Every year, hours after American families gather to give thanks for everything they have, millions will flock to stores and websites lusting after everything they don’t. The tradition known as Black Friday, in recent years a global phenomenon, generated some $20 billion (€16.8 billion) worldwide in 2019. Critics of the consumerist holiday aftermath have called for people to boycott the practice.
There are a lot of reasons to hate Black Friday and its digital sister, Cyber Monday. The frenzied consumption is hard on the environment, retail workers and people’s pocketbooks.
If your primary interest is shielding yourself from these uncomfortable realities, then by all means boycott Black Friday. You’re one less person to trample at the checkout.
But if you truly believe this practice should end, it is fruitless to call for people to shop less when our economy depends on that very act to survive.
The global coronavirus crisis has laid bare this reality. Governments have been fretting ever since springtime lockdowns closed businesses and killed consumer spending. The International Monetary Fund now expects the global economy to contract around 5% this year, down from the 3% growth predicted before the pandemic began.
Some speculated, or hoped, that the exceptional situation would bring about a shift to slower, more sustainable consumption patterns. But economists and global leaders saw it differently.
Shopping and the wider economy
The problem with less spending is it leads to a drop in consumer prices, which can lead to deflation. This pulls down wages and the economy with it, as notably happened in the 1930s with the Great Depression.
Particularly this year, when slow economic growth has economies begging for people to spend, ending Black Friday shopping is the last thing the people in power want.
German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier this week even called shopping a “patriotic duty” as he pushed for more shops to be allowed to open on Sundays to counter the effects of state-mandated closures.
It is possible to bring about change with a boycott. But ending a practice on this scale would need government backing, like changes to labor or consumer protection laws, to provide a real impetus for change.
A successful boycott also requires buy-in from the people who make that practice possible in the first place. During the US Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, which called for equal rights for Black and white Americans, the Montgomery Bus Boycott succeeded because the Black passengers who boycotted made up the majority of the city’s bus riders.
That’s not the case with Black Friday. Last year, over 154 million people shopped in the US on this day. And generally, the people who feel empowered to pass on discounts or shop ethically are not the same ones stampeding into electronics shops at 4 a.m.
Following the consumer leader
Like the trends toward minimalism and mindful consumption that have emerged in recent years, calls to boycott Black Friday are understandable attempts by individuals to free themselves from a system that is exploiting workers and the environment.
But in the end, these fads are better at crafting a pleasant illusion of innocence than they are at improving labor conditions, environmental practices, or consumer tendencies in any meaningful way.
After climate activist Greta Thunberg famously completed her wind-powered trip across the Atlantic Ocean last year, she said of course sail boats wouldn’t solve climate change. The stunt highlighted the difference between individual and collective effort. “If we don’t manage to work together and to cooperate … then we will fail,” she said.
Individuals who really want to see an end to Black Friday should learn to protest with more than just their wallets, and that solving collective, systemic issues requires a collective, systemic response.