CSG: Owning the Problem of More Consumption

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on November 25th 2019


The countdown is on to another Black Friday, which for many retailers and e-tailers, is still the most frantic, most lucrative day of the year. Throughout its relatively short existence in the UK, it’s a date that has brought about opportunity and controversy in equal measure. And yet, despite the countless headlines generated, only now is its greatest controversy truly coming into focus.

How did we get here?

If you’re unaware of its provenance, “Black Friday” was once just one of many terms used in America to describe the day after Thanksgiving (held on the fourth Thursday of November). The following day became regarded as the official ‘start line’ of the pre-Christmas shopping binge – the point when retailers often began to make a profit for the rest of the year. In accounting, negative figures are entered in red and positive ones in black, and the expectation of profit explains the relevance of the word ‘Black’.

Before long, the day became a chance for competing retailers to gain custom, increase revenue and gather sales momentum. By the 1980s, the practice had become well-established in the Eastern states but was relatively unobserved elsewhere. As recently as the end of last decade, you could see bargain-hunters setting up camp on Thanksgiving Day in the parking lots of most malls and stores across the US but still the term ‘Black Friday’ was all but unknown in the rest of the world.

By 2010, the effect of the internet, and the ‘credit crunch’ on consumers and retailers meant that ‘Black Friday’ had become a fixture in the British retail calendar. With the loss of Woolworths, MFI and Kwik Save, it was viewed by many retailers as the right idea at the right time.

In less than a decade, we in the UK have gone from knowing almost nothing about Black Friday to having very specific expectations about what it represents.

Significant ‘one day only’ discounts very quickly led to unseemly scrambles and even scuffles around the UK, as shoppers surged to claim genuine bargains before Christmas. Suddenly, Black Friday was considered a necessary fixture in the shopping landscape, but it didn’t take long for a backlash to occur. Principally, most retailers would prefer not to give away discounts before Christmas at all, if possible. To some, there was even concern that such naked November salechasing hinted at desperation, even a lack of liquidity – a suspicion no business wants to bring about.

Others were concerned about the additional operational effort and cost, even the health and safety overhead that came with the need to provide crowd control. Notably, Amazon felt they could do better by holding such an event on their terms at a more fallow time of year – ‘Amazon Prime Day’ in July.

Very low down the list of reasons not to participate in Black Friday was the sense that the whole thing might be harming us all by fuelling overconsumption. With such significant change, there is almost always a ‘law of unintended consequences’ to consider. The whole thing started merely as a competitive device to win sales from others. Within a year or two, as it became clear that the buzz generated by Black Friday was too big to leave unexploited, leading to a ‘mission creep’ of more products, cheaper variants and more frivolity. The addition of the adjacent ‘Cyber Monday’ extended the principle further. Retailers found themselves able to predict a planned orgy of purchasing – a phenomenon that people in Sales and Marketing spend most of their careers trying to bring about.

The problems started to occur with what happened next – the effect on consumption. The Black Friday vehicle would lead to consumers being urged to replace or upgrade more ‘stuff’ with more abandon. Prices plummeted – and so, it seems, did shoppers’ inhibitions.

More Sales = More Consumption

Where extra purchases led to knock-on effects in waste, it started to become clear there would be an environmental price to pay for all this extra acquisition. Electronics had become a particularly favoured category for discounters and shoppers alike, but with e-waste already becoming the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, clearly, the compulsion to throw away old tech to allow for a Black Friday purchase has hardly helped to arrest that problem.

There was a similar effect in the area of clothing, already threatening unsustainably high carbon and water footprints to make the product. Black Friday added to the pressures, increasing the amount of clothing added to landfill sites to 350,000 tonnes each year. With consumption bolstered by cheap product, not expected to last, the problem of ‘fast fashion’ became even harder to combat.

The growing debate about the wisdom of Black Friday became further complicated because, naturally, cheaper products offer a greater incentive to less wealthy people. There’s a danger that any concerns can sound a lot like better-off people telling less well-off people that they’re spending their money on the wrong things. Unsurprisingly, where that suspicion takes root, the urge for consumers to act sympathetically is often strongly resisted.

Reversing the Effect

Just when it began to seem futile to expect people to act against their short-term interest, a growing counter-narrative finally began to take effect. The effect of the BBC’s Blue Planet II on attitudes to single-use plastic was particularly notable. More recent activism by Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for the Climate and globally co-ordinated action by Extinction Rebellion further elevated the issue and this year, the Glastonbury Festival took steps to discourage disposable tents and dispensed with disposable water bottles.

As we in the UK look towards the second decade of Black Friday, we now seem to do so with a far greater level of environmental concern. It may not stop us buying, but even if it doesn’t, we’re likely to experience a little more guilt about that purchase than ever before. Does this extra consideration mean we give more thought to the product it replaces, with donating or other forms of re-use being more fully explored?

Until now, our choice between a tempting offer and a responsible attitude to the planet has always seemed to be one-sided. With extra encouragement to think longer-term, how far away are we from reaching a tipping point? Have you had cause to reconsider your company’s position on Black Friday, based on its environmental impact? As a shopper, have you changed your views about participating? Or is it still a fair way for savvy Christmas shoppers to get more value for money? Perhaps the responsibility should lie elsewhere: why should the shopper bear all the guilt from a process that offer such companies great benefits with little additional responsibility? Ultimately, is this all a symptom of a global problem that prizes economic growth over sustainability?

