Black Friday: Could 2022 finally be the year that sustainability trumps overconsumption?

This Friday (25 November) is Black Friday – the biggest discount shopping day in the US calendar and, now, arguably in the UK too. It is widely regarded as the antithesis of sustainable consumption. But, with budgets squeezed and environmental awareness growing, could 2022 present an opportunity for a ‘greener’ Black Friday?

Black Friday: Could 2022 finally be the year that sustainability trumps overconsumption?

Black Friday was originally created as a time for workers in North America to spend extra time off work with loved ones over Thanksgiving week. But it has become a global phenomenon and, while people once relaxed at home, they now rush to department stores as they vie for heavily discounted products.

It is doubtless a major money-making opportunity for retailers. But this opportunity may be dwindling in this era of permacrisis. According to PwC, more than £7.8bn of sales were made on Black Friday 2019 in the UK – a record high. But sales have since been dwindling. Finder claims that spending on Black Friday 2020 was £6bn, and that in 2021, it was £4.8bn. The comparison site is forecasting just £3.95bn of spending this year.

The squeeze that the cost-of-living crisis is putting on budgets is doubtless the main contributor to decreased spending for 2022.

But people are also becoming more aware of the waste associated with Black Friday.

According to Green Alliance, 80% of items purchased on the occasion end up as waste within a year. While it can be useful to buy a durable product you’ve wanted for months at a discount, this trend suggests that this is not what most shoppers are doing.

People are also more aware of waste outside of their homes. The BBC recently ran an expose revealing that, because the cost of returns for UK retailers now tops £20bn, many are sending returned items to landfill rather than selling them on. This is simply the cheaper option.

With cost, ethics and environment in mind, one poll of 1,000 shoppers, by Thought Clothing, found that only 28% actually like Black Friday in its current form.

As such, retailers now have a major opportunity to showcase how the more affordable buying and gifting options can also be more sustainable.

As good as new

edie has been highlighting case studies of brands doing Black Friday differently for sustainability reasons. Patagonia last year asked people to take actions requiring no new purchases, such as making charitable donations, giving used gear to loved ones or repairing clothes. Also in fashion, Rapanui reminded customers that its t-shirts could be returned for recycling in exchange for a £5 voucher. Raeburn, Ikea and others enhanced their take-back and resale schemes.

Now, however, some of these approaches are going mainstream.

eBay UK announced a few weeks back that it will only be promoting pre-owned and refurbished items this Black Friday. Stockists looking to discount new stock will need to look elsewhere. The auction platform said it took the decision after assessing last year’s Black Friday trends and finding that eight in 10 of the best-selling deals were for refurbished goods such as electronics.

eBay UK’s general manager Murray Lambell explained the move by stating:  “In its current form Black Friday is broken, but it’s not too late to make it relevant for today’s consumer. While it was first introduced to offer consumers big savings ahead of the festive period, it no longer delivers on that same promise of value. For shoppers, it creates a frenzy, with a ‘buying for buying’s sake’ mentality.

“The cost of living and climate crisis present new parameters as consumer shopping habits continue to change, as we’ve seen a sharp increase in purchases for pre-loved and refurbished.”

Lambell added that the intention of the campaign was to get those who have never chosen pre-owned or refurbished items before to try it out. Similarly, those already choosing these options for some gifts may now source more items – or even their whole shopping list – in this way.

Multiple surveys have shown that the majority of British shoppers now use these avenues for at least some of their purchases. eBay’s own poll of 2,000 people, ahead of announcing its Black Friday campaign, found that 52% of people definitely intend to give at least one second-hand gift this season. Cost is the top motivator for this choice.

A separate survey of 9,200 adults across nine nations including the UK, from Boston Consulting Group, revealed that 40% in this market wanted to do more second-hand shopping. This research also found that 59% of Brits are reducing the number of items they own and buy, with the same proportion buying for long-lasting quality (including products that are easier to repair).

Business benefits

The fact that consumer habits are changing on this scale means that businesses no longer have to look at more sustainable offerings solely for the purpose of ‘doing the right thing’. The notion that sustainability and profitability are at odds for retailers simply does not hold weight any more and, indeed, in the current financial environment, innovation is needed to meet customers in this new context. Given that many businesses will have a smaller budget themselves this year, there is something of a perfect storm for new, less wasteful business models.

A survey of 400 British retailers, conducted last month by Barclaycard Payments, found that 36% have introduced a rental, resale, reuse or recycling offer since October 2021. This means that 40% of the retailers now offer rental and 39% offer a resale offering.

Of those offering rental and/or retail services, nine in 10 reported increased revenue since launching these offerings. The majority also stated that they have been able to grow their customer base, reaching new people, by adding service-based models. Popular product categories for the provision of these services include clothing, handbags and jewellery.

The survey revealed that this is more than a passing trend. Almost one-quarter (23%) of the retailers surveyed are actively exploring the potential of rental schemes and the proportion rises to 26% for resale.

With all of this in mind, the argument could be made that Black Friday is dying a slow death. However, this seems to be partly – if not primarily – attributable to the rising cost of living and the oncoming recession. Environmental awareness seems to play a smaller role.

It is unfortunate that this is the case; we have known that we are consuming more natural resources each year than the planet provides since the early 1970s. This year, humanity had consumed a whole year’s worth of resources by 28 July. The primary driver is consumption in wealthy nations and by wealthier people. Here’s hoping for concerted action in 2023 to create the low-carbon, resource-efficient economies of the future which also result in economic and wellbeing benefits for the public.

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