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Should Social Enterprises Embrace Black Friday?

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that the shopping phenomenon that is Black Friday has taken the world by storm.

Last year Black Friday brought in $6.2 billion in online sales – a growth of 23.6% year over year. But behind these ‘bargain deals’ lies a true cost to the planet and people involved in complex global supply chains.

Large retailers have often been exposed for labour rights scandals and pushed for more transparency, safer conditions and fairer practices. Just last month Amazon hit the headlines again as workers were told to get back to work when one of their colleagues collapsed and died on the factory floor.

Every year we see shocking footage of dangerous overcrowding in shopping malls, and people have even been crushed to death in the fight to bag a bargain. 

But all this “retail therapy” isn’t even making us happy.

A survey by Traidcraft found that 54% of shoppers admitted to feeling stressed, anxious and even argumentative when doing their Christmas shopping, and 2 out of 3 said they would snatch the last item from the shelf, even if another shopper was reaching for it.

Possibly the most shocking thing about all of these stats is that shoppers don’t even appreciate the purchases they’re fighting for!

According to reports, one in ten shoppers do not use what they buy on Black Friday and the 2017 holiday season saw $90 billion of gifts returned to retailers, many of which will be destined for landfill.

With people and planet paying the price for this mass consumption frenzy, it’s no surprise that many activists choose to opt-out and #BoycottBlackFriday in protest.

But for social enterprises and sustainable businesses, this can create a dilemma.

Many feel under pressure to compete with large retailers, but don’t always have the maneuverability in their profit margins to cut their prices and offer attractive discounts. 

It can be hard to stand out in a sea of advertising messages bombarding consumers at this time of year, but small businesses rely on holiday shopping for up to 80% of their annual revenue, so many social entrepreneurs feel forced to engage with Black Friday – even if they don’t agree with it.

As conscious consumers are increasingly opting in to ‘Buy Nothing New’ challenges and forgoing shopping altogether, ethical and sustainable businesses must work harder to appeal to the mass market where customers are still making purchases.

Although Black Friday is problematic in many ways, it’s also a good opportunity for social enterprises to work on their mass market appeal.

Over 165 million people shopped over the Black Friday weekend in 2018 and it’s likely to be even higher this year. 

Forbes recently reported that 77% of people would like to learn more about sustainable living, and in recent years we’ve seen issues like plastic pollution and the climate emergency break into mainstream public consciousness.

There is still an attitude/behaviour gap, as consumers say they want ethical and sustainable products but aren’t yet putting their money where their mouth is – but by engaging with mainstream events like Black Friday, social enterprises can seek to close this gap gradually and get their message in front of a wider audience who might not have considered spending with them before.

Smaller businesses don’t necessarily have to jump on the discount bandwagon to make the most of Black Friday marketing either.

Small Business Saturday has become a popular counterpart to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and recent campaigns like Buy Social from Social Enterprise UK and the global #ShopEthicalInstead campaign by Ethical Hour are encouraging people to “vote with their wallet” and support smaller ethical and sustainable brands – with the focus being on positive impact rather than bargain deals.

An estimated £812m was spent in small businesses across the UK on 2018’s Small Business Saturday – an 8% increase on the previous year.

Just as the American tradition of Black Friday has spread across the globe, social enterprises can use the power of social media to their advantage and connect with holiday shoppers using the hashtags surrounding Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday and the various movements encouraging people to opt for more ethical and sustainable options.

As Black Friday continues to grow alongside a desire for more ethical and sustainable products, social enterprises are uniquely positioned to close the attitude/behaviour gap and give consumers a desirable alternative that’s better for people and planet.

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