When I pushed the door, I could only see clothes. Piles and piles of clothes were scattered everywhere and littered on the floor. Even more clothes hung on the racks, packed so tightly you could barely look at them. People were jostling me, striding headlong into the endless line at checkout. That brutal Zara SoHo store scent — a combination of plastic, sweat and perfume — was heady and made me queasy.
My first Black Friday experience in America turned me against the entire concept. As one of the most highly-anticipated events of the holiday season, it prompts millions of deal-hungry shoppers to jump on massive discounts. Today, Black Friday is so heavily marketed worldwide that it has expanded from a single day to an entire week of sales.
On Black Friday in 2020, the fast fashion brand PrettyLittleThing sold dresses for £4 (around $5) in the U.K. This past year they gave away clothes for free with each purchase. “Buying” a “slinky shirt” made of plastic — 95% polyester and 5% elastane to be exact, both of which are just fancy names for plastic — may have been free, but it’s very costly to the planet.
There is too much clothing in the world. Most Black Friday fashion purchases are the result of unnecessary desire, which drives shoppers to purchase — even without any need. The average consumer is now buying 60% more clothing than they were 17 years ago. Not only are we buying more clothes, but we’re also producing more clothes than ever. There are seven billion people in the world, yet we produce more than one hundred billion pieces of clothing every single year. While the fast fashion brand Zara launches about 500 new items a week, its Chinese counterpart Shein releases 6,000 a day.
Higher clothing consumption and production increases pollution. Excess clothing ends up piling on top of cities in southern countries which are already buried under mountains of other products that have been discarded by Western countries.
What happens to Black Friday fashion purchases? Nearly one third of consumers may have purchased clothing on Black Friday 2019 — however, a quarter of all fashion items purchased online in 2019 were sent back. In 2020, clothing returns soared because Black Friday online sales were unusually high.
This excess has several effects, most notably pollution, as mentioned previously, but there are other damaging impacts as well. In the U.K., the transportation and shipping of clothing for Black Friday 2020 has churned out 429,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions — the equivalent of 435 round-trip flights from London to New York. These anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions strengthen the greenhouse effect, which causes and accelerates climate change.
And what about the clothes that buyers keep? Although clothing production rises, the number of times clothes are worn before being discarded is shrinking now more than ever. One in three British women now wears a new piece of clothing once or twice before considering it “old,” the lowest amount in decades. Most Black Friday 2019 fashion items (up to 80 percent) and any plastic packaging they were wrapped in have ended up in low quality recycling after a very short life.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that textile generation reached seventeen million tons in 2018. Overall, the recycling rate for all textiles was 14.7%, with 2.5 million tons recycled. The EPA calculates an even smaller recycling rate for clothing-specific and footwear textiles at just 13 percent. The remaining non-recycled Black Friday 2019 fashion purchases would have ended up either in landfills or incinerated. The EPA reports that while a high rate of textiles was burned (3.2 million tons) in 2018, a much larger amount was landfilled (11.3 million tons).
Evidence has also piled up to show that the amount of clothing people throw away is becoming much more significant.
In all of 2015, about 75 pounds of clothing were thrown away per person in the United States. Several years later, that amount has only increased — the average American citizen threw away about 82 pounds of clothing during the year 2020.
What many heavy consumers don’t realize is that when you throw clothes “away,” they still end up somewhere. Discarded clothes are shipped overseas. Chile’s Atacama Desert suffocates under a growing mountain of wasted clothing. Every single year, about 59,000 tons of clothing are stranded at the port of Iquique in the free zone of Alto Hospicio, in northern Chile.
When discarded clothes don’t end up in Chile, we throw them out in Ghana. In Ghana’s capital Accra, about fifteen million discarded pieces of clothes from the U.K., Europe, North America and Australia flood the city’s sprawling Kantamanto market every single week. It is the largest influx of clothes to the region in any decade since the 1960s. There are about 30,000 people working together to recycle, resell and keep these items from being landfilled, burned or ending up on the ocean floor and beaches. However, an estimated 40% of the clothes leave Kantamanto’s market as waste, as the supply far outweighs the demand.
Lack of waste management is the result of “waste colonialism” — the export of unwanted and discarded clothes from Western countries, who consider themselves leaders in the fashion industry, into the less wealthy Global South.
So, before buying new clothes, you could simply ask yourself a few questions. Do I sincerely need these new clothes? Am I really going to wear them more than a few times? Where do these clothes come from, who produced them and where? What are the conditions of their production and from what materials are they made? An app called Good On You (@goodonyou_app on Instagram) encourages eco-friendly fashion by listing thousands of brands based on their impact on the planet, workers and animals. If a brand isn’t good enough, the app suggests better alternatives, so people can start making better choices.
Still, avoiding clothing purchases on Black Friday is a first great step — limiting your consumption on Black Friday is not only a fashion statement, but an environmental statement. It shows support for the planet and the environment.