Last reviewed 26 November 2019
Black Friday’s hyper consumerism is often seen as the antithesis to sustainable consumption. Although many companies take part, there are also a handful of retailers using the day to promote social responsibility. Laura King explores some of the strategies that organisations are using to buck the Black Friday trend.
Black Friday, followed closely by its younger sibling Cyber Monday, are a staple in the UK retail calendar. Imported from America in 2013, Black Friday has long held a reputation for a day of frenzied shopping, with TV crews often capturing images of shoppers pushing and grabbing their way to a bargain.
In stark contrast to the US “doorbuster” style sales, in the UK Black Friday items are mainly bought online. Although disappointing for TV crews and the High Street alike, this goes some way to mask the impact of the event — which despite the current gloomy retail outlook, remains something of a shopping extravaganza.
In 2018, online spending on Black Friday jumped 7.3% compared to 2017 and according to retailer trade body IMRG £1.49 billion was spent. However, spend was lower than predicted and the High Street didn’t fare so well either. Low sales could be an indication that shoppers’ interest in the event has plateaued, but despite this, the Office for National Statistics said that Black Friday had resulted in retailers reporting strong growth that month. Indeed, regardless of how successful the sale is, the influence of Black Friday is so great that it has shifted the way we shop. No longer is the pre-Christmas spike in spending seen only in December — spend is now elevated but roughly equal over both the last two months of the year.
Sadly, these figures often mean that Black Friday is a necessity and according to a 2018 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 75% of retailers take part in the annual sale. Such is the importance of the events and fear of losing custom, the report even warns that “...not participating in Black Friday, and not planning ahead for a profitable outcome, will only be an option for the very bravest retailers in the future.”
But what about sustainability?
Regardless of whether or not mass stampedes or online queues are witnessed, the event portrays hyper consumerism at its ugliest, and could not be further away from the values adopted by corporate sustainability efforts. For sustainability professionals, the sales are likely to leave them exasperated — actions speak louder than words, and for many, the event must seem at odds with their day-to-day objectives.
However, with the recent climate change protests, and the declaration of a climate change emergency by UK governments, the tide of popular opinion is starting to turn. More and more people are becoming aware of the huge problems faced by the planet, and are looking to behave in a more responsible, conscientious way. Alongside reducing carbon consumption, for many, this also means being more considered in their purchases.
This increase in the role of the ethical consumer means that all is not lost. There are many brave organisations that are already using the event to adopt a different tack and capture a different market. Here are some ways retailers are going against the trend and turning Black Friday on its head.
Abandon Black Friday all together
In 2018, there were some stores that decided to not participate in Black Friday at all. Marks and Spencer, for the second year running decided not to discount on the day saying that it wouldn’t "be buying into the retail bonanza".
It did however, open stores, unlike British fashion designer, Christopher Raeburn, who closed both his store in East London, and the e-commerce section of his website. Using the hashtag #BuyNothingDay, the designer released the following statement on Twitter: “We simply cannot continue to consume the way we do. We need to start making considered choices; buying less but better. We're therefore encouraging you to think twice before you make a purchase today. Even small steps will help and it's important we all work together.”
Known as an activist organisation, outdoor clothes company Patagonia has long been using Black Friday as a platform for its fundraising efforts, and to promote its values. In 2011 it ran an ad in the New York Times telling people “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. In 2016, it gave 100% of its global retail and online Black Friday sales to grassroots and non-profits working to protect the environment. In doing so it raised a whopping $10 million; five times its original expectation.
However, you don’t have to go as far as Patagonia to promote good values. For example, Pukka Herbs, who make organic tea, donated 100% of their profits in 2018 to charity, and many other retailers opted to donate a proportion of profits or sales.
The pie shop Pieminster, for example, coined the day Black Pie Day in 2018. They baked two of their classic pies, Moo and Kevin, in a black charcoal crust and for every one sold, donated the cost of the pie (£5) to charity.
Using the day to give back
Others have decided to use the day as a fundraising exercise. Montezuma’s Chocolate in 2017 used the day to donate money to charity instead of discounting. In previous years, fashion company Fat Face, had previously donated a proportion of its profits, but in 2018 decided to not discount but instead give £100,000 to the Fat Face Foundation which helps a range of charities.
Some companies used the day to ask consumers to give back too. In 2018, ethical retailer Worthwhyle tagged the day “Give Back Friday” and asked customers to pay 10% more with the excess going to charity. In 2017, Pieminster, gave away over 2000 pies in return for a donation which in turn was given to its chosen charity.
It’s not just about money
Giving back does not always have to be about money. Companies with something to provide have also used the day to give away items to those in need. Wuka sell period pants, and in 2018 pledged to give away one pair of period pants to girls and women in Nepal for every two pairs sold.
In 2017, the Ethical Superstore, which sells a range of ethical alternatives to household items and groceries, pledged to donate items to the Newcastle Foodbank for every order it received over £30.
Black Friday seems to have become a staple fixture in the UK sales calendar — and although interest seems to have reached a plateau in the UK, it is likely to be a fixture in the calendar for the foreseeable future.
For many, the fear of people buying from another retailer means that it is not an option to not participate in Black Friday. However, with the recent concern around climate change and the impact of our behaviour on this planet, retailers would be wise to carefully consider their Black Friday marketing strategy.
There are a number of different strategies being used by companies across the UK and America to adopt a more sustainable approach. Some options used by others have included the following:
Use the day to make a statement or not participate.
Use the day to promote a charitable cause.
Provide discounts, but use some or all of the profits to support chosen charities.
Use the event to donate appropriate items to those in need.