In defence of Black Friday

25 November 2016

Black Friday shopping

It’s nearly Christmas. In significant numbers, people will be buying presents for loved ones. 

So-called Black Friday has become a thing – a day when goods can be had for less money, so you can give gifts in greater abundance and, maybe even if you have some left over, get that shiny object you’ve been coveting for the last six months.

When we need to promote patterns of sustainable consumption, this is where the rubber meets the road. The truth is that Black Friday matters very little on the grand scheme of things. In terms of actual environmental impact – matched against all the consumption that happens year round, all the industrial uses of energy, the aggregate human behaviour across the planet – it is insignificant.

But it is an invitation for environmentalists to isolate themselves from the mainstream and reduce their influence. And it seems that every year, they fall right into the trap.

As ever, outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia struck the right note

Black Friday may not be a substantive contribution, but it is a powerful symbol. So the environmental movement can’t help itself – it has to rail against it as though it is the biggest disaster to befall the planet. When the main body of consumers are thinking about buying presents that will bring joy to their children and their friends, the greens are there wagging their fingers and saying how wicked they are.

For instance, Greenpeace saying “breathe, take a break – the planet can’t handle it anymore”. It goes on to paint an apocalyptic picture that will result from all this Friday madness.

You don’t persuade people like this.

It’s the equivalent of going to a party and demanding that everyone account for their carbon emissions, and attacking the organisers for not having the most ethical food choices. 

There are people who do this. They don’t reduce emissions, and they don’t get invited back to the next party.

As ever, outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia struck the right note. It expects to make over $2m on Black Friday, and it has said that it will donate 100% of those profits to grassroots environmental groups that directly protect local communities’ air, water and soil. 

Patagonia is one of the retailers that has started to wrestle with the challenges inherent with the need for more sustainable patterns of consumption. It has gently raised the issue over time, provoking thoughtful debate, while making the best products it can to attract a loyal customer following. 

At the end of the day, all Black Friday shows us is that normal consumption currently carries a significant amount of waste. Producing the things people want with reduced impact is the solution that people will actually embrace. The best companies are innovating in this space, but there is a lot further to go.

Those businesses are so important – because they understand that we need to improve performance but take the public – their customers – with us on the journey. They know that if they get three steps ahead of their customers, they will lose and we will fail. They can be one step ahead, and if they get it right they can take customers with them. 

Would it be better if we could encourage people to value life differently, and not get caught up in a consumerist frenzy at certain times of the year? Sure. But that’s about culture change, and it doesn’t happen overnight. 

To take people with you to somewhere they didn’t originally intend to go, you first need to be accepted as one of them. Everyone sees the holidays as a celebration of good things. The most effective campaigns start with that as their basis. The rubbish ones stand to one side, hold their noses, and tell you how misguided and stupid you are.

That last approach is fine if you just want to feel like the most virtuous person in the room and you either don’t mind having no friends, or you surround yourself with friends who all think exactly the same way as you.

But it’s not how you change the world.