Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all the other seasonal sales are highly debated. They represent a sore spot in a fashion industry plagued by overproduction because the hyper-discount culture of our society and the environmental and social damage they cause become obvious. Since Black Friday is right around the corner, we wanted to know details and turned to an expert: FASHION REVOLUTION. Bronwyn Seier, one of the people responsible for the organization's Black Friday campaign, answered all our questions and explained why and how transparency can help turn this peak of mindless consumption into something positive. But before we get into the interview we wanted to quickly explained how this sales phenomenon came about.
The origins of Black Friday lie in the 1960s in the USA. Since the day after Thanksgiving Thursday is seen as the official start of the holiday shopping season, the term 'Black Friday' was used to describe the traffic jams and massive crowds of people that formed and ran through shopping streets in cities across the country over the two days following the national holiday. Another explanation posits that "black" Friday is a synonym for the black font given to positive numbers appearing on financial documents. Because of the enormous sales that are made on Black Friday, many traders are able to bring their balance sheets from negative numbers, or "out of the red", and into the profit zone ("into the black") on this day, thus compensating for the losses of the previous months' financial figures.
What works in the USA works elsewhere. At least Apple thought so and brought the Black Friday sale to Germany for the first time in 2006. The brand from California expanded its Black Friday sales offers to the German Apple brick and mortar stores as well as online and thus caused a lot of attention. Attracted by Apple's success, more and more retailers jumped on the bandwagon and organized their own special sales promotions for this day. One might think that the hyper discounts of goods are reflected as a loss in the company figures. This is a mistake, as a study by the IFH Cologne shows. According to this study, the sales of German retailers on Black Friday weekend in 2016 already amounted to 1.7 billion euros. In 2017 they rose by 23 percent to 2.1 billion euros and reached a volume of 2.4 billion euros at Black Friday 2018. According to the German Retail Association (HDE), sales on Black Friday 2019 rose again by 22 percent and broke the 3 billion euro barrier for the first time.
Now that we have clarified the background of the Black Friday, we want to share the insights Bronwyn gave us!
Hi Bronwyn, thank you so much for your time! Could you briefly introduce yourself and talk about your responsibilities for Fashion Revolution?
I work as Fashion Revolution’s content manager. In my role, I focus on raising awareness and educating people around the world about the key issues facing the fashion industry. In particular at Fashion Revolution, we’ve distilled the key issues we campaign on into our 10-point manifesto. In my day-to-day work I communicate on the issues, and make them relevant in the context of what’s happening in the wider world, whether that’s speaking about the impact of Covid-19 on the people who make our clothes or connecting the impact of microplastic pollution to our waterways on World Oceans Day. At Fashion Revolution, we try to signpost the work of other great initiatives to our community, so I also immerse myself in the work and research of organisation like Microfinance Opportunities, Clean Clothes Campaign, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and many more.
In your opinion: Is transparency in the value chains important to change the fashion industry for the better and if so, why?
Transparency is a major pillar of the work we do at Fashion Revolution. Having been founded in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, Fashion Revolution was formed under the notion that the fashion industry at the time was incredibly opaque. The brands implicated weren’t easily able to identify whether or not they had been producing at Rana Plaza because their supply chains relied on complicated networks of subcontracting and middlemen. So, when Fashion Revolution began, we felt that the first step in protecting and advocating for the people who make our clothes was to ask brands to be open about their sourcing practices. Transparency isn’t the only solution to fashion’s big issues, and transparency and sustainability are not the same thing. Yet, in order for NGOs and workers organisations to lobby brands to improve wages and conditions, we first need traceability and transparency.
What role do the marketing departments play in the hyper-discount culture? Can we even pinpoint someone or something that carries more fault than others for fashion’s culture of disposability and exploitation?
Marketing messages have a huge role to play in discount culture, but they are just one facet of a system that is completely reliant on producing too much. The marketing messaging that surrounds Black Friday in particular contributes to a narrative on speed, competition and scarcity that makes the receiver feel like they are playing a game in which the aim is to consume as much as possible in a finite amount of time. Given the massive issues around waste, product incineration and landfills that face the fashion industry, brands should be held accountable for this kind of messaging. Instead of using their platforms and resources to tell their communities to needlessly consume, they should educate them about the importance of clothing care and longevity.
What role does transparency play in helping and/or hindering seasonal sales like Black Friday?
Transparency plays a role in holding brands accountable for waste, an issue which is incredibly interconnected to discount culture. In our 2020 Fashion Transparency Index, we found that only 27% of 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands disclosed steps they are taking to reduce waste in their supply chains. Even more concerning was the finding that only 7 brands (3%) disclose the volume of products destroyed annually. While it is worrying that products are destroyed at all, this awful practice is embedded in the fashion system and the vast majority of major brands are complicit. Disclosing the numbers behind this practice is only the first step in eradicating this behaviour altogether, but it’s a critical one that enables consumers and NGOs to hold brands accountable.
