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Discounts and sales have been popular for decades, with Black Friday marking the biggest day of sales. This has been a popular mass shopping day since the late 1980s. Now, in the 21st century, a lot of fast fashion companies have taken Black Friday online. Though these companies already sell their garments for low prices, they encourage consumers to join them to buy ultra low-cost items on Black Friday. This isn’t the only day they take advantage of, as there is also Cyber Monday, Boxing Day, Pay Day, and more. But what does this cost the planet? Can discounts be sustainable? Here, we uncover the dark side of discounts and sales, considering the influence of fast fashion.
Notorious for its huge discounts, Black Friday encourages consumers to buy in order to secure deals. The day occurs on the 29th of November and is intended to promote spending. It also communicates something to consumers about how much their purchase truly is worth. There is an ever-increasing environmental need to limit buying, especially with unethical fast-fashion companies. This is due to the impact on severely underpaid garment workers, the CO2 emissions released by the fast fashion industry, the use of raw materials, water, and plastic, and the lack of recycling options. How ethically made can a garment be that can be sold for such a low price?
Returns can also greatly increase due to increased sales and impulse purchases. Returns are especially high for online purchases, costing both brands and the environment in the long run. This is due to the CO2 emissions associated with transporting these returns. Shoppers were predicted to spend 1.54 billion pounds on Black Friday shopping in 2018, according to IMRG.
It is important to note that it isn’t necessarily unethical to have sales in general. The problem is that our current system is set up to make unsustainable shopping choices easy. There are examples of necessity, where a consumer is in need of something that they can only afford in the sales. There is also the example of the thought out purchase that could be attained within a sale. This is not the dark side of discounts we speak of.
Dr Patsy Perry, a fashion marketing lecturer from the University of Manchester, said to the BBC "[Black Friday] is a great time to take advantage of discounts but it goes against what we're trying to do with sustainability." She goes on to say "I think, increasingly, we'll see more businesses saying they don't want to be part of this [Black Friday]."
An example of action being taken on this is the ‘Make Friday Green Again’ collective, in which hundreds of brands asked shoppers to boycott the Black Friday sales. It was intended to limit the overproduction that drives Black Friday sales. It also asks consumers to look within their own wardrobes for inspiration instead, on this date usually marked by spending. The experience of newness that is so central to Black Friday can be recreated by repairing, rediscovering, or revamping our own clothes.
Brands who decided to boycott Black Friday in 2021 include Maium, Pantee, Raeburn, Finisterre, and THTC. These brands raise prices, donate some of their profits to charitable causes, or push their customers away from buying at all. Pantee is an underwear brand making product from deadstock t-shirts. This Black Friday, their website was only accessible to people on its mailing list. Visitors to the site needed a password to access it. For Finistere, they donated £2.50 to the Finisterre Foundation Wetsuit Project for every order made during their 'Blue Friday' weekend. Dutch rainwear brand Maium, who make their products from recycled plastic, shut their online store this Black Friday. Instead, they played a ten-minute rain meditation.
The growing ‘Make Friday Green Again’ collective states that ‘Each year, the very strong reductions practiced during Black Friday reveal false promotions and inflated prices for the occasion. 48% of consumers surveyed believe that the promotions displayed are not always real business’. This means that consumers are deceived, thinking they are getting a better deal than what they truly are. This is another reason why the collective steers consumers away from shopping on Black Friday.
According to Which?, in 2020, 98% of the discounts advertised on Black Friday were available for the same price or cheaper in the six months following the sales. They tracked 119 products over a year, and only 3 were at their cheapest price on Black Friday.
Convincing consumers they have achieved an excellent deal on a garment, some brands mark down their items almost as soon as they reach the site. They advertise a £15 top as £30, on sale for £15. This is a marketing strategy that makes buyers feel like they are getting a good deal. Fast fashion sites employ this technique to recreate the feeling Black Friday brings about – we are much more likely to buy something if we think it is on sale, reduced from a much higher price. It implies that the product is worth much more than what we are paying. This is rarely, if ever, the case with fast fashion.
Examples of mass discounting are Missguided’s £1 bikini and Pretty Little Thing’s 99% off sales. Garments, in these cases, are sold for £1 or less. So, how are they managing to sell garments so cheaply? In a 2020 survey, it was uncovered that ‘93% of brands surveyed by the Fashion Checker aren’t paying garment workers a living wage’.
It should not be possible to buy a garment for so little, when you consider the cost of a fair living wage to workers, and the cost of sustainable materials. The CEO of Pretty Little Thing, Umar Kamani, has a net worth of $1 billion. The average wage in ‘dark factories’ for garment workers is about £4.25 an hour, meaning the average annual salary is not much over £8000. These garment workers employed in ‘dark factories’ are working in the UK, in Leicester. The minimum wage in the UK is supposed to be £8.91 an hour for over 23s.
It is evident that fast fashion companies take advantage of the gratification consumers feel when buying into discounts. The current fashion industry is a linear system of overproduction and excessive waste. This is only made worse by discounts that not only prove how unethically the garments are made, but also encourage consumers to buy in excess. Shopping consciously and minimally is a way to escape these systems, even if discounted items are the only items you can afford. Alternatively, for some affordable ethical fashion options, check out this list. If you are keen to learn more about circular fashion, and what we can do to help, click here.