It’s the day after Thanksgiving and maybe one of your holiday traditions is to pile into the car with your family or friends and head to the store for some post-holiday deals. An estimated 151 million Americans participate in this turkey-fueled dash for deals, and why shouldn’t they? On average, consumers save about 37% from retail price, and about 20% of Black Friday shoppers spend 90% of their budget on holiday gifts. One unseen problem with this annual consumer tradition are the negative impacts it has on our environment.
Psychology of consumerism
Have you ever gone to the grocery store and grabbed an extra candy bar right by the register? Have you ever noticed the type of music played in stores and how it makes you feel? Have you ever felt the pressure to take part in a sale after an urgent email comes through from your favorite retailer? If you have experienced any of these things, you have also experienced consumer psychology at work. Companies have been studying how different components of the shopping experience can influence consumer behavior, and then employ the results to benefit their profit margins. Below are a few methods used by big-box retailers to get you to buy more on Black Friday.
1. Deal or no deal. While consumers may save an estimated 37% from retail price during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, these deals are often sensationalized. Prices fluctuate throughout the year, but marketing for Black Friday as an event makes the deals seem larger than they are. Bath and Body Works’ semi-annual sale overlaps with Black Friday; those deals will be there for several weeks before and after the holiday, and will return again in the summer. Hot Topic holds BOGO deals year round, and clothing retailers like Macy’s, JCPenney, and Dillards have enormous clearance sections and hold various sales throughout the year.
2. Anchoring. When flipping through a Black Friday ad you will often see the ‘normal’ price crossed out with the discounted price right below it. Anchoring is a method used by retailers to anchor in the original price and consumers use this as a reference in their decision on whether or not to buy the item. If the perceived value of the item is much higher than what it is selling for at that moment, consumers are more likely to make that purchase.
3. Anticipatory regret. Also known as the fear of missing out (FOMO), anticipatory regret is a method commonly used by retailers to pressure individuals into purchasing items they wouldn’t have otherwise. Use of FOMO makes it seem as though the deals are limited, and pushes you to make a quick decision. The consumer may feel like this is the best deal or have little time to find a similar product with a comparable price tag.
4. Shopping momentum. We have all had shopping trips where we planned on buying only one or two items, but somehow ended up with a cartful of merchandise. This could be the consequence of the shopping momentum effect. As buyers, we get a small psychological impulse that can push us to make an additional purchase. Retailers start the momentum by offering steep discounts on a variety of items, and purposely placing those items close to each other.
5. Decision fatigue. Have you ever walked into the store and felt overwhelmed? The number of signs, the amount of merchandise, the colors, and many options can become too much for a consumer. In the case of decision fatigue, an individual's choices become worse the more choices they are forced to make. During Black Friday, stores wheel out hundreds of thousands of pieces of merchandise in sizes, brands, and colors. Companies use decision fatigue to tire the customer with plentiful choices, to the point that the customer becomes exhausted and will make snap decisions without searching for better deals.
The damaging effects of Black Friday
There is no mistaking the fact that consumerism in general is damaging to the environment as it creates pollution through the production, transportation, and breakdown of consumer goods. This problem is exacerbated by Black Friday as it promotes the purchase of excess items that may just end up going directly to landfills after the holiday season. Below are a few popular Black Friday sales that contribute to global environmental issues.
1. Fast fashion. Cheaply produced clothing items are regularly pumped out to stores very rapidly and in great quantities. According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions. The fashion industry has also become the second largest consumer of water, which is taken from local waterways and returned filled with pollutants from the production process. Not only that, but the Ellen Macarthur Foundation has estimated that about a garbage truck load of clothing is thrown away every second. Many of these clothes also contain microplastics, that once they have been thrown away end up in our soil and waterways.
2. Electronics. When you think of the typical Black Friday ad, you often imagine pages and pages packed with electronics, all with steep discounts. One of the most popular items to purchase on Black Friday are items that become e-waste. Items like cell phones, tablets, computers, and televisions are difficult to recycle. Many contain toxic materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. Most e-waste finds its way to landfills, where it not only poses a risk to workers in those landfills, but also to the surrounding area as those toxic materials run off or leach into the soil. In 2019 United Nations University, Unitar, International Telecommunication Union, and the International Solid Waste Association found that a record 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste was generated, with only 1.8% of household e-waste being recycled. This means that about 52.6 million metric tons of waste still found its way into landfills.
3. Plastic. This material is in just about everything anymore, from packaging to microplastics in clothes. Imagine all of the plastic bags that end up in your home after Black Friday Shopping, and the pile of packaging that follows. Purchasing large quantities of consumer goods also means purchasing large quantities of plastic, 91% of which is not recycled.
4. Online shopping. Over the past several years online shopping has become more and more popular, especially with the advent of Cyber Monday. The pandemic greatly influenced this increase in online shopping. In 2020 the New York Times estimated that 3 billion packages were shipped through the United States’ postal system. That is about 800 million more than 2019. These billions of packages add up when you think about the journey the item took to make its way to your doorstep, and the shipping impact is doubled when an item is returned. There is even more concern over services that offer faster shipping, as these items are shipped in more boxes, which creates more trips.
Methods to reduce Black Friday’s environmental impact
1. Make a list. If you have items that you absolutely need to get for Black Friday, make a list. This list will help you focus on those specific items and prevent shopping momentum and decision fatigue. You made your choices before you left the home, now you just have to find your items.
2. Shop sustainable brands. While some of us may prefer to shop sustainable brands, many are blocked by the more expensive price tag. Creating items sustainably also means paying workers properly and obtaining quality materials that do not harm the environment, which of course increases the cost to the consumer. This Black Friday instead of heading to fast fashion stores, try shopping at a few of these and other sustainable stores.
3. Make other plans. Many retailers are choosing to boycott Black Friday by either not offering discounts, or by closing their stores for the day. Many people also choose to volunteer or spend time outdoors, rather than go shopping.
4. Reduce, reuse, and upcycle. Making a list or choosing not to participate in Black Friday can help reduce the impact you have on the environment. If you typically use Black Friday to purchase gifts, try shopping at thrift stores, vintage shops, or other used item retailers. It is easier now more than ever to find good quality, used items that could be great for gifts! Try gathering a themed gift set, like a baking kit or a home decor set. You could even try your hand at upcycling with thrifted items; this list has fun ideas that would make great gifts. Some ideas include making a candle from a vintage teacup, decorating a picture frame, and creating a DIY jewelry holder. You can also reduce how much you purchase in general by choosing to purchase fewer, more high quality items. As a bonus, you also avoid purchasing more plastic that often surrounds new items.
5. Buy in-person. Online shopping has become bigger than ever, but if you can avoid it you would also be avoiding an even bigger environmental footprint. While the difference in the ecological footprint between in-person and online shopping is often debated, it is hard to ignore how buying online damages the environment. Typically items are sent to retailers in larger shipments, and therefore fewer boxes. While you may use your car to get to the store, you may also have lumped this trip in with a few other places you need to go. Shopping in person also has fewer returns as shoppers are able to physically see and hold the item prior to purchasing.
Over-consumption is difficult to avoid; there are rewards all around you and other factors pushing you to buy more than you need. By using some of the above information to help you make informed decisions on your purchases, or even avoid making those purchases at all, could help the environment quite a bit.
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About the Author
Bri Hull is the Communications Associate at the Tallgrass Prairie Center. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Bri came to Iowa to attend Wartburg College. In her time in Iowa she developed an interest in environmental science and stayed to learn more about ways she can help her community. In her time with Green Iowa AmeriCorps, Bri hopes to learn how to become more green and how to reach out to her community to do the same.