Owning the Problem of More Consumption
25 November 2019 by CSG
The countdown is on to another Black Friday, which for many retailers and e-tailers, is still the most frantic, most lucrative day of the year. Throughout its relatively short existence in the UK, it’s a date that has brought about opportunity and controversy in equal measure. And yet, despite the countless headlines generated, only now is its greatest controversy truly coming into focus.
How did we get here?
If you’re unaware of its provenance, “Black Friday” was once just one of many terms used in America to describe the day after Thanksgiving (held on the fourth Thursday of November). The following day became regarded as the official ‘start line’ of the pre-Christmas shopping binge – the point when retailers often began to make a profit for the rest of the year. In accounting, negative figures are entered in red and positive ones in black, and the expectation of profit explains the relevance of the word ‘Black’.
Before long, the day became a chance for competing retailers to gain custom, increase revenue and gather sales momentum. By the 1980s, the practice had become well-established in the Eastern states but was relatively unobserved elsewhere. As recently as the end of last decade, you could see bargain-hunters setting up camp on Thanksgiving Day in the parking lots of most malls and stores across the US but still the term ‘Black Friday’ was all but unknown in the rest of the world.
By 2010, the effect of the internet, and the ‘credit crunch’ on consumers and retailers meant that ‘Black Friday’ had become a fixture in the British retail calendar. With the loss of Woolworths, MFI and Kwik Save, it was viewed by many retailers as the right idea at the right time.
Significant ‘one day only’ discounts very quickly led to unseemly scrambles and even scuffles around the UK, as shoppers surged to claim genuine bargains before Christmas. Suddenly, Black Friday was considered a necessary fixture in the shopping landscape, but it didn’t take long for a backlash to occur. Principally, most retailers would prefer not to give away discounts before Christmas at all, if possible. To some, there was even concern that such naked November salechasing hinted at desperation, even a lack of liquidity – a suspicion no business wants to bring about.
Others were concerned about the additional operational effort and cost, even the health and safety overhead that came with the need to provide crowd control. Notably, Amazon felt they could do better by holding such an event on their terms at a more fallow time of year – ‘Amazon Prime Day’ in July.
Very low down the list of reasons not to participate in Black Friday was the sense that the whole thing might be harming us all by fuelling overconsumption. With such significant change, there is almost always a ‘law of unintended consequences’ to consider. The whole thing started merely as a competitive device to win sales from others. Within a year or two, as it became clear that the buzz generated by Black Friday was too big to leave unexploited, leading to a ‘mission creep’ of more products, cheaper variants and more frivolity. The addition of the adjacent ‘Cyber Monday’ extended the principle further. Retailers found themselves able to predict a planned orgy of purchasing – a phenomenon that people in Sales and Marketing spend most of their careers trying to bring about.
The problems started to occur with what happened next – the effect on consumption. The Black Friday vehicle would lead to consumers being urged to replace or upgrade more ‘stuff’ with more abandon. Prices plummeted – and so, it seems, did shoppers’ inhibitions.
More Sales = More Consumption
Where extra purchases led to knock-on effects in waste, it started to become clear there would be an environmental price to pay for all this extra acquisition. Electronics had become a particularly favoured category for discounters and shoppers alike, but with e-waste already becoming the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, clearly, the compulsion to throw away old tech to allow for a Black Friday purchase has hardly helped to arrest that problem.
There was a similar effect in the area of clothing, already threatening unsustainably high carbon and water footprints to make the product. Black Friday added to the pressures, increasing the amount of clothing added to landfill sites to 350,000 tonnes each year. With consumption
bolstered by cheap product, not expected to last, the problem of ‘fast fashion’ became even harder to combat.
The growing debate about the wisdom of Black Friday became further complicated because, naturally, cheaper products offer a greater incentive to less wealthy people. There’s a danger that any concerns can sound a lot like better-off people telling less well-off people that they’re spending their money on the wrong things. Unsurprisingly, where that suspicion takes root, the urge for consumers to act sympathetically is often strongly resisted.
Reversing the Effect
Just when it began to seem futile to expect people to act against their short-term interest, a growing counter-narrative finally began to take effect. The effect of the BBC’s Blue Planet II on attitudes to single-use plastic was particularly notable. More recent activism by Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for the Climate and globally co-ordinated action by Extinction Rebellion further elevated the issue and this year, the Glastonbury Festival took steps to discourage disposable tents and dispensed with disposable water bottles.
As we in the UK look towards the second decade of Black Friday, we now seem to do so with a far greater level of environmental concern. It may not stop us buying, but even if it doesn’t, we’re likely to experience a little more guilt about that purchase than ever before. Does this extra consideration mean we give more thought to the product it replaces, with donating or other forms of re-use being more fully explored?
Until now, our choice between a tempting offer and a responsible attitude to the planet has always seemed to be one-sided. With extra encouragement to think longer-term, how far away are we from reaching a tipping point? Have you had cause to reconsider your company’s position on Black Friday, based on its environmental impact? As a shopper, have you changed your views about participating? Or is it still a fair way for savvy Christmas shoppers to get more value for money? Perhaps the responsibility should lie elsewhere: why should the shopper bear all the guilt from a process that offer such companies great benefits with little additional responsibility? Ultimately, is this all a symptom of a global problem that prizes economic growth over sustainability? Unfortunately, only time will tell….