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Can Black Friday be Ethical?

November 25, 2016

Black Friday ethical

Photography by MadeFAIR, words by Tavie Maier 


I live in Cambodia, where I’ve learned that most non-Americans have never heard of Black Friday. Those who have either resent us for starting it or make fun of the silly Americans on TV stampeding a mall.

In 2010, when I still lived in Colorado, I worked the 5 AM Black Friday shift at Park Meadows Mall – a monolith in the middle of an affluent suburb. Women lined up outside a bag store because the first 100 customers to spend $100+ got a free bag. Fast fashion supply chains use offshore labour to keep their costs down, so we can assume that “free” bag probably had a $5 landed cost (a generous estimate). They were giving away $500 to make $10,000, which doesn’t factor in customers who spent more than $100 on their qualifying purchase. If a customer’s checkout total was $90, she’d add, say, a $15 coin purse that cost the company 25 cents to make. That’s $15 she didn’t want to or plan on spending, for a “free” bag she doesn’t need.

It’s a sales strategy called upselling, one of several tricks big box stores use to attract huge crowds. They’ll pile it high and sell it cheap while fooling people with urgency and scarcity (“One-day only deals! Hurry so you don’t miss out!). Realistically, these clearances are grounded in retailers feeling the urgency. They need a return on investment for crap products they’ve been sitting on for a year. Cutting prices is, simply, the easiest way for them to move inventory.

In addition, Black Friday isn’t even the biggest shopping day of the year. December 23rd and 17th experience more foot traffic and sales, respectively, probably because most consumers are like me and wait until the last possible moment to buy gifts. In fact, 8 of the top 10 busiest annual shopping days are within ten 10 days before Christmas. Black Friday, as a day, is totally arbitrary. It’s only important because we give it importance. Someone, somewhere, decided to slash their prices, creating consumer expectations for discounts, then other businesses had to compete to meet the expectations, then prices are further cut and Black Friday is extended into Thanksgiving in a race to the bottom. It’s “pile it high, sell it cheap,” and create a sense of urgency – every marketing tactic in the book compounded into one day. Participating in Black Friday uses the lowest common denominator in marketing – low, low prices – giving the impression our products are disposable.

As an ethical consumer, I can see my favourite brand’s true colours in how they choose to participate in Black Friday. Therefore, as an ethical business owner, there’s no way for me to participate in a traditional Black Friday sale without being a hypocrite. In 2014 and 2015, Everlane used their profits for wellness programs in their factories, while this year, Patagoniawill give 100% of their sales to grassroots environmental groups. My store, MadeFAIR, is participating in Ethical Black Friday with Bead & Reel, when our website will redirect to ethicalblackfriday.com and sell just one item, donating half our income to The Dressember Foundation.

Millennials are pushing for brands to be ethical. As our buying power increases, there’s been an uptick in start-ups and established brands making corporate responsibility their touchstones. Black Friday is the millennial Rorschach test for brands. Do we trade our moral compasses into the lure of traffic and cash flow, or do we use the day to make a statement about the state of our industry? We chose the latter.

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