If you are walking past a colleague’s desk tomorrow, and their screen is full, not of the task due yesterday, but of Black Friday sales, they are one of the 76 per cent of customers hunting for discount deals. For some, the day of mega sales can be traced back to a Wall Street stock market crash in the second half of the nineteenth century. Others say it was the day when retailers’ accounts finally made it “in the black” and turned a profit.
The tradition has stood the test of time, as will the plastic waste, extra emissions, and piles of returns. When people think they can get something cheap, they buy things they don’t need. This may be dented by a dip in consumer confidence as the UK plummets towards a recession, but Black Friday has always been followed by Returns Monday. The subsequent result in emissions is staggering. In the US, returns create 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions every year. This equates to 5 billion pounds of landfill waste – a bottomless well of junk.
“We have a buy cheap and buy often mentality”, says Libby Peake, resources lead at Green Alliance. Clothing and electronics are top of the list. Think of the cost of a new iPhone or a TV – so it makes sense that people would want to buy them when they’re discounted. The problem is the amount. In the UK, we create more electronic waste per person than almost any other country in the world, according to Green Alliance. And there is over £1tn worth of unused tech in UK, EU and US homes, according to a survey by MPB.
There is some silver lining, with some companies acknowledging the environmental question mark over a day of mega sales. Some smaller brands are offering discount codes to be used for a month, giving people more time to think about what they really want, minimising the need for returns. Neighbourhood Botanicals, an East London beauty brand, offers a 25 per cent discount for two months, enabling them to take part in the spirit of Black Friday but with a conscious effort to make it less of a mad 24 hour rush.
Others are pushing back on the principle of massive sales at all. According to Which?, just one in seven deals offer a genuine discount, with a majority of promotions cheaper or the same price six months prior to the sales. Black Friday “no longer delivers on that same promise of value”, says Murray Lambell, general manager of eBay UK.
“I expected more brands (abstaining) from Black Friday this year”, says Matt Barker, the founder and CEO of MPB, the largest platform available to buy and sell kits for photographers and videographers. His company still seems a little bit like an outlier in the industry. He is not partaking in Black Friday on the message that his prices are fair all year round.
The same problems haunt fashion – an industry that has come increasingly under the spotlight with scandals over quality and pay. And now that online shopping has bloomed, helped by a pandemic that kept us all indoors for long periods of time, the issue of returns has worsened as delivery vans wizz back and forth from customers’ homes. Zara in the UK has started charging a small fee of £1.95 to return merchandise bought online to disincentive customers. Even the scandal-ridden Boohoo is charging £1.99 per returned item. Yet there are still giants like Asos offering free returns.
It may also be a question of a generation, with Gen Z predicted to spend less on Black Friday this year. In a dire cost-of-living crisis, brands will want to embrace an opportunity to sell more and boost their profits. But maybe we should be asking younger Britons to lead the way.