Black Friday is a time for catching deals and getting a head start on holiday shopping, but some question the morality of the unofficial holiday in its juxtaposition with Thanksgiving.
Black Friday’s origin is as dark as its name, though it has been tangled with several false stories about where the name comes from.
According to history.com, the first recorded use of the term Black Friday was for the gold market crash of September 24, 1869, when a conspiracy between financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk to buy up gold in hopes of shooting up its price was revealed and sent many into bankruptcy.
The true origins of today’s Black Friday lies in Philadelphia in the 1950s, according to history.com. Police in the city began using the term to describe the havoc of the day after Thanksgiving when shoppers and tourists overwhelmed the city in anticipation of the Army-Navy football game that happened every year on that Saturday. Cops often had to work overtime to deal with all the extra crowds and the shoplifters that took advantage of the chaos.
By 1961, the term “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, but it was not until the late 1980s that the rest of the country adopted the term, according to history.com. Businesses and retailers reinvented Black Friday to associate it with a more positive connotation, and thus the “red to black” profit margin story was born.
This “origin story” concept of Black Friday holds the day after Thanksgiving, when the holiday shopping season begins as businesses move from not making profits, or the red margin, to making more profits, or the black margin. Black Friday has now evolved into a four-day event with other holidays such as “Small Business Saturday” and “Cyber Monday,” with some businesses even opening as early as Thursday evening.
Today, while some people look forward to Black Friday to snag deals, others abstain from shopping to protest the holiday.
“I think that this kind of raises [...] two things that people might judge to be arguably more significant than the satisfaction that [Black Friday] produces," said Travis Butler, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies. "One of them I think would be [...] a kind of encroaching of fairly crass commercial values into an area and time that one might have hoped to be free of that. Secondly, [...] I think employees are a really important stakeholder group. By stakeholder group I just mean people who aren’t owners of the firm but who are affected by what it does."
Black Friday can be hard on businesses’ employees, even if they make extra money on that day. Butler said many people likely share the desire for businesses to think more about the effects of their decisions, not only for the retailers themselves but for their employees and their community.
“I think there is a kind of justification for [Black Friday], which would be that it gets both sides something that they want," Butler said. "So it gets people into these retail stores, which the retail stores really need because they’re in trouble. And it gets consumers extremely low prices. So I think that's the initial kind of justification for it, and the question then is, are there other kinds of value questions that may make that issue of satisfaction seem less important?"
Butler named a few businesses that already do not participate in Black Friday, such as Patagonia and Recreational Equipment, Inc.
“Now, these are businesses with a certain kind of market share, and a certain kind of clientele, and I think we always have to be mindful of that, but rather than saying that I don’t think it should exist, I think it’s healthy that some firms are reflecting whether or not they want to participate," Butler said.
There can be ethical concern with Black Friday related to the commercialization of Thanksgiving. Questions arise about the effects this unofficial holiday has on families and consumers, as well as the whole community that the businesses reside in.
“Some of those businesses I had mentioned, some of them have chosen to do some contribution or other kinds of support of charity work on Black Friday rather than participating," Butler said. "So I wouldn’t want to treat that as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ thing for businesses, but I think it gets back to this idea of sort of just being reflective about the role of Black Friday in the communities in which the businesses operate. And then also thinking about maybe is there a way that they can actually not just reflect or maybe do less of it but actually maybe do something different that might still be good for the firm, since businesses aren't usually in the business of pure self-sacrifice, but [...] is there a way that they can actually positively contribute to their communities around the Thanksgiving holiday, either in addition to or rather than participating in Black Friday."