On the social side of fashion, transparency is also effective at supporting unions and labour rights groups in advocating for their rights. The connection between big discounts and brands’ exploitation of people is that these massive sales often expose hypocrisy of cheap fashion. I can think of many recent examples where labour rights groups were targeting brands for unpaid wages and used these brands’ own discount message as a powerful tool through which to pose their cause. For example, American discount retailer, ROSS, has been involved in wage theft of LA garment workers since 2016. In a campaign for Ross to pay workers, the LA Garment Worker Center reappropriated Ross’ dress for less slogan by following it with the phrase ‘but at what cost‘?. It’s this kind of stark contrast between the steep discounts we see in fashion marketing and the poor working conditions in its supply chains that offer campaigners a platform to raise awareness. Similarly, as dozens of brands cancelled orders amid the Coronavirus pandemic, organisations like Remake and Clean Clothes Campaign subverted the seasonal sales messaging with the #PayUp campaign. On Prime Day, Amazon’s international discount frenzy, Remake shared the message, “Hey Amazon, this would be a Prime Day to finally listen to your workers”. The Fashion Revolution Germany team has also created an amazing satirical campaign surrounding the irony of big discount and low wages, called Crisis Fashion.
The Black Friday tempts us into Impulse Buys. In order to prevent this, it is helpful to question our desire to buy. This post from Fashion Revolution based on research by GreenPeace zooms in on the psychology of the impulse buy. With the answers to these questions we can see whether we really need a product or not.
You say in your Black Friday FAQ: "Not all discounts spark mindless consumption. […] Sale seasons help many people access products that wouldn’t otherwise be affordable to them." Can seasonal sales be responsible? And, if so, when and how?
We don’t want anyone to feel guilty for taking part in Black Friday sales. At the end of the day, all human beings take part in consumption at varying degrees and no one should be shamed for wanting to save a few dollars. The flaw with these discount-centric moments is that they incentivise people to buy things they don’t need and won’t keep for a long time. Alternatively, if someone needed to purchase something, like a winter jacket or a new computer, did their research and then waited until Black Friday to get a deal, that kind of long term consideration about a purchase would probably lead to it being kept for longer. The issue about discounts is more to do with incentivising impulse purchases than saving money.
It is better to sell a product at a lower price than its actual worth instead of throwing it away or incinerating it. Do you agree with this statement? Could Black Friday be a solution to help distribute the mountains of unsold retail stock that have resulted from the effects of Covid-19 related lockdowns?
This is a really interesting question and speaks to the flaws within the current fashion system whereby brands produce far more stock than they can sell. Brands do this because the cost of incinerating goods, or selling them at incredibly steep discounts is still profitable. Rather than relying on these discount holidays for brands to move their unsold stock, we should require legislation that prevents brands from producing more goods than they can sell. In France, for example, a law has been introduced that bans companies from landfilling or incinerating unsold goods. Whilst in the short term, a solution might be for those brands to steeply discount their unsold stock, the aim should be for brands to be rethinking their production models in the medium term.
Sustainable brands also take part in Black Friday. How does their responsibility approach and the hyper-discount culture fit together?
As part of our campaign, we’ve asked small brands to pledge to donate a % of their sales to Fashion Revolution instead of offering discounts to their customers. We hope that this initiative allows brands to demonstrate to their customers that they are dedicated to clothing longevity whilst also supporting our charitable work. Some small brands have even told us that they can’t afford to sell their products at a discount because they pay their manufacturers a living wage, source responsible materials and there isn’t any wiggle room. It’s only once brands are producing in vast volumes that offering big discounts tends to be a profitable business model.
In a future with a fair, safe and transparent fashion industry will there still be sale seasons and if so, why?
There may always be cases where brands offer discounts on their products, I can’t foresee this completely going away. However, I don’t believe there is a place for a sale-centric day (or really weekend) such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday in a completely sustainable and equitable industry. In order to achieve an industry that really values people and planet over profit and growth, we need brands to find ways of working in which they only produce products that they know will sell, not via steep discounts, and not via marketing messages that manipulate their customers, but on the merit of a good product that will be worn for a long time. To create this change, we also need everyday citizens to become activists and hold brands accountable for their behaviour.
Last but not least: We created a responsible gift guide so people can support sustainable brands during the holiday shopping season. Do you have any suggestions for a product or brand that should be on this list?
Of course! Please do not mind me suggesting one of FASHION REVOLUTIONs products but it is just so helpful to bring along the positive change for the fashion industry we strive for. I would suggest our 2021 Fashion Revolution planner. It is a fully-functional, fold-out, yearly planner filled with information and guidance on how to make the biggest impact in the fight for change - just 365 days of revolutionary action. We do know how much work brands and governments still need to do. But we also know how much power we, as individuals, have to use our voices – and our spending power – to demand change. We can all do our bit, from sewing on a button to swapping a piece of clothing with a friend, or simply thinking before we buy. Planning ahead helps, especially when we are slowing down our consumption, making more conscious choices, remembering days of solidarity, and thinking ahead about our own personal acts of Fashion Revolution.
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