What’s Black Friday?
This weekend-long shopping extravaganza, driven by steep discounts, marks the beginning of the traditional Christmas shopping season. Andrew Simms, founder of the Rapid Transition Alliance, a climate research and advocacy group, says this is an attempt to get people to make purchases on a scale that is “totally incompatible” with efforts to prevent a climate disaster. Black Friday is a huge marketing opportunity for companies that publicly oppose the holiday’s values; eco-friendly companies, for example, have come up with ingenious ways to capitalize on the event without endorsing its destructive practices. At its core, Black Friday is a discount-driven event meant to mark the beginning of the holiday shopping season and encourage overconsumption by offering special shopping deals and significant discounts. So should sustainable brands participate in Black Friday? Can brands that are truly eco conscious participate in Black Friday and promote responsible consumption?
Black Friday has become an essential time for businesses (especially small businesses) to attract first-time customers and build loyalty. As economic uncertainty prompts shoppers to pull back on spending, the three small sustainable brand owners I spoke to said participating in the sales in 2021 was a necessary compromise and a survival tactic. One brand owner highlighted that it was a critical time for her brand especially after barely surviving COVID-19 as the holiday season accounted for more than 40% their annual sales.
We need to limit our clothing purchases
In order to slow the rate at which the planet warms by 2030, consumers will need to limit their annual clothing purchases to just five items. Many sustainability-minded brands have used clever marketing tactics to allow them to “participate” in the holiday without condoning it. An outstanding example I often use is Patagonia’s 2011 full-page ad in the New York Times telling people not to buy their products. That year, sales were up by more than 30 percent for the company. Since then, many businesses, from Allbirds to Deciem, have followed suit, by publicly condemning the shopping event while reaping the benefits of the right attention they gain.
Environmentally conscious companies have to compete for customers
Can a company legitimately use Black Friday advertising to push a message of responsible shopping?
Even if a brand does not want to participate in the discount bonanza, it is risky to resist the pressure to do so. Bootstrapped made-to-order womenswear label Loud Bodies, based in Romania, typically avoids Black Friday sales but is participating this year by offering discounts of up to 50%. The company has blamed consumers’ waiting for price reductions during the upcoming sales season for the recent precipitous drop in orders, which follows several months of gradual decline. Patricia Luiza Blaj, the company’s founder, made clear in a lengthy Instagram post that her decision to participate in a practice she “highly disapproves of” was not meant as an encouragement to overconsume.
We have to acknowledge that in spite of their best efforts, even the most environmentally conscious companies have to compete for customers’ time and money in a market that is becoming increasingly crowded and where economic prospects are bleak. Sustainable brands can use this time to educate and create campaigns that publicly rail against overconsumption culture. This will create the right exposure, build brand awareness and attract the right consumers who will become loyal customers.
Like Patagonia’s approach, sustainable brands can help diffuse the overconsumption situation by advertising their Black Friday events as alternatives to the frenzy of excessive shopping. For example in 2022, Swedish slow fashion label Asket ditched its new merchandise to sell only pre-owned items. B-Corp skincare brand Haeckels showcased small, mission-driven businesses in its retail space rather than its own product, and London-based Raeburn offered in-store valuations and buybacks for high-quality streetwear pieces.
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