S & S Opinion: Buy Nothing New Black Friday – A New Era of Ethical Consumerism?

At a glance

You would be hard pushed to argue against the fact that Black Friday is the antithesis of sustainable consumption.  

We’ve all seen it, the video that went viral with a swarm of American shoppers reliving the biblical Game of Thrones Battle of the Bastards scene as they rampaged into the store to collect the latest deals on Black Friday, a promotional retail event birthed in the year 2013.

From Friday 29th November through to Cyber Monday, reductions that make many a heart race will descend upon windows and websites alike as discounting overshadows the retail sector. That is perhaps, all until take it back Tuesday when you realise the large boost of dopamine from all those bargains was entirely superfluous. Black Friday, the pinnacle of hyper consumerism in its most pure form saw the 2018 spree drive £1.49 billion of spending, a 7.3% increase on the previous year, despite this sum being lower than originally predicted.

The occasion has not only altered our shopping expectations but transformed predictable spending patterns during ‘the golden quarter’ for retailers as the orthodox pre-Christmas spike in December is no longer present but instead replaced by equal expenditure over the course of the penultimate two months of the year.  

Whilst the apocalyptic Black Friday video is an extreme case, us Brits across the pond differ as the ever polite conservative nation rarely getting ugly in the aisles. Instead we channel our efforts into a form of manic keyboard warrior mode as the majority of purchasing during this promotional pandemonium carried out is done online.

Regardless of which retail channel we are soliciting the best deals on, it is time to think introspectively about the true cost of such habits.

A necessary consideration of our hyper consumerist tendencies is prompted in particular by the Sustainable Development Goal 12 citing ‘Sustainable consumption and production patterns’. As one of the most business focussed goals, this is where the private sector is in a unique and powerful position to directly influence a great chunk of targets through their operations and production. As a quick 101 for those less familiar with the UN’s SDGs, they are 17 strategic objectives and as a collective form a framework for securing a safe operating space for future generations through agriculture, biodiversity, water, equality, education, investment and so much more! You can read further about them here.

Exercising consumer responsibility in light of the challenges that have arisen due to the accelerated pace of climate change and the social injustice intrinsic to production value chains can often best be practiced by avoiding our check out basket like the bubonic plague.

This article refrains from a lecture on the environmental and social impacts of fast fashion or purchasing gratuitous ‘stuff’ but instead looks at how Black Friday has become a sword used by a rising number of retailers to champion sustainable and corporate socially responsible (CSR) values and meet the demands of a new breed of shopper, the ethical consumer.    

In Focus

Consumerism and our innate obsession with ‘things’ in my opinion is best summarised by Ikea’s former Chief Sustainability Officer Steve Howard who made headlines last year by declaring that developed nations had “reached peak stuff”.

As a term, consumerism, is defined by the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable, however in recent times this is seemingly redundant when we account for the negative externalities on ecosystems and the planet created across value chains and through consumer use. Paradoxically, continuing on this trajectory of ‘peak stuff’ if left unaddressed will in the long term be economically damaging!

With the rise of the ethical consumer, the backlash against Black Friday is becoming ever more apparent as many sustainable brands are now utilising this as a competitive lever and advantage to further distance themselves from the repeat offenders.

In recent years, a pattern has emerged whereby organisations remove themselves from the activity entirely, from Marks & Spencer, Veja, Henri London and Smalls the choice to refrain from engaging in this commercial strategy is noteworthy.  East London designer Christopher Raeburn for example, championed the campaign #‘Buy Nothing Day’ last year.   

This move was first pioneered by market differentiator Patagonia in 2011, with their infamous ‘Do not buy this jacket’ campaign within their a full-page ad in the New York Times. Consequently, this call to action saw their annual sales in the following two years grow by 40%.

This trajectory has continued as in 2018, the brand marketed Black Friday by encouraging customers to sign petitions which called for local governments to implement policies surrounding climate action, social equality and water stewardship – rather than making a purchase. Their stores also partnered with local NGO’s including Friends of the Earth’s anti-fracking campaign in Manchester with heightened awareness through window takeovers, in-store events, social media channels and email communication.

It is not only boycotting that is being used as replacement model for Black Friday but organisations are playing on the sale to promote causes and raise charitable donations. Take for example, Pieminster, who coined last year ‘Black Pie Day’ which saw the creation of two classic pies whereby the cost for each product went to charity. They sold over 2000 pies at £5 a pop, creating a positive impact. Pukka Teas in 2018 donated 100% of its sales made online over the weekend to Treesisters, a charity that plants over two million trees annually across eight tropical ecosystems.

Other examples include Montezuma’s Chocolate and Fat Face who donated all of their profits to their foundation which aids a range of charities. A mechanism I particular enjoyed was carried out by the Ethical Superstore, who pledged to donate items to the Newcastle Foodbank for every order it received over £30.

Simultaneously, however, I am struck by the twinge of hypocrisy of ‘sustainable’ brands who pride themselves with an ethical mission yet still deploy these tactics. Take the case of Reformation, the popular dress one stop shop that states sustainability is at the heart of everything they do, but is it truly if you are still feeding into the most frantic Friday of the year? Perhaps, aligning promotional calendars with wider business objectives is a strategy sustainable retailers need to consider moving forwards.

Crushed by the pressure of Christmas shopping and gift giving, there are so many lovely substitute sustainable alternatives.  If you are still keen to buy during the weekend and can’t face the thought of making your own Crimbo gifts, fear not, as there are so many uplifting options to choose from that do not only benefit the recipient! Take for instance  Art House Limited offering a range of treats, trinkets and treasures and are a charity presenting the artistic talents of adults living with learning and physical difficulties who require varying levels of support. If your loved one is in need of a warm sweater, one could also consider a woolly knit from Sheep Inc, a carbon negative brand that lets you adopt a sheep with each purchase. My list is absolutely endless but these are two of my favourite at the moment!

You can also check out B Corp, DoneGood, a multi-branded retailer that  enables browsers to search labels whilst you browse for ethical products, created by social enterprise or empower their workers in developing countries that better both people and the planet.

Final thoughts

The crux of this piece pinpoints the fact that Black Friday by no means encourages sustainable consumption, you don’t need to book an appointment at Specsavers to see that. It has however, prompted a new wave of innovative business promotional models to make a statement, promote charitable causes and stimulate increased donations as well as contribute substantial sums to those in need.

As consumers ourselves, we do need to put our money where our supposed green mouths are as there is still a large intention action gap between our request for purpose built sustainable brands and following through with purchasing accordingly. The psychology behind sustainable consumption makes for another article entirely however brands must use social influence, shape good habits, leverage the positive spill over from sustainable conversion, talk emotively and rationally to their customers during these radical splurging events.  

The discounting of Black Friday can in the long term be used as a device for brands and consumer retailers to engage in sustainability and elevate their Corporate Socially Responsibly purpose for added value.

This article was originally published via Fashion Roundtable, the essential link between fashion, business, consumers & policy leaders.

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