Black Friday and the dangers of greenwashing campaigns

Last year, Burberry burned unsold items worth £28.6m (€33.5m) in a singular bid to protect its brand, and the hyper-consumerism that Black Friday and Cyber Monday desperately encourage is likely to fuel similar scandals behind closed doors this year. Sustainability and up-cycling has a mindful ring to it, and big brand names and companies are really starting to get it. In fact, they are getting it a little too well. Here are some key issues to keep in mind this weekend whilst shopping, or hopefully, not shopping at all.

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Greenwashing

A noticeable trend in modern (Black Friday) marketing strategies is the use of keywords such as ‘green’, ‘compostable’, ‘biodegradable’, and ‘sustainable’ as a selling point, especially in the fashion industry. Anything that is googled or trending can be picked up by SEO marketeers, which is not exactly a secret seeing as almost every ad on Facebook and Instagram is now ‘highly personalised and tailored to fit your needs (?) and preferences’.

An article posted two days ago by Ethical Corp mentions that research done by Hubbub, a sustainability communications charity, has shown that two thirds of surveyed people don’t actually enjoy taking part in Black Friday, with half feeling uncomfortable about the event. With the upper-hand, companies are now appealing to the public by using everybody’s favourite ‘eco-words’, such as sustainability, to incite consumers to buy their products.

Greenwashing, marketing campaigns that use the environment for financial profit only, promote buy-waste-buy by appealing to this generation’s environmentally-conscious consumers, and do so without the planet in mind. In an earlier 2017 report by Pulse of the Fashion, market-driven sustainability was found to have great limitations in terms of actually being beneficial to the environment, as brands still need to sell more in order to generate a profit, and initiatives to address environmental and social issues in sales campaigns were only contributing to the buy-waste-buy cycle.

The sustainability ploy

Hubbub also concludes that “nobody currently has a clue about what constitutes a ‘sustainable material’.” So what does green and sustainable fashion actually mean, and are sellers covering all significations of the words?

Sustainability is a word encapsulating a number of complex processes and ways of thinking, and is not only limited to durability and ethically-sourced. The product might be long-lasting, and it might not have been produced in a sweat factory, but what are working conditions like for the employees that have made the garment? How much are they being payed and what are they sacrificing in order to be there? What material is the garment made of, and what is the company’s understanding of a sustainable fibre? Is it renewable? Has it been dyed and prepared in a way that might harm the environment? Were all parts of the process of turning raw fibre into textile sustainable? What is the total carbon footprint of the material, including transportation, shipping, washing, processing and more? And what happens to the product when it has reached the end of its lifecycle? Is it recycled, or burned like Burberry?

Ambiguously-speaking™

Not knowing what a brand means when they say their product is sustainable also highlights a lack of transparency: it’s difficult to tell what makes a sustainable material when it isn’t clear from the product descriptions or advertising campaigns, and materials that are seen as sustainable aren’t in fact produced in a sustainable way.

For example, cotton is the most widely used clothing fibre, and prevalent in apparel fibre. In fact, it accounts for over 50% of clothing material worldwide, and at the same time it uses 2.4% of all our arable lands and needs 16% of the world’s pesticides. It is often bleached, dyed, and washed so much so that calling it sustainable seems almost absurd. Efforts to reduce plastic waste would then be undermined if every Black Friday shopper decides to buy that extra cotton tote bag they don’t need.

Brands are also failing to report emissions properly, with the majority reporting only their annual carbon footprint. Some brands report no emissions at all. If a company boasts sustainable materials, but it’s not clear what makes the material sustainable, and there are no extensive emission reports available, then perhaps there are grounds for thinking twice before buying.

Online shopping’s carbon footprint

As mentioned above, sustainability also has to do with the overall carbon footprint of a product, which includes transportation, packaging, preparation and more. In an interview published a week ago, Diana Verde Nieto, co-founder of Positive Luxury, says to Bustle’s Lauren Sharkey that “In 2017, it was estimated that every 93 seconds, a diesel truck left an Amazon fulfilment centre.” She adds that if something is returned, shipping impact is doubled.

Online shopping is just as harmful for the environment, with massive air pollution spikes during Black Friday and Cyber Monday due to a surge in online orders. And yet, a 2019 report done by PricewaterhouseCoopers, shows that shopping is now largely done online in the UK (77%), Germany (75%), the Netherlands (66%), France (65%), and Ireland (63%).

The urgency trap

The biggest trap of them all is perhaps urgency: consumer psychologist Nisa Bayindir highlights the “sense of urgency in consumers’ minds” that is created by events such as Black Friday. This urgency is prevalent in the creative editorial industry, and well-known to digital-space copywriters (hi that’s me) who are often tasked with maximising ‘inspiring call-to-action copy.’

Oxford-educated business women and influencer Grace Beverley, who founded multimillion dollar businesses B_ND and TALA during her undergraduate studies, prides herself on being very focused on sustainability and ethically-sourced products. Despite this, her businesses still knowingly engage in ‘urgency-trap’ behaviour. Whilst TALA joins the boycott by refusing to participate in Black Friday, sister brands B_ND and SHREDDY do not.

Beverley has released a statement on Instagram clarifying that the brands are separate, and that the modest sales being offered are to help students and other consumers who normally would not be able to afford her high quality products. And yet, her Black Friday campaigns all promote urgency with words such as “today and today only”, “what are you waiting for”, “Get subscribing now”, “24 hours” all in one post.

