Can we really expect consumers to resist the temptation of a 'good sale,' despite what the surveys show about responsible consumption?
By Elaine Cohen
Watching the aggressive -- bordering on violent -- elbowing, pushing and shoving in the pursuit of new gadgets, appliances, and almost anything else on Black Friday 2012 was enough to make anyone feel a little nauseous. The urgency with which 247 million shoppers (9 percent more than last year, according to CNN) raced to spend $423 million over a period of four days would make the casual observer believe that no one sells anything on the other 361 days of the year.
Even online shopping, for those who wish to shop without hassle, was between 17 percent and 21 percent higher than last year. Stores such as Wal-mart, Sears and Target opened up their doors even earlier than in previous years and "unbeatable" shopping deals were to be found in all stores.
You know where I am headed.
The Social & Environmental Costs of Black Friday
There is both an environmental impact and a social tragedy encompassed in Black Friday. According to Wikipedia, the day's name originated in Philadelphia, where it originally was used to describe the heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and its resultant air pollution, which would occur on the day after Thanksgiving. It's true that Cyber Monday, the online version of the intensive shopping frenzy on the Monday after Thanksgiving, has a reduced environmental effect found to be 50 times less carbon intensive than Black Friday, but this study only accounts for transportation and delivery emissions.
It makes no reference to the amounts of goods purchased and its associated packaging and, of course, the percentage of products thrown away as a result of new-for-old replacements and simply, the impulse purchasing of unwanted bargain items, which are eventually discarded. The drive to consume in the U.S., even in a recessionary economy, is apparently stronger than the urge to achieve responsible consumerism, as exemplified in the strongest shopping day of the year.
The counter-movement, Buy Nothing Day, is but a distant and unachievable vision of a world in which we can actually control our consumer excesses, at least for 24 hours.
And yet, responsible consumerism hype continues to make headlines.
Whose Responsible for Excessive Consumption?
In a new study, Rethinking Consumption, published by BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility, it was found that consumers are rethinking consumption with sustainability in mind. According to the study:
Two-thirds of consumers in six countries say that “as a society, we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations” (66 percent), and that they feel “a sense of responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society” (65 percent).
The findings are based on an "online survey of 6,224 consumers across Brazil, China, India, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States conducted in September and October 2012." The very consumers who respond positively to such a survey are, apparently, the same ones who are waiting outside stores at 4am so that they don't miss out on the next bargain.
Where then, should we place accountability for responsible consumption?
Holding the Consumer Accountable
Is it possible to expect the general public to resist increasingly enticing temptation in the form of rapid-fire product innovation and upgrades and special bargains that are more attractive than ever before? Responsible consumerism is not just about buying green products, it's about changing habits and adopting a lifestyle adapted to the long-term challenges of our society and planet. Can we hold the Black Friday consumer accountable for the excesses of our current lifestyle?
Patagonia's marketing campaign "Don't Buy this Jacket," which coincided with 2011's Black Friday was widely praised for raising awareness against reckless consumerism and promoting an approach of buying good quality which lasts for longer and not more than you actually need. Did this ad persuade consumers not to buy? I doubt it. Did the absence of Patagonia "deals" on Black Friday cut price jackets prevent consumers from buying?
Far more likely.
Ultimately, it will not be consumers who will change the way things work, no matter how positively they respond to surveys about their consumption intentions. Consumers are not leading the drive for consumption; they are the victims of the consumption hype.
In many ways, consumption is an addiction, formed by opportunity, habit and social pressure. The companies that participate in Black Friday and other events throughout the year, such as Summer Sales, Winter Sales, Special Offers, Buy-Two-Get-One-Free Campaigns and more, perpetuate the short-term, volume-driven, profit-oriented, sell-it-cheap approach to business and sway consumer practice in ways which are not sustainable for our planet and society.
In this system, everyone thinks they win in the short term but, in practice, it is this system which creates a rather grim long-term. While I do not deny that it is up to all of us to play a role in influencing change, and that may mean adopting a practice of Buy Nothing on Black Friday, I've also seen that the corporate power to entice is much greater than the individual consumer will to resist.
Black Friday is an expression of irresponsible consumerism at its worst and it is driven by the promise of profit for few at the expense of sustainability for all.