The past couple of years, just around this time — when friends post on social media about staying home on Thanksgiving and Black Friday to spend time with their families, and hoping to give store employees an opportunity to spend time with theirs, or expressing dismay that anyone would want to brave the crowds of shoppers in the first place — I’ve thought about writing a post on the ethics and economics of holiday shopping. Obviously, I’ve never gotten around to it before, but I just came across this article, which nicely expresses partly why I think this is a more ethically complicated issue than it first appears.
As we’ve seen of late in the Ferguson-related unrest, the physical struggles of non-white America writ large make for great television. I’ve seen dozens of variations on the obvious and racist pun in the name of the day itself already today. But one thing we can say for sure is that it isn’t the wealthy or the comfortable who are standing in line in the cold, or wrestling with one another over a slightly discounted Xbox . . . None of which is to say that resorting to violence over a discounted television or video game console is admirable, but it’s worthwhile to stop and consider just what it is that inspires such desperation in the first place. As in the world of Panem, an artificial scarcity is imposed from the top down — Wal-Mart, Target and so on — in order to whip the public into a frenzy of aspiration. The affluent media corporations are then complicit in the con, gorging themselves on advertising from the very stores raking in the sales revenue. And we, the advantaged, sit at home in front of our computers and tablets and phones, all of which we’ve already purchased at non-bargain prices, and delight in the spectacle.
Rejecting the soul-sucking materialistic consequences of capitalism as it functions in a society like the U.S. is more than a one-day-a-year project. It’s an everyday project, and whether or not we go shopping ourselves on Black Friday does not answer the question of whether or not we’re contributing to circumstances in which employees are exploited, treated unfairly, or kept from their families.
I worked in retail for years — before going to college, and during — and for my own part, I wanted to work holidays because it meant extra pay which in turn meant less worrying about how I would pay my bills. I wasn’t alone. For quite a few of my co-workers (though surely not all) being able to work holidays was a relief rather than a burden (not merely for economic reasons; some people find the holidays a painful time). I am under no delusions that my own experience is universal. That I wanted (at times, needed) to work holidays doesn’t mean others do, just as that I was treated fairly by my employer in the process doesn’t mean all employees are treated fairly, nor that no change is needed. Walmart employees have made this clear, multiple times. But, I do think it’s another reason to be cautious about issuing general statements about what retailer workers need and want, or about how and when it’s okay to shop. It’s another reason to try to remember that what happens on holidays is in part a function of how we — all of us — behave in our economy throughout the entire year.