It’s not just Black Friday—Cyber Monday takes its toll too

Black Friday enthusiasm cooled noticeably when the event’s dark side went public, first in 2008 with the death of a Wal-Mart employee, and again in 2011 with the demise of shopper Walter Vance, both trampled under stampeding shoppers. Between and around those days, this madly materialistic day has spawned other deaths and injuries as well.

In fact, the day after Thanksgiving now has such a grisly reputation that there’s a whole website devoted to it. But even amidst public outcries about the evil of mindless consumerism on Black Friday, almost no one has given Cyber Monday a second look.

Although we now take this “holiday” for granted, Cyber Monday is a recent invention. According to the National Retail Federation, coined the term in 2005 to describe a day of heavy online discounts from e-retailers, box stores and department stores alike.

The invention isn’t only physical, though; it’s psychological and emotional too. Shoppers tend to disconnect from the purchasing process when they buy online, forgetting about the long path between click and delivery. There’s a precedent for this: people are unconsciously willing to spend more when swiping a plastic card than they are when shelling out cold, hard cash.

When it feels less real, we tend to assume it must be.

Photo: Elle

Photo: Elle

The problem? Such transactions aren’t magical. That credit card still generates a bill at the end of the month. And those online purchases still require real effort, human effort.

A recent article entitled “The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp: What the future of low-wage work really looks like” spotlighted the grim effects on workers who spend long hours filling orders for ecommerce retailers such as Amazon. Not only does the company hire on and lay back off thousands of workers during the holiday season, it asks them to spend hours and days on their feet, walking up and down warehouse aisles “picking” items for delivery.

Jeff Lockhart Jr. was one such employee, a temporary worker whose wife and three children relied on him to provide, even if that meant working frequent 12-hour shifts during which productivity was measured, breaks were few and job stability was almost nil.

The health implications of such a model are frightening, and Lockhart’s tragic death, very possibly due to overexertion, doesn’t allay such fears. Other workers have been forced to stay on shift despite health concerns because they couldn’t find superiors to request leave to go, according to the piece.

Photo: Today I Found Out

Photo: Today I Found Out

To be fair, many companies are starting to consider the not-so-festive human cost of this time of year. In response to companies like Wal-Mart moving Black Friday to Thursday night—just to make the math really clear, that’s Thanksgiving—others are choosing to take a stand against the holiday shopping madness.

GameStop and Staples, for instance, are adamantly remaining closed on Thanksgiving, but still opening on Black Friday, reports the Wall Street Journal. REI is closing its doors altogether that Friday and encouraging people to go outdoors, adopting the catchy hashtag #optoutside. One can’t help but notice, however, that they point out that the online store is still open.

This makes the point pretty eloquently: companies care more about what people see in the real world than about what happens behind closed warehouse doors. So, as always, it’s up to us consumers to make the real stand.

So what should we do? Try buying online—and in store—at non-peak times, to spread the worker load out more evenly. Avoid crazed sales where possible, and tell the companies you buy from what you think about Black Friday and Cyber Monday. They really do listen. You could even try celebrating Giving Tuesday, a day centered around service and giving rather than spending and taking.

Buy from brands who are try hard to make a difference in the lives of makers. Check back with us on our December sustainable holiday guide.

Together we can make the holiday joyful for everyone, not just for those of us doing the clicking.

Sarah Moore
Sarah Moore is a freelance writer who focuses on sustainability, local food, and the weirder side of science. In her spare time she enjoys writing fiction, running, and cooking. Sarah lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two children, two dogs, and an unshakable colony of June bugs.