Something has descended upon my city. It’s dark. It’s black. In fact, it has not just landed in my local high street, but also in my digital inbox: Black Friday. Why the upset and the surprise? I live in the Netherlands.

Blown over from the United States where it signals a day of shopping frenzy following Thanksgiving, it now warrants pathological buying here. Thanksgiving on the other hand has not made it here, despite this being the most important holiday of the year for many Americans (and interestingly one without the pressure of perfect presents), and the fact that practising gratitude leads to greater happiness (e.g. Watkins et al., 2003).

Popular lore holds that Black Friday is the moment when retailers, whose financials were in the red before this date, move into the black as people get a head start on their Christmas shopping. However, the true origins of black Friday date to the 1950s, when the US city of Philadelphia would descend into chaos as a result of an influx of people, both holiday shoppers and supporters of the Army-Navy football game held on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. It’s police who started to refer to this as ‘black Friday’. And even if retailers in Philadelphia tried to turn this into ‘big Friday’ in the early 1960s, the term failed to spread to the rest of the country, in stark contrast to its current rapid proliferation on a global scale.

 

Perusing the two main shopping streets in my hometown it strikes me that it is the big retail chains that participate in this madness, all competing with each other to get shopper’s attention. I see anything ranging from 20 to 80% discount. In my inbox I find existing sales that suddenly get re-marketed as black Friday deals, even if the discount is the same and the discount’s initial appearance in my inbox said that the item in question would be available at half price until December 31. So no need to rush.

Perhaps the most puzzling advertisement in the brick-and-mortar stores that I come across is ‘Let’s do together Black Friday’. Not only is the English incorrect, but it’s followed with ‘Let’s do it like in Greece’. A reference back to the origins of the term ‘black Friday’, which was first used in 1869 to refer to a financial crisis?

No doubt proponents say there are bargains to be had. This might be so, but you also have to ask yourself whether you need this stuff in the first place. And without a day to gorge on turkey, stuffing and all things pumpkin, and reflect, this mindless spending appears even more frivolous.

One advertisement tells me it’s a blackout. The dictionary defines blackout as ‘to undergo a sudden and temporary loss of consciousness’. Whether this is sudden or temporary can be debated, but loss of consciousness it is: a collective western blackout. No longer aware of our surroundings, or the impacts our actions have on others we are fully disconnected from life’s experiences.

Returning to Thanksgiving, let’s recognise what we can be thankful for: the shopping for the turkey (you have the resources to put a meal on your family’s table), the house you have to clean (you have a roof over your head) and the dirty dishes (you had a meal with family and friends). That’s the abbreviated version of the list. In the detailed version you could also add ‘having to clean the restroom’. At least you have one, 4.5 billion people don’t have access to a safe toilet (UN, 2018).

This past Monday was World Toilet Day. Yet that passed without so much as a blip. Particularly in the high street where we are sold an aspirational dream rather than a harsh reality. But what happens to the money these so-called savvy shoppers save now that their utopia is more affordable? Is it spent on making other people’s worlds better by supporting small local businesses or donating to charitable causes?

The ‘just a card’ campaign and the small business Saturday approach (initiated by American Express) are certainly trying to raise awareness on spending a tad more cognisant (but we still have to spend, thus neglecting the fact we have no need for most things and that by doing so we only contribute to an already large environmental burden). They advocate that we buy close to home, in businesses run by family, friends and neighbours, and without a doubt this is where I recommend your hard earned salary should go if you actually require something. These small businesses are vital to our own communities, as they offer some much needed diversity and make social and economic contributions to our direct surroundings. However, they are less likely to be in a position to offer you a deep discount, or a mark down at all. The price you see is what it costs to keep them afloat, thus enabling them to buy at your small business in return.

As for the big retailers, for next year I’d like to propose that rather than offering a 50% discount, big retailers advertise a ‘mere’ 25%. The other 25% ‘additional’ profit, which they would have lost if offering goods at half price can then be donated to charitable causes. This makes us feel double as good: we get a bargain and we did something to make the world a better place. And for the big retailers it’s a way to give something back to all those working under far-from-fair conditions to produce an item whose price tag does not reflect its true cost.

So next time you’re about to lose yourself in this collective blackout, particularly if you’re not in the US, rebrand your day as Thanksgiving, walk out the store and go home to celebrate the important things in life, ones you already have: family, friends, health, love and happiness.

REFERENCES

UN, 2018: World Toilet Day 19 November 

Watkins et al., 2003: Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being