Why Black Friday is bad for the planet and how consumers can encourage brands to be greener

Why Black Friday is bad for the planet and how consumers can encourage brands to be greener

Black Friday is three days away. It’s usually the time of year when we laugh at ridiculous videos from the US of people mauling their way to the top of queues to beat down doors to buy heavily discounted mattresses and TVs, but this year feels different.

Coming hot on the heels of COP26 in Glasgow, Mary Robinson’s emotional interview on Sky Television, and images of discarded clothes from the Atacama Desert in Chile, aggressive marketing and built-in obsolescence seems like an attack on the climate crisis.

According to research from AIB, Irish retailers spent €4,500 per minute on Black Friday purchases in 2019. In 2020, with physical shops closed and a push to buy from Irish businesses, data from Revolut showed that overall spending on Black Friday increased by 81% and spending on Irish websites increased by 135%. 39% of all online purchases went to Irish websites. That push to buy locally is great but the increase in spending is not.

Black Friday sales are often about big-ticket items including home entertainment systems and new tech. But what happens to the old TV or laptop that you’re getting rid of to make way for the newest version?

E-waste is the term used to describe electronics that are reaching the end of their useful life and are discarded, dumped, or sent for recycling. The UN describes anything with a battery or plug as e-waste and says that everyone on the planet will produce 7.6kg of e-waste in 2021. That adds up to 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste worldwide.

More shocking than that figure is the fact that only 17.4% of this electronic waste is properly recycled and between 60 and 90% of the world’s e-waste is illegally dumped or traded each year.

Irish Vogue editor turned sustainability founder Anne-Marie Tomchak, whose new company DesignTracker.ai will help people to decarbonise their homes, says that people fall into two groups.

Anne-Marie Tomchak. Picture: Joanne Warren

“We’re at a time now where it’s urgent. I think there are two camps, one where people have seen the writing on the wall and are feeling this sense of urgency about what needs to be done to address the problem of climate change and those that are walking around in total blissful ignorance about the world that we’re in. I’m not trying to shame or vilify people who are not fully aware, the average person is just trying to live a good life and be comfortable. No one’s trying to deny people access to nice things or a comfortable existence. But Black Friday points to a much more extreme manifestation of capitalism, I think. It’s this whole thing about consumerism and built-in obsolescence to products, that really needs to be addressed.” 

A big issue with Black Friday now is that so much of the shopping happens on our phones and it’s easy to feel somewhat disconnected from the process. But Anne-Marie explains that even sitting at home on your phone or laptop and scrolling and searching has an environmental impact.

“Once you start looking at the world through a sustainability lens, you start to realise that for everything that is around you has required an amount of energy to produce it and to reach you. When we think about our online activity, we don’t generally think about the fact that it has taken energy to actually use the internet and for those transactions to take place.

“People have this perception that online shopping is much more environmentally friendly than going in-store but even choosing how you receive your order has an impact. Studies have shown that collecting your item in-store has a lower carbon footprint than if get your order delivered to your home where a vehicle using fossil fuels is going to be used for the last mile or couple of miles of that delivery.” 

The change that is needed can feel monumental, particularly in the face of huge, global corporations that are driving the agenda but Deirdre Duff, Communications Manager with Friends of the Earth Ireland, says that the small personal actions we can all take will make a difference.

We simply can’t have some infinite growth on a finite planet. Corporations are driving our economy at the moment. It’s very much a linear economy where we’re just trying to race to buy and consume and get rid of so much stuff constantly.

“We’ve even seen it with the likes of Shell talking about recycling. They tried to put that onus back on the individual but that deflects responsibility from corporations and governments. I would say that on a day like Black Friday the most important thing that individuals can do is think of how they can act to put pressure on governments and on corporations to change. There are little things that you could do in your life to bring that about. Even things as simple as say, joining The Friends of the Earth mailing list so that you can get emails about how you can start to take action. We also

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