Black Friday is the antithesis of sustainable business, but there's an alternative

It's that time again. Today is Black Friday, the biggest sales event of the year, as Britain's retailers stack high and sell low before Christmas. Sustainable Development Goal 12 (sustainable consumption and production patterns) seems all but forgotten for the time being.

Black Friday is the antithesis of sustainable business, but there's an alternative

This must be a sustainability professional’s worst nightmare: watching a retail brand’s CSR and resource efficiency progress take a hit from sales and marketing teams that are ultimately encouraging consumers to buy goods beyond the point of necessity. Indeed, Brits are expected to collectively spend £10.4bn during the Black Friday sales, up 3.1% on 2017.

But for how much longer can this business model based on aggressive discounts be profitable and sustainable for high-street retailers in its current form? My answer – and hope – would be not for much longer at all.

There is reason to have this hope - because society is demanding change for the better. I myself am part of a generation of environmentally conscious millennials that semand stronger ethical codes from businesses and actively favour resale and exchange platforms such as eBay, Amazon Used, Facebook and Depop.

Blackrock chief executive Larry Fink’s much-quoted letter to companies in which the firm is invested spelled this out pretty clearly: “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”

Moreover, some of the country’s most ubiquitous brands are now concluding that our capitalist system simply cannot continue in its current form for much longer – even from a sales perspective. Ikea’s former chief sustainability officer Steve Howard made headlines last year by declaring that developed nations had “reached peak stuff”.

New capitalism

The fact is that any retailers wishing to remain successful in this era of extreme climate challenges, resource scarcity and changing consumer demands must innovate away from the Black Friday approach; not just through supply chain management and design processes, but by rethinking entire business models. The good news is that this change is already taking shape in some sectors. Sticking with Ikea as a case in point, the furniture seller now runs textiles take-back schemes in the UK and last month moved to showcase upcycled goods, offer repair services and provide circular economy training in one of its Ireland stores for the first time.

Nowhere else is such a transformation more needed than in the clothing industry – an industry heavily involved in the Black Friday game of speedy sales and low costs to deliver frequent new collections inspired by catwalk looks and celebrity styles. I was therefore pleased to hear a group of fashion designers, academics and business leaders from some of the world’s biggest clothing brands recently stressing the urgency for alternative business models to bring about a “new era of capitalism”, where companies sell services or experiences rather than products.

It was during a discussion on the future of fashion hosted by Bloomberg and the Environmental Audit Committee that Stella McCartney’s sustainability director Claire Bergkamp said: “There is a generation now that has probably never seen anything outside of low-quality products, and I think that once you have access to higher-quality product at a higher price point, new business models will start to arrive.” Stella McCartney is itself leading the way in this regard, having recently moved to sell its unsold good on US-based resale platform The RealReal at a cheaper price.

Designer Phoebe English also spoke at the fashion event, citing the popularity of resale platforms such as Depop and Poshmark among teenage consumers as evidence of changing attitudes to reuse. “The generations of kids growing up currently will not be shopping in the way that we are now,” English said. “We are beginning to look into other business models. The sharing economy and post-ownership are strange, mythical things in discussion, but in practice, are actually a ground-breaking new route which can not only make a huge difference to how we consume clothes but generate real excitement from business.”

Reduce, re-use, repair

Two other notable alternative retail models are that of rental-based offerings drawing on sharing economy principles; and servisisation-based models that champion repair and reuse. The latter is already being employed by the likes of H&M, Patagonia, and The North Face in the fashion industry (but also by the likes of Motorola elsewhere). As for the former, China-based clothing hire firm White Closet stands out as a leading example of rental models that work, having built up more than five million subscribers, each paying a monthly fee to borrow luxury fashion items rather than buying them outright.

Of course, it’s still early days for these alternative business models to become mainstream on the UK high street, and there is a frightfully long way to go to reach a properly integrated version of efficient and intelligent capitalism. But the fact remains that three-quarters of UK employees will be millennials by 2030 – the year by which we must achieve the Sustainable Development Goals – and they will not be shopping in the same ways as their baby-boomer counterparts.

Over the past year we have seen a radical transformation around single-use plastics. The speed of change we are continuing to see from retailers in this area serves to highlight how a radical shift in consumption and production is possible, when society demands it. Given that the negative environmental and social impacts of hyper-consumerism for other products are just as severe, and given that the alternative business models cited in this blog have been developed within the past couple of years, I am hopeful that we are now on the cusp of similar transformations happening across the retail industry, and that Black Friday will soon become a thing of the past.


Green Friday: Five ways retailers are using Black Friday to champion CSR

To mark Black Friday and champion more sustainable alternatives, edie has also outlined how five companies are using the occasion to champion resource efficiency, social sustainability and environmental conservation. 

To read that article in full, click here. 

Sarah George

Topics: CSR & ethics
Tags: | Circular economy | fashion | Plastics | Retail | Reuse | sharing economy | supply chain
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