News and events

The ethical and environmental impact of Black Friday

Posted on Sunday 28 October 2018

By Charlotte Hawkins, Volunteer Contributor

Black Friday Adam Smith InstituteOne of the biggest lowlights of the run up to Christmas in recent years has been the American import Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving is celebrated, shops in the US have engaged in a battle to offer consumers household goods and potential Christmas presents at rock-bottom prices. On the face of it, people being able to buy things that they feel are value for money might seem like a good thing. However, when around ten years ago we saw video images from the USA of consumers scrambling over each other at the crack of dawn, knocking other customers out of the way and literally fighting to grab bargains for themselves, many of us in Britain found these images shocking, as it revealed a side of human nature we would rather forget.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

The growth Black Friday

Sadly, in recent years, Black Friday (like Halloween at the end of last month) has been taken on by retail giants over here. The growth of Black Friday has become circular: retailers want to take a bigger share of the Christmas shopping market so offer huge discounts, and customers dutifully oblige by spending large amounts of money for what they perceive as a good deal. Retailers then have no choice but to offer bigger discounts the following year so as not to miss out on the valuable pre-Christmas shopping season, and so on.  While British shoppers may behave with a little more etiquette (one would hope), it shows how far society’s obsession with consumerism – the drive to have and ostentatiously show off the latest gadgets – has gone.

Shopping Pixabay

What is wrong with people getting a deal on the things they want, you may ask?

Aside from many people, particularly True Food shoppers, finding such consumerism distasteful, is there any harm in it if other people are motivated by having possessions they feel gives them pleasure and status?

Perhaps the larger difficulty comes in the sacrifices made by people at the bottom of the production chain. More often than not, the people taking the financial hit of reduced profit margins are not the big retailers themselves, but suppliers and small businesses lower down in the manufacturing chain who do not have the clout to be able to argue with the companies they supply. The deal is that they supply goods to the big retailers at the price they demand, or the retailers will go elsewhere, thus forcing small producers out of business, leading to job losses and or pay cuts. Many of these manufacturing jobs are in developing countries where poorly educated workers only just survive on subsistence wages and work hours that we in the affluent west would regard as unreasonable. Whilst I would not argue against capitalism, that doesn’t mean that larger retailers need to absolve themselves of all responsibility for protecting those at the bottom at the production chain. However, society’s increasing consumerist tendencies makes it difficult for those companies that would like to behave responsibly to do so.

Ethical consumerism

Green Broom Workers

One of True Food’s greatest strengths is that it very deliberately turns its back on this consumerism. Of paramount importance is sourcing food and household goods where those involved in the whole supply chain are given a fair price to allow them to make a decent living, whether they fall under the "Fairtrade" banner or not. This ranges from locally produced fruit and vegetables, which we often buy directly from the farmer, to household products which have been manufactured outside of the UK, and by necessity have been traded from manufacturer and then UK supplier before reaching us. As well as ensuring that manufacturers and suppliers get a fair price for their services, the supply chain is one in which people are treated with compassion and respect, rather than dictatorial aggression. 

If True Food's products are sold at a discount, it is because it is approaching its use-by date, or is slightly damaged, rather than being discounted as incentive to buy something we don't need. Many people find the prospect of a good deal enticing,  be it on items ranging from electrical goods to supermarket BOGOF offers, but inevitably it leads to increased waste if the product isn't needed in the first place. It leads to waste of what has just been bought, or waste of what has been displaced, a lot of which ends up in our domestic bins, and then into landfill sites. As True Food only discounts goods for good reason - to avoid us as a retailer needing to throw away a product due to damage or exceeding the use-by date, it actively discourages waste by giving the customer the opportunity to use it up first. The use of advertising within a consumerist culture is cleverly manipulative, promulgating the idea that individuals need to have the latest version of something to keep up with our peers. True Food does not push unneeded food or products on to its customers by offering too-good-to-be-true incentives.

Environmental cost

A further major consideration of the items that True Food stocks is the environmental cost involved in producing it. We do not sell products that are environmentally damaging, such as those containing unsustainably produced palm oil or strong synthetic or potentially hormone disrupting chemicals. Also, goods are sold with minimal packaging, and are recyclable at every opportunity. Many of the "Black Friday" deals arrive from online retailers in huge boxes, wrapped in several layers of plastic, much of which is currently non-recyclable. 

Recent media coverage of issues such as consumer waste and the environmental damage caused by plastics has made many people think twice about the repercussions of a consumerist culture, and retail events such as Black Friday that both encourage and thrive on it. True Food's membership has grown recently as increasing numbers of people find that that True Food's values match their own. However, there are many people who share our concerns about the costs incurred by a consumerist culture and unethical practices in the world of retail, but don't know about True Food or our values.

An alternative vision

Many don't realise that True Food is not about profit, but is all about an alternative vision, where both people and the environment are protected. The best way you can help is to spread True Food's message amongst your friends and family, as the stronger we are as an organisation, the more we can make a difference.

Return to headlines