When urgency is promoted as part of marketing campaigns, it incites customers to act quickly without adequate time to think or conduct research, increasing the likelihood of regretting a purchase, and ultimately contributing to the production of waste.

In the same IGTV video, Beverley admits that “It’s amazing to see kind of how many people love the idea of not doing Black Friday”, and this has not been lost on eco-friendly brands. Beauty company DECIEM, who has also refused to participate in Black Friday, still announced on November 1st that they would be having a month-long sale of 23% off an all items, effectively turning Black Friday into Black November. How about the radical idea of not participating in Black Friday this month, like, at all?

Recycling’s complexities

Many people do have the environment in mind, take note of the fine print, read up on emissions, and recycle on a weekly basis. The problem with recycling is that the process is far more complex than a few bins separating different materials from each other. Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism news site, points out that mixed fibre garments cannot be recycled. The Textile Recycling Association adds that certain types of recycling processes (mechanical) shorten fibres drastically so that the majority of textiles can really only be recycled once.

Reward systems: Recycle-Buy-Recycle

Next level greenwashing, beyond marketing campaigns, also occurs in the form of take back schemes that encourage customers to trade unused clothing for vouchers, effectively promoting an apparently ‘green’ recycle and reward culture. According to Greenpeace, the ‘waste’ is then resold or recycled into lower grade products, which at first seems like a step forward; however, the outcome of recycled clothing is not always positive in terms of customer satisfaction, and the ulterior motive is that the client is essentially gifted a tiny discount and incentivised to treat this as a call-to-action to shop more, perpetuating the buy-waste-buy cycle. Sadly, recycling has now also become an effective marketing strategy for business- and consumer-oriented companies who are not truly focused on the environment.

Donating to charities, and landfills

Ignoring the reward system and refusing to recycle clothing by trading it in at an H&M for a 5 euro voucher must mean that it’s safe to assume that your unwanted clothing has a spot amongst the racks of a charity shop. And yet, according to a (somewhat dated) 2006 ABC New Report, only an estimated 10% of donated clothing in the US is kept by charity shops. Clothing that is kept is usually trendy, high-in-value fabrics that are easily thrifted.

The other 90% of the clothing, closer to the fast fashion end of the donations, goes to textile recycling firms, where 70% of the donated clothing is turned into industrial cleaning items (rags, cloths), and 20-25% is sold on to an international market. The report indicates that whilst some used products are sold to low-income customers abroad at a lower price, most of the resold clothing still ends up in a landfill as US sizes fail to fit the global average. This warrants extra care when it comes to all the good-hearted intentions out there: if you’re style isn’t thrift-worthy, your donation might just be to a landfill.

Illusory self-control and hyper-consumerism

A moderate participation in Black Friday would also seem like a better idea than a total blow-out, but it sounds rather idyllic to me. Two days ago, Delphine Batho, France’s former environment minister, proposed that Black Friday be banned as part of a new anti-waste bill that is yet to be debated, explaining that: “You can’t at the same time reduce green house emissions and call for frenzied consumerism”. In response, the trade council of France claimed that “Using the word frenzy gives the impression that consumers are not committed and responsible citizens.” It fails to miss that exact point: humanity’s biggest vice is probably its failure to act moderately. This failure has contributed not only to hyper-consumerism, but is the leading cause of global warming and the climate crisis.

Slow fashion and privilege

So perhaps the solution is just to cut out all fast fashion completely, and to only invest in high-quality, durable, ethically-sourced and produced, sustainable, biodegradable, compostable, green products. You’re not alone if with every word you felt the price of the product you have in mind increase. Whereas fast fashion is a huge contributor to water and air pollution, greenhouse gases, and waste production, slow fashion is only its elitist antonym. How are low income earners expected to participate in slow fashion to the same degree as moderate to high income earners. Would this mean that only the wealthiest gain access to high quality, durable, and expensive goods?

Slow fashion creates yet another socio-economic rift between those who are in a position of privilege, and those who have no other alternative than to buy poorly-produced, temporary fast fashion. This perpetuates fashion’s hierarchy which is still very much based on social and financial status.

Just for fun: Blaming women, ’cause why not

All of that sounds terrible, and if you actually are a moderate consumer during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, then surely there is another group of heavy consumers that can be held accountable.

The practice of blaming women for absolutely everything is not unheard of, but if you thought they were the root of the problem, the big instigators and upholders of Black Friday and shopping, think twice. A 2019 report done by PricewaterhouseCoopers on Black Friday and Cyber Monday analysing UK consumers indicates that men are more likely to shop for Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals than women are, and more likely to buy for themselves (77%) than for their family (62%). Women, on the other hand, use the event as an occasion to save money (62% vs 56%) and to shop for others.

Similar statistics are provided by Finder for US Black Friday shoppers, with 88% of men saying they will participate in the event, vs 85% of women. Men are also more likely to regret their purchases than women (56% vs 49%), making them more likely to throw out their buys. The statistical differences are marginal, however, and the final conclusion is that somehow, someway, even those of us with good intentions, are almost all to blame. Oops.

Consider a shop-stop, and if not:

If buying only what you truly need doesn’t sound like fun, especially around Christmas time, then support unpackaged products, eco-friendly materials, and avoid being assumptive when it comes to understanding what a “sustainability” label means. Look for certifications such as the Butterfly Mark, and items that have been up-cycled and recycled. Opt to support local shops in person instead of ordering online, and if you do order online, go for standard shipping to save on fuel emissions. Happy Morbid Friday.

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