One of my favorite side effects of farming is figuring out American colloquiums while I’m working. It was in the moment of moving hay with a pitchfork that made me understand the term “pitching in,” or the term “thinning it out” while I pruned a plant or thinned seedlings. So it was appropriate that on Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays, I figured out the meaning behind Black Friday.
Unlike most Americans, I have no strong opinion on this day, mostly due to my own obliviousness (I usually buy pants because they have holes in the knees, not because I need a new style). But what I lack in interest of shopping, I make up for with a love of eating. So on the car ride to my in-laws for another holiday feast, a radio story made the simple mention that the word “black” in Black Friday actually refers to the business concept of “black,” which signals profits being in the positive rather than the negative (as in “the red”). The story went on to explain that this is a day for retailers to sell off any overstock before the end of the year reporting to not take a loss on any product and maximize their cash flow.
On further research, I learned that the phrase was actually coined in Philadelphia in the mid-20th century, and supposedly referenced the black marks shoppers would leave on the pavement as the Christmas shopping season officially opened and they raced from store to store buying goods. It wasn’t until after 1975 that the economic explanation gained popularity. But as the owner of a publishing company that has a stockroom with stacks of books sitting in cardboard boxes, I can completely identify with the explanation I heard on the radio.
For anyone who has owned a small business that deals with retail, we know the delicate and sometimes disastrous balance of trying to find that perfect formula of supply and demand. As a mentor once told me as I struggled with this factor in my business plan, “You’re going to be wrong, the only question is how wrong will you be.” But aside from taking a financial hit when a business owner is wrong, there’s also a question of sustainability. In my case, what do I do if I can’t sell the huge amount of paper I used to make a book? Or how about the grocer who has to throw out food because it exceeded its expiration date? What happened to all of those models of the Commodore 64 that never sold? I’m sure a sustainability answer would be that we can compost the food, or the old appliances can be scrapped for parts and raw materials. But what of the energy that it took to make those unsold products in the first place, and what of the lives of the people whose businesses went under? In a weird sense, Black Friday is a capitalist version of sustainability (although the major flaw is that most people are being enticed to buy things they don’t need).
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Between Rations and Spending Sprees
I continued to think about this as I returned home from dinner that night and began reading a book of essays by the priest Ernesto Cardenal on his travels to Cuba right after the revolution. In a beautiful piece entitled “Walking Around Havana,” Cardenal revels in the fact that during his walk there wasn’t anyone selling anything or soliciting him. People were just walking around, enjoying the night. When a friend looked in a shop window, he commented that in his native Uruguay the windows would be filled with designer handbags that a majority of the people couldn’t buy. But in Cuba, according to Cardenal, they made 400,000 handbags because that’s how many women needed one. Although Cardenal was very critical of the Revolution’s anti-religious tack, he marveled at this system where everyone was provided for in an equitable and pre-planned way. In this communist version of sustainable commodity and goods production, the ration card replaces Black Friday.
I must admit that I admire Cardenal’s utopian images, but I must also admit that I don’t want a ration card, even in all my liberal glory. And as a business owner, I can now commiserate with the stress that settles in the pit of many business owners’ stomachs every time we look at stock that isn’t selling fast enough. So just as it always is in sustainability, there has to be a middle way between the two versions I explained above.
One solution has been the creation of Giving Tuesday to support nonprofits. But as any responsible nonprofit director should know, the health of her venture is dependent on a strong and equitable economy where not just the large foundations or corporations have the power to give, but also individuals and local businesses. Another has been Small Business Saturday. For my company, we have created the Community Supported Publishing program, modeled after Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a way to pre-plan what we produce, while still having the freedom to take risks on publishing lesser known writers. However, this risk is not on par with the kind that forces us to partake in Black Friday.
I personally hope this idea of Community Supported (insert business venture here) takes off and adds a for-profit compliment to the nonprofit. But even if a consumer doesn’t buy from a community-supported venture, buy from a local person, and not just on one day. Do it consistently, make a relationship. Let that manufacturer, farmer, retailer, or whatever the business may be know that you are going to be a loyal customer. Give them the confidence that you will keep coming back. And for goodness sake, eat a lot of food on Thanksgiving night, sleep in on Friday morning, and support your local businesses all year round.
(Photo via Flickr user Mahat Tattva Dasa)-30-
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