IMPACT
11/22/2019 05:45 EST | Updated 11/22/2019 16:45 EST

Why Some Brands Are Leading A Black Friday Boycott

Retailer REI and cult beauty company Deciem are shutting on one of the biggest shopping days of the year and calling for people to consume more responsibly.

Beauty company Deciem is calling for “a moment of nothingness” this Black Friday.

The company, which owns cult cosmetic brand The Ordinary, will close all its stores and take down its website for the whole day on Nov. 29. The aim, according to the company, is to push back against our relentless buying of stuff. 

“Hyper-consumerism poses one of the biggest threats to the planet,” reads Deciem’s Instagram statement, “and flash sales can often lead to rushed purchasing decisions, driven by the fear of a sell-out. We no longer feel that Black Friday is an earth or consumer-friendly event.” Employees will still get paid for the day, a Deciem spokeswoman confirmed.

Companies actively sabotaging themselves on one of the biggest consumer days of the year may seem unusual, but Deciem is not unique. For the past five years, outdoor retailer REI has closed its stores on Black Friday, urging its 14,000 staff — who also still get paid — to spend the day outside. 

Meanwhile, in France, a collective of 200 brands, organized under the banner “Make Friday Green Again,” has agreed to avoid any discounts on the day and instead donate 10% of their sales to nonprofits.“The aim is to denounce Black Friday and what’s behind it. It’s to educate consumers about a better consumption,” said Diane Scemama, the co-founder of ethical marketplace DreamAct, one of the brands taking part. 

These moves fit with a trend of companies looking to take a stand on social and environmental issues: telling us to slow us down, to think carefully about our consumption, to consider whether we really need the things we buy, and in REI’s case, to prioritize time with family and in nature. And what better time to do it than Black Friday?

Traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year, Black Friday seeks to whip people up into a state of frenzy over flash deals on everything from clothes to cleaning gadgets to long-haul vacations.

Kicking off with lines of people outside stores, sometimes from as early as Thanksgiving evening, it can culminate in violence, even deaths. A website dedicated to tracking Black Friday injuries and violence around the world has chalked up 12 deaths and 117 injuries since 2010 — including shootings, stabbings, pepper spray and in one case a customer using a belt as a whip. 

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Crowds walk past a large store sign displaying a Black Friday discount in midtown Manhattan, Nov. 23, 2018, in New York City.

The day has become synonymous with our voracious appetite for stuff, which seems undimmed, despite the hefty environmental impacts becoming increasingly obvious. We buy up fast fashion knowing the industry is a huge polluter, that it exploits its labor force and has a business model with the sole purpose of persuading you to buy more. We snap up new tech gadgets despite the fact electronic items make up the world’s fastest growing waste stream.

So companies stepping back from the hype and asking people to buy more responsibly seems ethical and unequivocally good, right? 

It depends on your parameters, said Halina Szejnwald Brown, professor of environmental science and policy at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Responsible consumption in service of social goals, such as labor rights and worker treatment, can be effective, she said.

Black Friday, which now tends to bleed into Thanksgiving on one side and Cyber Monday on the other, can be very hard on employees. Low-wage workers are most often the ones leaving their Thanksgiving tables to to head to stores and packing warehouses, for shifts that can be stressful, pressurized and physically exhausting — often without any bump in their wages. 

“There is a very human, personal cost,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, told The Guardian last year. “We have moved to a world where the biggest shopping days of the year are on holidays.”

REI’s decision to close on Black Friday was originally made out of concern for its employees, said Ben Steele, the company’s executive vice president and chief customer officer. “When we really thought about that day, and we thought about the experience that we’re creating for our employees on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday, we just kind of stepped back.” 

But when it comes to messages around environmental impact, it gets knottier. Companies can appear to deliver messages of responsible consumption, while at the same time tempting us to buy more. 

REI’s anti-Black Friday marketing embraces messages around consumption and climate change. This year, it launched a campaign called “Opt to Act,” encouraging employees and customers to take simple actions to reduce their environmental impact. Deciem co-founder and CEO Nicola Kilner, meanwhile, speaks of needing “to feel comfortable in knowing that we considered the bigger impact of our actions.”

Yet, neither of these companies has ditched deals altogether. Deciem is offering a 23% discount for the whole month (apart from during the blackout). Meanwhile, REI is offering up to 30% off between Nov. 15 and 25. Both defend their sales as providing value to their customers without pushing them into rushed purchasing decisions. 

But the elephant in the room here is that, even for companies that work hard to toe an ethical line, a business model predicated on growth means the ultimate aim is always to get people to buy more, which means producing more, which means more resources extracted, and more stuff in the world.

“Changing their business model somewhat so people don’t buy on impulse,” said Szejnwald Brown, “that’s a nice idea, I would agree, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the companies' concept of success.”

It’s a tension encapsulated perfectly by a famous Patagonia campaign. The high-end outdoors company took out a full -page advertisement in The New York Times on Black Friday in 2011. The image was of a jacket, the ad copy shouted: “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.”

“It’s time for us as a company to address the issue of consumerism and do it head on,” the company wrote on its website in a statement to explain the campaign and deflect accusations of hypocrisy. The problem was, that Black Friday sales went up 30%. 

Viewed cynically, said Szejnwald Brown, companies’ attempts to carve out a space as ethical retailers can be seen as a pure marketing ploy. Viewed more generously, she added, they want to serve their customers and understand that they are probably not the people lining up outside Target or Walmart in the frigid dawn of Black Friday for deals. 

On either interpretation, she said, “there is no reduction in profit, there is no reduction in consumption.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS/Elaine Thompson
REI's flagship Seattle store with a banner announcing its plan to close on Black Friday 2018.

“It makes sense that a lot of these brands that have come out against [Black Friday],” said Amit Bhattacharjee, assistant professor at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. “It’s smart for them and it doesn’t mean that it’s incompatible with a sincere conviction on their part.” 

People want to feel morally good about what they buy and these companies find a way of doing that. But, Bhattacharjee warned, “There’s an irony here to a lot of ethical consumption.” People who can afford to pay a premium for their principles tend to be wealthier people who often have a more intensive lifestyle: who buy more, live in bigger houses, fly more. “Chances are their carbon footprints are already quite a bit larger than people who aren’t paying a premium for these sorts of products.”

Beyond a deep cultural and economic shift that upends our consumer society, “ethical consumption” seems a pipe dream, said Szejnwald Brown. But she believes there are ways to live better.

“There is consumption that is necessary, then there is consumption that is more for the enjoyment of life and luxury, and then there is a compulsive consumption, which is quite widespread in a consumer society such as ours. They are all detrimental to the environment, but some are more justifiable than others,” she said.

The baselines of our consumption levels are constantly being revised upward, said Szejnwald Brown, but we can’t shop our way out of the multiple environmental crises we face. For now, she said, the best way to make an impact is to think about the ethics of sufficiency. 

“It’s understanding what is enough to allow you to thrive and to participate in life fully. But, that’s a very deep concept. How many people sit and ask themselves that question?”

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