Shoppers at Christmas

Black Friday is not a Friday for the Future

27 November, 2019

Jacopo Torriti

Reading time: 4 minutes

Jacopo Torriti considers the longer-term implications of those Black Friday bargains – from future energy consumption to supply and delivery of vast amounts of merchandise.

For a long time while living in the UK I did not even understand what Black Friday is. My non-Anglo-Saxon upbringing made me think back to historic financial crises in the US. Indeed, the term was used with negative connotations following a crash in the U.S. gold market in the 19th Century.

Fridays of any colour have also been associated with bad fortune. Where I come from, Friday 17th is bad luck, the equivalent of Friday 13th in other countries. The term ‘Black Friday’, as we use it today, in its origins has connotations which relate to energy demand. In the 1950s, the police of Philadelphia described the day after Thanksgiving as ‘Black Friday’ because of the vast amount of traffic caused by shopping and tourism taking place on that particular day. The crowds and traffic were so extreme that they would cause quite a lot of chaos. In addition, there used to be trouble with high levels of shoplifting. And this seems to have not changed: every year there are images of fights, stampedes and riots because of Black Friday.

More recently, not even an Italian academic without a TV could avoid being hit by Black Fridays and the fanfare they bring about every year. As a researcher of energy demand, I have now made my mind up over Black Fridays. They are an example of how, in our society, higher levels of consumption have implications for energy demand which are rarely thought about.

Black Fridays are a consumption feast, which has implications not only in terms of the capital cost of what we buy on that day, but also in terms of electricity costs for years to come. Electronic goods feature in vast proportions as part of Black Fridays. Over the last few years, electricity consumption from electronic goods has increased significantly. On the day, additional televisions, computers, and entertainment systems are purchased. The roads are more congested than usual increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity demand on the day increases in shipping hubs and warehouses. It is probably for these reasons that overall electricity demand is higher both in terms of average and peaks on Black Friday than other Fridays of this season. The U.S. Electric System Operating Data shows that Black Friday’s electricity demand more closely resembles the higher weekend electricity demand patterns than any other Friday.[i]

Black Fridays are also about organisational attempts to synchronise demand. Around a single day, the logistics, stocking, storage and transportation of goods step up to higher intensity than on average. In Italy, workers from delivery companies this year will strike on Black Friday because of the inhuman workloads they face around this time of the year. Overall, Black Fridays are associated with:

  • Anomalous increases in demand of goods (and energy) on that Friday
  • High levels of planning for additional resources by suppliers of goods before and after the Black Friday
  • Unplanned changes in electricity demand for households following Black Friday.

This is a reminder that energy demand does not just happen. It is the result of synchronised – if not coordinated – action across a variety of actors.

The recent wave of protests called ‘Fridays for Future’ reminds us that Fridays can have diametrically opposite connotations compared with Black Fridays. With their strikes, school children remind us that an alternative use of our planet’s resources is desirable and excessive consumption can be tamed in order to preserve the climate we live in. Much of the emphasis underpinning these protests revolves around achieving a net-zero carbon economy sooner than what has been planned by national governments. This goes through the decarbonisation not only of energy systems but also transport and heating. One might say that Black Fridays do not feature in this vision of the future. In this fight of Fridays, one of the symbols of capitalism stands against principles of sufficiency and frugality, which are to some extent unprecedented for peace time in the modern era.

Let the battle begin: billboards versus placards, Dyson versus Greta, ads versus slogans, jingles versus songs. It might even be possible to turn what was black into green.

Banner photo credit: FotoKachna on Adobe Stock