So, where was I? Ranting about the holidays again? Right. There is this other thing that starts right about the same time as Thanksgiving. Lately, it’s been infiltrating the holiday more and more, as the run-up to Christmas takes on ever greater urgency. The Friday after Thanksgiving, known as “Black Friday” in the U.S., is the “official” beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Yes, Christmas has a shopping season. I don’t think the Magi spent anywhere near that much time choosing their gifts for the Christ child, but there it is nonetheless. As I hinted at the other day, the way we celebrate the winter holidays raises a number of issues for those concerned about justice, ethics, and the environment.
To begin with, consider the implications of an economy based on consumption and driven by spending. Consumption means using things up, and spending is either paid for by production (of stuff to be consumed) or financed by debt, which is based on the promise of future production, which needs to be consumed. I feel a little like Lloyd Dobler here. Economically, it starts to feel like a Ponzi scheme, where we borrow to pay off our debt; environmentally, we are eating our seed corn on a massive scale. Forests, fisheries, topsoil, groundwater, atmosphere, biodiversity; all are being consumed or degraded at unsustainable rates in order to fuel economic growth. The Western Black Rhino, for instance, was recently declared extinct in the wild. While I will grant that some of this growth does indeed go towards lifting people out of poverty, how much more goes to making affluent people wealthy, and wealthy people even richer?
Western (especially North American) holiday preparations must have their own special role in this resource depletion. Between the nearly 6 billion pounds of turkey meat projected to be produced in 2011, mostly in industrial-scale facilities, to the estimated 3 billion pounds of e-waste discarded, most of which is not recycled, the binge-and-purge cycle of consumption reaches its apex at this time of year. Add in the tinsel, wrapping paper, beer cans, and cheap light strings that go out after one season, and (I don’t have time to do all the math) it starts to pile up after a while. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. Christmas in America is a unique blend of religion, family, mythology, and marketing; our contemporary vision of Santa Claus was strongly influenced by Coca-Cola ads from the early 20th century. And who cemented Thanksgiving Day as the kick-off of the Christmas season more than R.H. Macy and his famous parade?
Here we are, then, with the starting line creeping ever backward. Black Friday openings have moved back from 9 a.m., to 7 a.m., to 5 a.m., to midnight. Even Thanksgiving evening openings are not unheard of. (Thanks for nothing, Walmart.) “Well, what of it?” you say. “The stores are only responding to customer demand. If the people didn’t want to be there, they wouldn’t be.”
Right. Nice try. Thanks for playing.
Two things are happening here, two broad trends anyway, that make a lot of other things happen. First of all, corporate retail manipulates consumer demand and expectations, in this case to justify expanding hours of operation. It began with a few “door-busters,” deals the store could afford to lose money on, believing that they would make the money back on increased traffic. Once the idea took hold, it was child’s play to expand it, playing on people’s competitive spirit and desire to be in on the Next Big Thing. Having ginned up the demand, it was then easy to justify expanding the operation even further. Besides, The Other Guys were doing it! So, they are claiming a mandate based on demand that they themselves have generated and expectations that they themselves have raised in order to increase exposure and market share, which in turn will create the conditions for expanding hours. A perfect circle, with an over-worked cashier at the middle.
Further, the retailers’ race to the bottom of the price scale has accelerated the shift of manufacturing overseas, contributing to the decline of the middle class. This results in more customers who need to find the lowest price in order to make ends meet, and the prophecy fulfills itself yet again. These low-income customers tend to gravitate to the Black Friday sales, because they need those deals in order to make the holiday happen. Those retail-marketing folks are very good at what they do.
What else is happening to working families, besides losing ground on wages? They are losing time as well as money. Service has largely supplanted manufacturing as an employment driver in this country. Service-sector wage scales are generally lower than those of other fields, and service-sector hours are generally less family-friendly than most industries. As retailers expand the time frame for big holiday sales, they cut into what had been sacred space for employees. While a certain amount of holiday work is part of the territory, the recent trend towards evening and midnight openings has robbed more and more workers of valuable time off with family and friends.
“Yeah? They shouldn’t complain. They’re lucky to have jobs at all!”
That, my friend, is a sentiment right out of the Gilded Age. Or Marie Antionette’s France.
So, why is it that we denigrate production but celebrate consumption?
We will look at that next time.