Can Black Friday survive in the age of ethical consumerism?

It's hard to imagine the flogging of cut-price merch paving the way to a happy future for retailers.

Don't expect to see crowds like this out this Friday
Don't expect to see crowds like this out this Friday

It is three years since widespread reports that Black Friday’s bubble had burst and yet the annual festival of alleged discounts trundles on – despite research from Which? suggesting that the vast majority of deals on offer are not genuine.

It’s hard to blame retailers for taking every step available to give their sales a lift; the conditions for them are bleak, as the long list of businesses that have gone into administration this year shows. 

But, according to data released this week by retail intelligence business Springboard, UK shoppers just aren’t interested: footfall this Friday is expected to be down 4.5% year on year.

And although Amazon is throwing a big party to celebrate the shopping event, delivery company ParcelHero is predicting that both high-street and online sales will stall this year, as a result of "low consumer confidence and stretched-out, lacklustre online deals", leading to zero spending growth year on year.

It means that, for retailers of all kinds, this Black Friday is likely to feel a bit like this version of (Rebecca) Black’s Friday:

With consumers increasingly concerned about the impact of waste, getting them to buy things they otherwise wouldn’t is not a sustainable strategy. Smart businesses have long recognised that, as social attitudes change, the way to continued success won’t be selling more products, but better ones – and adding value by providing services that are designed to bring human benefits without dire environmental costs.

Fitting this way of thinking into an event built around discounting is a huge challenge of the imagination – but isn’t that what creative marketing is all about?

So, can Black Friday survive in the age of ethical consumerism?

Natalie Graeme

Co-founder, Uncommon Creative Studio

Not in its current form. Ethical consumerism to one side for a moment, creating false demand for such aggressive ever-increasing discounting is surely not good for our already beleaguered high street. But as with all great races to the bottom, there’s a chance for brands to actively take a different stance. Some have chosen to boycott the moment entirely, as REI has famously done in the US for the past five years; this, however, takes a very confident retailer in today’s context.

Other savvy retailers are using their Black Friday – like judo, not boxing – to focus efforts not just on encouraging conscious consumption on the day but using it as the platform to take a broader stance on mindless purchasing, such as by be donating profits from sales, or other giveback schemes, to causes they and their customers believe in. Just look at how retail has responded to the shift in behaviour around single-use plastics. I have confidence that if consumers reward those that take an ethical stance, more businesses will respond in kind.

Gareth Jones

Chief marketing officer, eBay UK

The biggest evolving Black Friday trend we have seen on eBay is the rise of purchases from SMEs. Last year, £3 in every £5 spent on eBay UK during Black Friday went to a small business. With 300,000 SMEs trading on our platform, consumers can confidently shop responsibly on Black Friday should they choose. Another trend on the rise is the refurbished tech category, with a refurbished tech item or appliance selling every 30 seconds on eBay. Both trends show how consumers are more conscious with how they spend their money and how shoppers can participate in the madness of Black Friday but make better purchasing decisions when they do.

Zac Schwarz

Co-founder, Glimpse

I hope not. The connection between what we buy and its negative effect on the world is mainstream now. Black Friday feels old-fashioned and out of touch. It's the cherry on the consumption cake. Its dwindling popularity is the beginning of a wider shift away from overconsumption and a person’s identity being solely defined by what they buy. And, in the marketing industry, I think professionals want to align their views and behaviours with their business practices – how can you buy organic, shop local, care about social and environmental justice, yet sign off another pointless electric toothbrush/cheap top/burger campaign?

Emma Hargreaves

Head of planning, Good Agency

The real question is how long businesses can survive in this old model. Belief-buying is now mainstream, people are less impulsive and increasingly conscious of landfill. Yet it’s not that simple – we all still love a bargain. And struggling retailers need sales moments like this to shift stock. A few brands bravely buck the trend and get noticed, but most are at risk of following the crowd into oblivion. Getting off this hamster wheel will need a shift in expectations towards a model that actually works for business, customers and society.

James Withey

Head of strategy, FutureBrand

As sustainability increasingly influences decision-making, spending money on "stuff" without "good" reason is becoming unfashionable – fast. As a manufactured initiative to get people to buy what they don’t need, there’s a risk of lights out for Black Friday. Look at Deciem, who are taking a stand not by not having a sale, but by selling nothing at all for the day. Brands need a clear reason to participate, beyond selling more stuff to more people. Start with your brand’s purpose and work out whether you can deliver a Black Friday experience that does it justice. If not, join Deciem.

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