Unfortunately, only time will tell….

Archived: Ringo Starr, Man of the People Or What?

Originally published as a FB Note, on 20 May 2008 at 22:09

So, it’s Friday night, Johnathan Ross is back on and his big guest is one time skin-beater Richard Starkey.

As you’d expect, he’s got an album out so it’s hardly like he’s on there because he wants to be anyway and boy did it show. Now the fact that you hardly see him anywhere gives you a clue as to just how in touch he is with the rest of the world.

When I’ve seen him in the past – and it would have been a while ago – he struck me just as the nutty former drummer, the one it seems that everyone loved but no-one fancied. Okay, I’ll say it. The thick Beatle. Seemingly at the the time though, he played up to it and in the public’s perceptual filing cabinet by which celebrities find themselves thereafter defined, all was well with the man.

Last Friday, that Starr faded. He insisted on wearing dark glasses throughout the show. How cliched is that? Of course, we’re told that the really big stars can ‘get away’ with that – whatever that means. I can ‘get away’ with wearing my football boots while shopping at Tesco, but I’d still look like a knob – so I don’t do it.

Further evidence that to Mr. S, the 90’s, 80’s and possibly even 70’s may never really have intruded on his consciousness came with his standard (for his era) two handed post-Churchill V-sign, denoting the accompaniment of the greeting “Peace”. As a bona fideoriginal hippy, you could maybe accept that he’s entitled to use it still, sort of semi-ironically, like Paul McCartney does. A branding tool, if you will. Me, I got the distinct impression that in his case, it was because he figured it still meant we should take him seriously.

What was hardest to stomach was his repeated insistence that he is a musician. Now call me uncharitable, but I’ve never seen him actually play anything other than drums. Call his vocals singing if you wish, but if that defines musicianship, then I invite you, whatever your ability, to warble an karaoke of “Octopus’s Garden” into a tape and use it to apply for any music shop ‘Singer Wanted’ ad. They won’t be calling you. All of this questionable musical calling calls to mind the old joke that band members everywhere still use daily:

Q: What do you call someone who hangs around musicians?
A: A drummer.

I really don’t intend to be mean-spirited here – well, maybe only a little. I’ve tried drumming and it’s bloody hard work for lots of reasons. It takes a fair bit of talent, a lot of dedication and quite some physical endurance to be even a half-decent drummer. Fair play to the lad for making a living out of it. Where he was really lucky, though, and I’m talking unbelievably-fell-on-his-feet-on-a-mattress-in-a-brothel lucky was to happen to be good enough to be in a band with the biggest, most successful songwriters the 20th century would see.

Would it be too much to ask to see a little acknowledgement of this, a hint of appreciation for being in the right place at the right time? Er, no. Listening to him talk, you would think he really was the third member of Lennon-McCartney when if we’re all honest, being the Fourth Beatle would have suited us all just fine.

Perhaps it would be unfair lay the blame for this selective revisionism solely at his feet. I’m sure that for the last, what 40 years, he’s been surrounded by people telling him how cool and smart he is. It’s an extreme existence, and like all extreme existences, we never really know how capable we ourselves would be to lead it without being affected by it in some ways. Yes, we could all lose touch with reality if the reasons to do so are compelling enough. Could we allow ourselves to be so deluded for the best part of the next half-century, though? I’m not so sure. We’re talking about almost clinically insane levels of delusion here. People have been sectioned for less.

Looking at the guy differently, as I found myself inevitably doing at this point, I wondered, if fate hadn’t given him one the biggest gifts it has probably ever handed out, what would he be doing today. A recently-retired hardware shop assistant perhaps. Only then did I really notice how small and frankly puny he is. Of course he would probably say he’s trim from a routine of gym and dietary advice. Looking at his early medical history on wikipedia, on balance, I’d back the puny theory.

Finally, the thing that puts the tin lid on the whole thing was his clear disdain for his roots. In Liverpool more than most places, the rejection or token advertisement of your hometown is a crime for which there can be no adequate recompense. Cilla Black famously plays on her (“Scottee Roawd”) scouse-ness and yet has lived in Surrey or somewhere since 1966. As a result, she is to Liverpudlians what the hairy haggis is to the Scots – something that’s there for the tourists, nothing else. Even Paul McCartney has suffered from this effect to some extent over the years. You can take the star out of Liverpool and there’s a perception that to some, it’s possible to take Liverpool out of the star – whatever they may claim to the contrary.

It all makes something of a mockery of the decision to have him open Liverpool’s City of Culture festivities recently. Read the lyrics from his new record in this light and they merely become lame protestations about having to follow his own path but never forgetting his roots. Even under the unusually benevloent line of Ross’ questions, it didn’t take much probing to conclude that he probably hated his upbringing and everything the city represented. Let’s not be too judgmental here. Either point of view is probably fine – but maintaining both may lead to accusations of hypocrisy.

Anyway, please don’t buy the record. It’s terrible. If I’ve shattered your view of Mr. Starr, then don’t spend too much time worrying about him. I got the distinct impression last Friday that all the time he spends worrying about himself will be more than enough to keep him in the manner to which he has become accustomed.