The ethics of Black Friday

Recently, when I was giving a lecture at a law school, a student shared his belief that we help the world most by being consumers. By buying things, we fuel the economy, which in turn creates jobs, investment in industries, taxes for social services, etc; the whole economic ecosystem is dependent on the notion of material accumulation of stuff. According to this logic, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year, should be as holy as Yom Kippur! We should all go out and consume with religious fervor!

I conceded to this student that consumption, when done responsibly and ethically, does indeed help to fuel the economy. What I would not concede, however, was that giving money to corporations is an ethical duty or a religious fulfillment. Giving money to the most vulnerable, not the most powerful, is our religious duty. Furthermore, money to the wealthy primarily goes into investments (primarily outside of fueling the economy) whereas money to the poor flows right back into the economy.

The American institution of Black Friday displays an unhealthy pique of consumer frenzy. Last year, it was estimated that 92 million Americans spent $57.4 billion (an average of more than $407 per person) on Black Friday alone, and more than 140 million people shopped on that weekend. Incredibly, these totals were less than in 2012. Unfortunately, however, the number of Thanksgiving shoppers rose from 35 million in 2012 to 45 million last year.

Perhaps in response, fifteen large chain stores have announced Thanksgiving openings as early as 5 PM. From this list, Macy’s, which hosts the iconic Thanksgiving Parade in New York, is perhaps the worst offender in spirit, opening at 6 PM, merely hours after its parade ends. This year, for the first time, two giant New Jersey shopping malls in Paramus, Garden State Plaza and Paramus Park, announced that they will be open on Thanksgiving from 6 PM to 11 PM, perhaps limited only by a city ordinance preventing them from staying open past 11.

black friday imageOur families can’t be so dysfunctional that we prefer the consumer combat of late-night shopping or web searching for the best “deals” over the quality time spent with each other. To be sure, many are buying their bare essentials for their family at the lowest cost they can afford. But others are just chasing their next luxurious desire and device. Indeed, Golden Gate University psychology professor Kit Yarrow has identified different types of Black Friday shoppers: the bargain hunter, people seeking values and the experience seeker. Most people enjoy the experience of the event more so than the actual deals; some go simply because it’s tradition.

Black Friday has little competition internationally. While Chinese giant online retailer Alibaba has made November 11 into “Singles Day” (when unmarried Chinese people basically spend money on themselves), a monster online spending spree, this year its $9.3 billion sales still were only about three-fourths of what people spend in person in stores in America on Thanksgiving/Black Friday. In addition, there is apprehension because the 187 million packages generated may swamp the ability of Chinese companies to deliver in a timely way.

The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and Black Friday is stark and striking. Our country is plagued with rampant greed mere hours after we give thanks for what we have. Hysterical mass consumption only adds to the devaluation of human interaction; goods are prioritized over people. In the Biblical commentary of the Tower of Babel, the rabbis taught that builders would cry when a brick would crash but wouldn’t flinch when a laborer would perish. In this mega-capitalistic über -consumption milieu, we come to value “the economy” and our own comfort over the dignity of others.

The chasm between wealthy corporate owners and their workers has rarely, if ever, been greater. In 1965, CEOs made on average about twenty times that of their average worker. In the decades since, this disparity has skyrocketed. In 2013, CEOs made an average of 331 times what their workers averaged ($11.7 million versus $35,293), and 774 times what their minimum wage workers earned. Their net worth offers an even greater disproportion of income. For example, the six wealthiest members of the Walton family (heirs to the Walmart fortune) were worth an estimated $145 billion combined in 2013, equivalent to the net worth of 52.5 million American families (of whom 11.5 million have a negative net worth).

How do these extremely wealthy people treat their employees? Corporations are not eager to reveal just how miserly they are. For example, no one knows exactly how many Walmart employees are on food stamps, although one study indicated that about 15 percent of its Ohio workers were on food assistance. Thusly, it is the American taxpayer, not the corporation itself, that support the lowest wage earners in the country, while those at the top see their own incomes rise at an alarmingly fast rate. If this were extrapolated as a national average, it is estimated that about $4.8 billion would be necessary to raise each employee’s wages to $13.63 so no one would have to be on food stamps. While this sounds like a daunting figure, Walmart’s sales volume is so huge that it would only require a 1.4 percent raise in prices on average to achieve this humane goal. So far, the wealthiest Waltons seem unwilling to part with any of their $145 billion to ease the burden on their employees.

But it is not just big box stores that work their employees to the bone during the holiday. We should also not forget what we expect of those who deliver our packages. A driver for FedEx ground, for example, may have to arrive to pick up packages at 5:45 AM, and may only be done during the holiday season at 10 PM. So, the next time you see a delivery vehicle at a residence long after dark, think of the human cost that a swift delivery promises.

Instead of worshipping corporations and the consumption dollars, we should honor the dignity of the worker. Perhaps Black Friday is an ample opportunity to remember the “Prayer of the Farm Workers’ Struggle” by United Farm Worker pioneer Cesar Chavez:

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;

So I will know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others;

For you are present in every person.

Help me take responsibility for my own life;

So that I can be free at last.

As responsible consumers, it is our duty to be diligent where we choose to spend our money. I am aware that there are many people who enjoy lining up for the Black Friday deals, feeling it is part of the holiday tradition, but I am reminded by the words of Kohelet: “Whoever loves silver will not be sated with silver, and he who loves a multitude without increase-this too is vanity,” (5:9). This is the time of year to reflect on what we have, not more frivolous tchotchkes that are, in the long run, meaningless. During the holiday season, let us have empathy for the worker, for those less vulnerable, and be thankful that we live in a society where we can do our part to lift the spirits of our fellow man. That is true wealth.

Further yet, we must move our internal gratitude to external actions. What service worker (hotel, delivery, etc.) working hard over the holidays can we give a kind tip to? What organization doing important work can we make a contribution to today? Who can we include at our table who doesn’t have somewhere to go? Who around us is in need of being lifted up? The opportunities are endless. Gratitude is actualized in deed.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.