Instead of novelty days that encourage people to shop, we need business models that really challenge the neophilic and disposable nature of consumer society.
Black Friday and White Monday
By now, most of us know all about Black Friday, the Friday after Thanksgiving, which is often described as the busiest shopping day of the year. In total, Swedes spent 7,1 billion crowns on Black Friday 2019. Every third Swede bought something on that day with each shopper spending, on average, 2 980 crowns1. By now, it is well understood that our consumption habits are unsustainable. In Sweden, we use our share of the Earth’s annual resources within the first four months of the year. After April, we are living on resources borrowed from future generations2.
Enter White Monday. White Monday (which falls on the Monday before Black Friday) started in 2017 in Malmö and was originally envisaged as a buy nothing day to raise awareness about the excessive, unnecessary and harmful over-consumption associated with Black Friday. Since then, the movement has grown in popularity with over 550 international businesses, organisations and influencers involved in 2020, according to their own website3. The #whitemonday hashtag has been used around 27 000 times on Instagram so far.
In 2020, White Monday became Circular Monday. Instead of a buy nothing day, it is now a buy circular day when consumers are encouraged to shop from businesses that operate a circular business model. A circular business model is one that is keeps products and materials in use, designing out waste and minimising the use of new resources. Examples include second-hand stores, sharing platforms, and repair services. Instead of encouraging people to stop shopping, Circular Monday offers consumers the chance to explore shopping that is more sustainable. And it offers circular retailers the opportunity to promote their products and services.
Better but not unproblematic
This change from White to Circular Monday is significant. The message is no longer one of outright resistance to consumer culture. Instead, Circular Monday is complicit in perpetuating the idea that we can buy ourselves out of the climate emergency, i.e. that we can solve the environmental crisis if consumers can just be convinced to buy the right things instead of the wrong things. Researchers are now beginning to understand that this focus on responsibilising the consumer is problematic because it distracts us from the role of the wider economic system (which also includes retailers, manufacturers, platforms and governments) in promoting overconsumption and the urgent need to reform that economic system.
When we need to buy something new, it is, of course, better for the environment to choose something produced in the circular economy than the linear one. New resources are not extracted in order to create the new product and items are removed from the waste flow. However, the question is whether we are actually buying things we need. If shopping circular is merely a salve that soothes our conscience and makes us feel better about buying unnecessary things, it doesn’t really matter that no new resources were extracted to make it. The energy used to (re)produce the circular item, to package it and to transport it, is a negative entry on the climate balance sheet even if feel that we are doing something positive.
More circular and sustainable retail business models
Instead of novelty days that encourage people to shop, we need business models that really challenge the neophilic and disposable nature of consumer society. One example is the model employed by Green Furniture concept, a Malmö-based, international company that sells products, made from recycled wood, with a lifetime guarantee4. They will repair the product if necessary, remove it when the customer no longer needs it and upcycle the waste into new furniture. In this way, the retailer takes responsibility for the whole life cycle of the product and ensures that the raw materials are reused when the life of the product is over. It is in the retailer’s best interest to sell a durable and long-lasting product, which is also good for the environment. Less waste is created. Less resources are extracted. And less emissions are generated in production processes.
Green Furniture Concept is an extreme example but a retailer does not need to overhaul their whole business model in order to operate in a more circular manner. In a perhaps more accessible example, Gneiss make long lasting children’s outerwear and their messaging centres on the durability of their products and the possibility of reselling them after use. Their Recycle Friday campaign (an alternative to Black Friday) in 2018 instructed consumers on how to prepare and photograph their kids’ clothes for resale. This is a strategy that might be attainable for many more retailers. Imagining their products having more than one life, planning manufacturing for multiple lives and messaging around the possibility of resale. This may also allow retailers to sell products at higher price, offsetting any potential reduction in volume.
Issues of sustainability are rarely black and white. Instead, there are many grey areas. Circular Monday’s message to consumers may not be ideal, encouraging them (perhaps) to transfer their purchases to circular businesses without necessarily reflecting on the wider problems of over-consumption. However, it opens up for necessary discussions about the problems of overconsumption and its systemic causes. It may, hence, encourage more retailers to transform from linear to circular business models, which is definitely something positive in terms of long-term sustainability. While we can’t shop our way out of the climate crisis, we urgently need more circular retail business models, especially those that allow retailers to retain revenue flows while simultaneously selling less products.
Carys Egan-Wyer, Centrum för handelsforskning