Can we shop ourselves out of the climate crisis?

Published: 2019-11-27

These days, shops offer sales on their products even before Christmas Eve, on everything from Singles’ Day to Black Week. But, are they even sales? Or, are they just tricks to get us to buy things we do not need? Some of our researchers in consumption, marketing and organisation at the School of Economics and Management at Lund University give their views.

Photo: Unsplash

Carys Egan-Wyer, researcher in business administration, specialising in consumption

“There is a panic mentality on Black Friday”

The idea that shopping on Black Friday will save you money is a myth. Many items are cheaper on other days of the year. Black Friday is not a sale, where stores discount their excess stock in order to clear it out. Rather, it is a way for stores to encourage consumers to buy unreflectively. As a consequence of the panic mentality, we buy things we don’t need (or even really want) which then end up being thrown away. That’s bad for the planet and our wallets. Overconsumption is an important contributor to the current climate crisis.

If something that you have wanted for a long time and that you will get good, long-term use out of, happens to be on sale on Black Friday, then of course that’s a good time to buy it. But impulse purchases are unlikely to save you money in the long term even if they feel like a good deal in the heat of the moment.

The most sustainable and economic item is the one you already own. Look at what you already have instead of buying new. Can you rewear, reuse, upcycle, swap, borrow or buy preloved before buying something new? All these are economical and sustainable ways to fulfil a need.”

Axel Welinder, doctoral student in business administration, specialising in marketing

“Can we really consume our way out of this climate crisis?”

As a communications and sustainability researcher, I would say that it is specifically amid the Christmas stress that we should pay extra attention to how sustainability is presented. Can we really be sure that a growing mountain of sustainability talk actually leads to more sustainable approaches and behaviour patterns? Not necessarily. And especially not if you consider many of the messages we are exposed to through advertising.

When more and more companies contribute to the sustainability discourse in an attempt to get us to think and shop more ‘sustainably’, it is particularly important that we as consumers and fellow humans ask ourselves the question: can we really consume our way out of this climate crisis? Is the ‘sustainable option’ for me really the best alternative for us? The answer is often no.

The most sustainable option is usually to buy less and not more. Even if you are thinking of buying that new sustainable item in the shop that boycotts Black Friday ‘for the sake of the environment’. Is what you and others already have not enough?”

Jens Rennstam, associate professor in business administration, specialising in organisations

“It's the rich who are responsible for the biggest emissions”

We should have a class perspective on consumption and Black Friday. When it comes to private consumers changing their consumer behaviour, you cannot expect the same of the rich as the poor, to put it simply. It is the rich who are responsible for the biggest emissions, and those who need and are able to change their behaviour the most. This also applies at the global level, where a redistribution of resources is required and we should expect the rich countries to take stronger measures than the poor ones.

It is normal for companies’ words not to match their actions. They communicate in different ways in different situations to manage conflicting interests. When they communicate with sustainability people they point out that they have stopped using paper invoices and the like, when they communicate with their customers they emphasise their special offers and other promotions to stimulate consumption.

These two forms of communication are contradictory, which reflects two of the many conflicting demands they face: on the one hand, they need to sell more to be able to compete and, on the other hand, they need to appear to be environmentally responsible. Often, these two do not go hand in hand. That is why we say not to trust that the companies are taking any decisive responsibility for the environment.”

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Are you interested in learning more on what researchers think about Black Friday? Read more and longer interviews here (in Swedish).