Traditionally, Black Friday sales start the day after Thanksgiving, a North American holiday celebrating family, friends, food, and health. Dating back to 1621, English pilgrims shared a harvest feast with their native neighbours. So how did we go from this, albeit colonialist North American holiday of sharing the earth’s offerings to the global frenzy of today’s overconsumption? And are we really aware of the impact that it has on the environment?   

To be honest, we can’t blame the consumer. In today’s economic crisis, we are all looking for the cheapest and most convenient option. We can, however, take a closer look at the shipping industry which accounts for 90% of global trade and is an enabler of consumerism as we know it today. 

So, what is the journey of that coveted sale item ordered online? Beyond the romanticised tales of  Phileas Fogg, the reality is far less glamorous. Overconsumption begets overproduction, a cycle perpetuated by the ease of online shopping and the lure of low-cost, disposable items.  

Overconsumption fuels overproduction. 

Historically, trade primarily unfolded on land: it wasn’t until the turn of the 15th century that we harnessed the power of wind and set sail across the oceans. Today, international trade is a profit-driven giant, fostering a throw-away culture. This culture contributes to alarming textile and electronic waste statistics and a rampant “buy, use, discard” mentality. 

Here are some compelling facts to illustrate the magnitude of our wasteful practices: According to the European Parliament, the average EU citizen buys around 14.8kg of clothing and footwear per year, and the equivalent of 12kg is discarded each year, of which more than three quarters is incinerated or ends up in a landfill.  It’s not due to wear and tear that many of the clothes we buy are tossed either, presently, many items are worn around 7 to 10 times before being discarded, and the average person now keeps their clothing for half the amount of time compared to 15 years ago. What’s more, 30% of clothes in the shops are never even sold or worn.  

The “throw-away” culture of the fashion industry, and the production industry in general, allows for this constant flow of new goods to be produced cheaply in faraway places and shipped across the ocean. A 2017 study from the Ellen McArthur Foundation shows that, globally, less than 1 percent of clothing material is recycled into new clothes, and only 13 percent is recycled into other products. In the EU, the bulk of collected textiles is exported (yet another voyage on a fossil fuelled ship) to countries without adequate collection infrastructure, meaning much of it ends up being landfilled or incinerated.  

 A typical product from the high street is of low quality, yet well-travelled, and its social and environmental impact is huge.  

The globalisation of production has ultimately led to off-shoring, where companies relocate their manufacturing processes to countries with lower labour costs, and, when we order a product online or that has been imported, it has most probably been manufactured and assembled in multiple countries across the globe, its imaginary passport loaded with stamps. The lower wages in these countries cut production costs while  shipping these products in very large quantities reduces transport costs dramatically per product by spread the costs across a greater volume of goods. This way, shipping keeps the products cheap despite the long journey they make. This facilitates growth in consumption and demand.  In short, these practices not only have an environmental impact but also encompass economic disparities and questionable ethical labour practices.  

But that is not all: the manufacturing process, the packaging, and the shipping of all these products use a vast amount of energy, not to mention other resources such as timber, water, oils, and metals. As overconsumption drives demand for more products, natural resources are depleted, and pollution and waste increase.  

Shipping is the hidden nemesis of the environment.  

The shipping industry, often hidden in plain sight, emerges as a silent nemesis of the environment. While comparisons with air freight may soothe environmental concerns, the environmental impact of maritime shipping is alarming. Cargo vessels, predominantly fuelled by fossil fuels, emit greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change and air pollution. But ecological technologies, such as wind propulsion, are paving the way for a sustainable future. In fact, through harnessing the power of wind, an abundant, renewable and direct source of energy, ships can dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas emission, air pollution, underwater noise pollution and overall impact on ocean health. This is a cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution to alternative fuel-based options.  

Governments can implement stricter environmental regulations for the shipping, manufacturing and production, and waste industries.  who have already got that ball rolling such as France, which has introduced a new scheme that pays people to repair their own clothes. 

But the shipping industry needs to care about making an impact and driving change. To reduce a product’s environmental impact, there needs to be a transformation of global supply chains, likely changing the scale and routes of international trade. This might mean producing and shipping things from the company’s or customer’ region of origin, or exploring more efficient shipping routes. Currently, the shipping industry is investing in infrastructure and vessels that have a lifespan of 30 or more years. It is crucial to think about the future, avoiding wasting resources on building bigger ships and structures in the wrong place for the wrong markets. Foresight can prevent spending on things that won’t be effective in the future and ensure alignment with market needs. 

The hidden costs of Black Friday. 

Originally, the name Black Friday dates back to the 1960s when Philadelphia police officers described the chaos suburban tourists rained on the city when starting their Christmas shopping. Globally, today, trillions of dollars are made each year, fuelling overproduction and overconsumption.  

Tackling the emissions of the shipping industry and our global supply chains is a complex challenge that requires collective action across sectors. While it’s vital to consider the environmental impact of shipping and the need for decarbonisation of the sector, it’s equally important to consider the amount of global shipping and its anticipated growth, and to consider how to manage overproduction and overconsumption in global north markets. By reducing demand through the conscious choices we make as consumers, supporting sustainable practices, and advocating for eco-friendly policies, we can contribute to a more responsible and sustainable global supply chain—one that navigates the challenges of overconsumption and waste creation while preserving our one planet for future generations.