American will consume as many resources in his or her lifetime as 35 people in India or 53 in China. And this has a devastating impact on the planet. While the U.S. is home to only 4% of the world’s population, it is responsible for a third of the world’s carbon emissions.
A different Black Friday
Sometimes it can be hard to wrap our heads around these numbers, but overconsumption really comes down to the everyday purchases we make. In my case, I think about that perfectly good TV I got rid of. Those unused beauty products that sat in a closet until they expired. The novelty waffle maker that I used a few times before donating it to Goodwill.
Perhaps the pandemic offers us a rare opportunity to reset our consumption habits. While Black Friday and Cyber Monday will present a challenge for those of us looking to be more conscientious shoppers, we could focus on buying things that are truly essential and that we’ll hold on to for years, even decades.
There’s a growing movement around mindful consumption, partly inspired by Buddhist philosophy. Researchers have found that when consumers pause before making a purchase and process their bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings, they are more likely to make the purchase based on caring for themselves, their community, and the planet, rather than out of habit or to satisfy the primal urge to just own more stuff. Scholars have also found that smartphones tend to aggravate thoughtless consumption, but employing mindfulness practices can help break our addiction to shopping on these devices.
Ultimately, changing our behaviors might encourage brands to change theirs. Some are already doing so. For six years, REI has closed its stores and website on Black Friday to give employees time to spend with their family. This year, skincare brand Deciem is following REI’s playbook and shuttering on Black Friday to promote “slow shopping.” And in a radical move, Allbirds is actually raising its prices by a dollar on Black Friday, then matching it and donating the $2 to Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s nonprofit, Fridays for Future. It’s a clever way of helping customers be more thoughtful about the products they buy and the values those products represent.