Black Friday: generosity, greed and guilt

Selfie: 51% of Christmas shoppers buy gifts for themselves too. Image © Tutu

Are Christmas presents a waste? “Black Friday” today and “Cyber Monday” mark the start of a huge spending spree in rich countries — big enough to end world hunger for the next eight years.

A pair of high-definition binoculars with built-in compass? A platinum fountain pen? A Nikon underwater camera?

The list could go on for literally miles.

It’s that time of year again. Today is the day when the Christmas sales traditionally launch and the roads are so packed that that someone in 1950s’ America called it “Black Friday”.

And hard on its heels comes “Cyber Monday” — a huge bonanza for online retailers.

The binoculars, the pen and the camera mentioned above all cost around £220.

That is the amount that every single one of 7.7 billion people living on planet Earth could receive this Christmas if the total global spend on presents was shared equally.

How so?

Simple. Or at least fairly simple.

According to a German company called Statista, which collects consumer survey results from over 22,500 sources and claims to be the internet’s “leading statistics database”, the combined global Christmas shopping bill in 2019 will be roughly £1.7 trillion — which means £1.7 million million.

If we divide that by 7.7 billion, we reach a generous budget of £220 per head.

Of course, the reality is that the 700 million, who live in extreme poverty on less that £1.50 per day, will probably get nothing for Christmas. Millions more will get very little.

And, in wealthy countries, people on average will spend much more than £220 a head on festive treats.

(For example, the research company Mintel has just announced that British shoppers are about to spend a record £50 billion in one month, starting this Sunday.)

What else might we do with the cash? Rather than spend £1.7 trillion mainly on consumer goods that the recipients don’t really need (and, in some cases, don’t want either), what use could it be?

At a time of feasting and plenty, many in rich countries have been brought up to think especially of the hungry, to volunteer in soup kitchens and to donate to charities that combat famine.

So, what could be done to fight world hunger?

One answer comes from the United Nations.

It says that the annual cost of “achieving zero hunger” is £205 billion a year — through tackling the poverty gap and improving irrigation, genetic resources, mechanisation and infrastructure.

In other words, with a cool £1.7 trillion to spend, we could ensure there were no hungry people for the next 8.2 years.

Or looked at in another way, since the Christmas splurge is an annual event, by donating 20% of our festive cash to the right charities every year, we could solve world hunger for ever.

Surely it is time to ask: are presents a waste of money?

Jingle bells

It has to be admitted they are, say some. From the days of receiving a new thriller and a bar of chocolate in your stocking to the current pyramids of brightly wrapped junk, looming with their promise of tears before bedtime, in thousands of slightly over-heated front rooms, surely we have lost touch with good sense?

“What puritanical joylessness is this?” the majority respond. Giving and receiving presents is a hallowed tradition, harking back to a stable in Bethlehem. Jesus didn’t want frankincense and myrrh, but it would take a particularly obtuse mind not to understand that they were a symbol of something else. Our gifts, too, are important symbols: symbols of love. That is what makes us human.

You Decide

  1. Do you get too many presents?
  2. Should families adopt a system where everyone receives only ONE present?


  1. Imagine that you can only get presents worth £10 or less. What are the five presents you would most like, in order of preference?
  2. Write an imaginary letter to someone in your family, explaining that you are not giving them a present this year because you are donating the money to charity instead.

Some People Say...

“I get mad when people give me presents. I don’t want them, I don’t need them.”

Suze Orman, American author and financial adviser

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A 2018 survey by Deloitte of 9,169 consumers across 10 European countries found that UK consumers expect to spend 42% more than the European average (£400). The UK is the highest spending market in Europe ahead of Spain (£526) and Austria (£475).
What do we not know?
How much, on average, people give to charities over Christmas. Total spending is going up and charity donations across the world during the holidays are increasing, however.

Word Watch

A German online portal for statistics, which makes data public that has been collected by market and opinion research institutes, and data derived from the economic sector.
A global and award-winning provider of market research, based in London.
Showing very strict, moral attitudes.
Very respected or praised because of great importance or age.
Slow to understand something; unintelligent.

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