Black Friday & Sustainable Consumerism

24.11.2023 5 min read

Once solely celebrated in America, Black Friday has quickly taken the world by storm, evolving from a single day to an entire shopping season. Listed as one of the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals: No. 12 Responsible Consumption and Production, our latest insight examines how sustainable consumerism can provide a response to the popular period of ‘shop-till-you-drop’.

Taking place on the fourth Friday of November, the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday has become the UK’s single highest grossing day in retail. In the 1980s, US department stores found that the day after Thanksgiving recorded the highest volume of sales in the run-up to Christmas. To take advantage and achieve the highest market share, on the Friday morning following Thanksgiving, a limited stock of highly discounted items would be listed to attract customers to their select stores. Black Friday was born, the name is believed to be in reference to profit and loss statements changing from negative ‘red’ to profitable ‘black’.

Since then, Black Friday and its associated sales have grown to extreme proportions. In 2022 the UK, Europe’s largest Black Friday consumer, spent £12.3 billion up 8.3% from the previous year. But what is the issue? The holiday is widely criticised for promoting a throwaway culture, 51% of Black Friday shoppers impulse buying products during promotions. These are items that may not be needed, subsequently causing an increase in waste. The Green Alliance reported in 2019 that up to 80% of Black Friday items are thrown away either with limited use or before being used at all.

Online shopping has come to represent a major part of Black Friday. It was Amazon that helped popularise the event among UK consumers, introducing the sales to the country as early as 2010. A staggering 39% of Brits are reported to have purchased an item on Amazon during Black Friday promotions in 2022. With this comes an increase in carbon emissions. In 2020, Black Friday deliveries were reported to account for 429,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, 0.12% of the UK annual CO2e that year.

Why the Hype?

Marketing promises such as ‘lowest price ever’ and ‘deal of the year’ are familiar to all of us who have experienced shopping in mid-to-late November. But are they what they claim to be? A study from Which? found that 98% of ‘deals’ were priced higher or the same in the 12 months prior. Even during the extended sales period between 18 November and 2 December, including Cyber Monday, 86% of products were the same price or cheaper at other times of the year.

There’s Nothing You Can Do

Consumption is by no means a requirement of sustainable consumerism. Our decisions as customers are as much about what we don’t buy as what we do. As Black Friday became bigger, a countermovement only grew, ‘Buy Nothing Day’ starting in Canada in 1992, held on the same day. A direct response to excessive shopping, the movement costs nothing to be a part of and has one simple requirement – do nothing. Consumers are challenged to go 24 hours without making a purchase, using the time to reflect on personal buying habits. Today, the movement is stronger than ever, a UK version having run annual campaigns for over 20 years. And it seems to be catching on, a study by PwC found that the percentage of those not buying has increased from 39% in 2022 to a projected 56% in 2023.

Green Friday

Presenting an environmentally conscious alternative to the shopping holiday, ‘Green Friday’ has been promoted by environmental activists and businesses. Beyond boycotting the buying, the movement goes further, advocating for plans such as cycling or walking instead of driving, getting active and healthy while in nature, and spending time with friends and family. Health, wellness and the environment become the focus of the holiday, calling to change “from consuming to giving” while raising awareness of Green Friday and its values.

Making Sustainable Purchases

Despite our best efforts, however sustainably minded we are, there comes a time when we need new things. For many, Black Friday presents this opportunity, though there are ways of making purchases more sustainably. The technology and fashion sectors account for the most sales during the period of discounts, also accounting for some of the highest levels of environmental harm. If looking to buy tech, you might consider purchasing refurbished and second-hand. Often in nearly new condition, and with many sellers offering warranties for their products, buying refurbished can be a great way of getting a good deal while contributing to circular economy principles. While not perfect, websites such as BackMarket, a certified B Corp, greatly reduce the environmental impact of E-Waste. The company exclusively sells refurbished: broken tech repaired to a nearly new condition, and sold on to new owners.

The Fashion sector accounts for the most Black Friday sales, making up 58% of all UK purchases in 2022. As with technology, the second-hand fashion market can be a great alternative to buying new. Research has shown that preowned clothes have an environmental impact 70 times lower than buying new. Apps such as Depop and Vinted lead the field, the platforms boasting 42 million users combined, with 140,000 new listings posted daily on Depop alone. If buying doesn’t take your fancy, a great alternative this year is to swap clothes using apps such as Nuw. Nuw allows users to upload their old clothes in exchange for tokens which can be used to ‘shop’ for second hand clothing.

Ultimately though, Black Friday and sustainability are conflicting concepts, the excessive production and throwaway culture of the retail holiday promotes the worst of our shopping culture. If possible, the sales should be avoided, movements such as Buy Nothing Day are effective in helping consumers combat any impulse buying. Green Friday goes further, steering focus to environmental causes. If there is a legitimate need to make a purchase, there are ways to do so in a more sustainably minded way, making use of second-hand marketplaces to recycle existing products.

Key Contacts

Iain Audus Head of Sustainability and SHEQ