Black Friday exposes the dark heart of consumerism

Shoppers wrestling over a television on Black Friday at an Asda superstore in Wembley, north London. Picture: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

We’re living in a time of ‘savage capitalism’ and not only can the small retailers, with their rates and rents not keep up, but neither can we, the boys and girls, insects and animals, men and women, who must inhabit this earth for as long as she will have us, writes Joyce Fegan

I WAS grocery shopping this week. I always shop with a list, a list dictated by the meals I’m going to cook. Soup was on the menu and I needed carrots. It wasn’t like I needed papayas, which are not grown here. I needed carrots, so I looked for Irish ones.

The only carrots I could find in the supermarket were a large bag with the Bord Bia stamp. “Sorted, they’re Irish,” I said. Ten large carrots for guess how much? Here I was, being the good Samaritan, supporting Irish livelihoods by buying something that wasn’t ripened in a container as it travelled 5,000 miles from Costa Rica to Cork.

One kilogram of Irish carrots, in an Irish supermarket sold to an Irish customer, cost 49c. I held the bag of carrots, imagining the soil they were grown in, picturing the farmer and the family whose life they sustained and I tried to do the maths. How quickly would you need to pull these root vegetables from the ground to make any kind of a living, if you’re selling them for less than 5c each, and shaking them of muck, removing the grassy stalks, and packing them up to be sold?

I know we all love a bargain, but who’s benefitting from 4c carrots? Me, the consumer? Maybe, you could argue, but not in the long run, when everyone is priced out of the market and we have to rely on chemically-altered food. The farmer and their family? Certainly not. Or the supermarket, stocking and pricing these goods? You call that one.

Several months ago, I stopped buying those three-for-the-price-of-two and two-for-€3 deals. I had seen this idyllic newspaper photo of a 52-year-old woman standing in a field in Tipperary, windswept hair, sun-kissed face, donning wellies and a brightly-coloured Patagonia fleece. She ran a farm. The image was about the only idyllic thing in the piece. She talked about how the supermarkets will sell her produce for pittance, via those kinds of deals, which the consumer will mindlessly pick up, stock their fridge with, and then shamefully throw out come the end of the week. I was guilty on all charges. Hence, I now shop with a list, and my food waste has gone down to zero.

But I still bought the 49c carrots. Humans like not only a bargain, but the path of least resistance.

I had been thinking about prices and purchases because of Black Friday, which seems to have come from nowhere, selling us things at reduced cost.

Ten years ago, I was in New York around Thanksgiving, with my parents and my sister, celebrating her 30th birthday. We didn’t realise we had booked the trip around that holiday, nor had we a clue why all the shops were open from 4am, the day after Thanksgiving Thursday. There was this thing called Black Friday, but we spent the day trekking around Greenwich Village, looking for this famous cafe my dad had heard about.

Now, this was at the height of the Celtic Tiger, so we were well-primed consumers, but Black Friday had yet to infiltrate our mindset. We missed it and didn’t buy a thing.

So here we are, 12 years later, and Black Friday is deeply embedded in the Irish psyche. We also have Cyber Monday, three days later. This is all against a backdrop of a month of Christmas adverts now, and the whole of December to be spent late-night shopping.

Not to be the bah humbug here, but how much stuff do we really need?

Over the last two months, the world’s usually softly-spoken, non-sensationalist, stickler-for-accuracy scientists have been ringing the alarm bells of climate change and doing so with much vigour and little restraint. These guys, who will phone up a newspaper if you as much as put a comma out of place, when trying to make their academic work accessible to Joe Bloggs, were using terms like ‘climate genocide’ last month. You can read all about it by looking up the report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But back to Black Friday, shopping, bargains and our feel-good purchasing power. The cycle of mass-manufacturing and mass-consumption is at play here.

We shop, buy, desire and live by the latest iPhone update, the newest in fast-fashion and all at the click of a return button on our computer’s key pad.

Five years ago, we didn’t decorate our houses for Halloween. Now, children only call to homes that have plastics goblins hanging on the hall doors, because it means they’re open for Halloween. Three years ago, it was an utter novelty to go and see the house in your neighbourhood that was all lit up for Christmas, with Santa lights on the roof and elves and sleighs in the garden. There was a bucket for charity at the gate. Now, we’re all at it. And when we’re done, we chuck all these decorations in the bin, headed for landfill.

This manufacturing-consumption cycle, which can be every six months in the fashion world and annually in the tech one, is doing irreversible damage to our home, this planet.

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to have the one pair of runners or the one decent coat, which support a good wage, than have 12 of each and live amid six climate disasters at once. That is exactly what is predicted for this home of ours, for 80 years’ time. And, remember, these scientists are not into sensation.

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