It was severely hot and dry that summer in Victoria. The drought had lasted several years, creeks and riverbeds were dry, and Melbournians were on water rations. Bush fires had already been burning the previous December and there were “controlled” burns by the ill-informed throughout early January. Then, on Friday 13th, 1939, high temperatures and the ever-feared strong northerly winds fanned separate fires into massive fire fronts in the mountainous north-east of the state and along the south-west coast. This was a calamity so great that the subsequent Royal Commission report became required reading at Victorian schools for many years. Seventy-one people lost their lives that day and 1,000 houses were destroyed. 575,000 hectares of reserved forest and 780,000 hectares of forested Crown Land were burned.
Death, destruction and fierce environmental devastation are the words that come to mind at the mention of Black Friday; not the chaotic hunt for a bargain, the turning of a profit, or the follow-up to a period of family gatherings and thanks-giving, or the unofficial start to the Christmas silly-season.
In 1939, graziers, miners, and forestry workers, through carelessness or ignorance of the environmental conditions, lit fires. The devastation was not limited to that fateful Friday 13th but affected the ability of lands to retain water, contaminated water catchment areas and destroyed soil fertility for decades. The scars remain, 80 years on, and are felt in the very core of our memory. Black Friday, in the collective Victorian consciousness, is a sombre reminder of human folly.
Judge Leonard Stretton, who led the Royal Commission into the Black Friday fires, lamented the lack of environmental knowledge of victims and the “indifference” to the “menace” and “an attitude of apathy towards fire prevention”. His warning that “The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen” is sage advice for us to today.
A more recent environmental consciousness around the modern Black Friday suggests there is a tide against the temporary insanity of the competitive shopping-frenzy. Concerns are about the mindless consumerism that typifies the day and the consequent overuse of resources and waste left behind –household waste increases 25% that weekend. Purchases are driven by the marketing hype that switches off consumers’ rational shopping filters.
As an antidote to Black Friday’s over-exuberance, campaigns such as #GreenFridayFriends aim to send a message of conscious consumerism that a bargain is not a bargain if what is purchased brings no real and long-lasting value to your life.
If it were not for poor quality production, planned obsolescence and fast fashion consumption (demand for the newest, hippest gadget and look) Black Friday and other bargain-hunting and sales events would not continue to drive the endless purchase-and-dump cycle.
Spanish and French NGOs, Halte L’Obsolescence Programme and FACUA-Consumers in Action, are currently fighting large corporations, such as Apple, in the courts to stop the practice of designing products for a short life-span. France has already enacted laws against the practice, while in August the European Parliament voted to have the European Commission draft rules to insist on repairability of electronic products, thus limiting planned obsolescence. Minimal product life expectancy is also to be disclosed on a product.
Small (and not so small) businesses are also pushing back against the Black Friday-type sales mania. Some have had enough of the lack of integrity around pricing fluctuations – to accommodate low prices, normal prices must be inflated. Others want to improve the retail experience for the customer by offering a relationship with a real person rather than a faceless brand. Some retailers do not want to sell cheaply-made products which merely end in landfill, preferring to sell less, sell quality and to make it last.
Black Friday was devastating; the modern form is equally aptly named.