We have just witnessed another Black Friday and Cyber Monday, an orgy of consumerism that kicks off the Christmas shopping binge.
Every year, it seems, the consumption-fest gets worse, hyped by a marketplace that encourages greed and over-consumption because it desperately wants us to purchase more and more stuff.
But while this consumer-fest may seem to be good for the economy, it’s bad for the planet, as the retail market supercharges our environmental impact, and it’s bad for us.
First, there is the amount of materials that have to be mined, harvested or otherwise extracted to make the products and their packaging, as well as the pollutants created in those processes. Then there is all the energy used in manufacturing, distributing and delivering them, again with associated pollution, and finally the mountains of waste that result.
A 2018 CBC report noted several ways in which online shopping — which can have a lower carbon footprint than in-store shopping — can end up being worse: selecting rush-shipping, over-ordering and doing product returns, doing international online shopping, and not having an alternate delivery option when you are not home, requiring re-delivery.
The problem is that the system is set up to make these unsustainable choices easy.
Then there is the waste, including all the packaging waste. I have a classic example of this.
Last year, I was sent a thank-you gift by an organization in Ontario whose event I had spoken at (via Zoom).
The gift, which was shipped from Vancouver, was a small green plant in a huge cardboard box. The thought was good, but the environmental impact was excessive.
But what makes all this even worse is that the materialistic values that underpin and drive consumerism make us feel worse, not better. In his 2002 book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, Illinois, showed that “materialistic values go hand in hand with low quality of life and psychological health.”
In a 2013 article, he and his co-authors noted there is “empirical evidence … that the more that people prioritized values and goals for money and possessions, relative to other aims in life, the lower they scored on outcomes such as life satisfaction, happiness, vitality and self-actualization.”
And a 2014 article that Kasser co-authored noted “a growing body of evidence suggests that materialistic values may be negatively associated with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.”
It seems we — and the planet upon which we depend — would be better off without Black Friday and Cyber Monday. So it is important to know that there is some good news.
For example, an August 2020 report from the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at Cardiff University found that during the COVID pandemic, there had been “reductions in waste, travel and consumption [and a] rise in low-carbon recreation such as virtual and outdoor exercise, gardening and creative hobbies,” although they expressed concern that with the lifting of lockdown, there could be a return to pre-existing habits.
Closer to home, Teghan Acres, blog writer for Tradle, recently noted pioneering work in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal to use cargo electric bikes and electric vehicles to lower the environmental impact of online deliveries.
Even closer to home, she reported that several eco-conscious small businesses in Victoria launched Blue Friday in 2019. The stores pledge to donate a large portion of Black Friday sales to support ocean conservation initiatives.
Of course, it is still about selling stuff, but at least it is local. Blue Friday revenue in past years has helped purchase Seabins, which pull debris out of the water, for North Saanich Marina and this year will replace the foam dock at First Street Marina in Tofino.
But beyond these small steps, important though they may be, we need a transformation in our core values away from materialism to other, more pro-health, pro-social and pro-planet values.
As the recent report Making Peace with Nature from the UN Environment Program noted: “With successful transformative change, the consumption of resources would decrease in wealthy contexts and increase sustainably elsewhere.”
In such a future, we would not see the good life being “centred around high levels of material consumption, but around rich relationships involving people and nature.”
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.