Black Friday sales reveal how far we are from an ethical, sustainable future

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Black Friday saw flash sales in fashion, beauty, technology, and beyond, in which corporations encouraged consumers to buy products at heavily reduced prices. While many took part in the nationwide spending spree, others highlighted the social and environmental costs of the mass consumption these dramatic sales encouraged.

Some took to social media to share their concerns; the GMB Union staged a protest outside Amazon’s London HQ highlighting “dehumanising” working conditions at the company’s warehouses. This year’s Black Friday highlighted the extent of exploitative corporate behaviour.

Black Friday sales

‘Fast fashion’ giant PrettyLittleThing attracted a great deal of attention for promoting discounts of up to 99% off thousands of items. The most shocking reductions included a 5p dress and a 25p pair of heels, as advertised on their website on Black Friday. Boohoo Group PLC owns PrettyLittleThing and other fast fashion brands such as Boohoo, Nasty Gal and Karen Millen. On 27 November, Boohoo boasted “up to 90% off absolutely everything”, selling dresses for as little as £1.50 and shoes for £3.

One Twitter user celebrated their purchase of 56 garments from PrettyLittleThing for £28, calling it “the best deal ever”. Others bemoaned missing out on sales.

Disturbed by the brand’s sale of clothes at extremely cheap prices, other users took to Twitter to highlight the ethical costs of overproduction and fast fashion.

One person tweeted:

Read on...

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Another simply said:

On its website, Boohoo Group PLC states:

We want to operate a business that is fair to all and kind to the environment and we are working hard to live up to these big ambitions. We know that there is a lot to fix in the fashion industry and we are keen, willing and actively taking part in finding and implementing solutions.

However, it is difficult to fathom how the company, which generates in excess of £1bn, can make a profit or pursue these ambitions while selling clothes at such low price points. While Boohoo co-founder Mahmud Kamani enjoys a net worth of over $1bn, several Boohoo factories failed to prove minimum wage pay, with reports of wages low as £3.50 per hour in August.

An overwhelming number of large corporations encouraged the annual spending frenzy, including ASOS which advertised up to 70% off everything on 27 November, and tech giants promising huge savings. The deals are set to continue, and in some cases accelerate, over the weekend through to ‘Cyber Monday’.

Taking the giants to task

On Black Friday, while Amazon customers enjoyed mammoth reductions sitewide, GMB Union projected a banner reading ‘Make Amazon Pay’ outside the company’s London HQ.

GMB is part of a global coalition aiming to curb Amazon’s ‘monstrous power’. Coalition members include Amnesty International and Oxfam.

This follows a GMB investigation revealing that ambulances were called to Amazon warehouses 600 times in three years, and reports of “602 serious injuries and near misses”. Amazon factory workers shared experiences of “working in constant agony, not having time to go to the toilet and a heavily pregnant woman being forced to work standing”

One GMB member said:

I told them I could not walk so many miles and I could not pick from low locations. I had a meeting with a safety manager and was also told: “It’s not what you want, it is what we decide”. My manager told me that most women are working on picking until their maternity leave. I know this is true because I saw ladies with huge bumps picking.

Another reported:

It is an awful place to work, can’t breath [sic] or voice an opinion, feel like a trapped animal with lack of support and respect.

Mick Rix, GMB National Officer, said:

Amazon is well known for unsafe, dehumanising work practices which see our members break bones, fall unconscious and have to be taken away in ambulances.

He added:

Now, during a pandemic which has made the world’s richest man even more money, they’ve been packing workers into warehouses like sardines in a tin.

Enough is enough. It’s time to curb the power of this monstrous company. It is high time this Government heeded the growing chorus and held a parliamentary enquiry into Amazon’s activities.

A spokesperson for Amazon told The Canary:

This is a series of misleading assertions by misinformed or self-interested groups who are using Amazon’s profile to further their individual causes. Amazon has a strong track record of supporting our employees, our customers, and our communities, including providing safe working conditions, competitive wages and great benefits, leading on climate change with the Climate Pledge commitment to be net zero carbon by 2040, and paying billions of pounds in taxes globally.

The Canary approached Boohoo Group PLC for comment but it didn’t respond by the time of publication.

A long way to go

While there is a growing appetite for sustainable fashion and alternatives to corporate giants such as Amazon, this year’s Black Friday sales demonstrate how much more needs to change before big companies are held to account for profiting from the exploitation of people and the planet.

Featured image via Jon Cellier/Unsplash.

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  • Show Comments
    1. First it was January Sales. Then came Cashmas. Now we have to endureanother stolen Yankee money fest that brainwashes the sheep into spending money they haven’t got on things they don’t need.

      BAH HUMBUG on it all.

    2. If they didn’t sell these items off cheap, they’d be burning them or sending them to landfill. And if they stopped producing them, millions of garment workers in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia would be unemployed.
      We need some kind of new international economy, whereby developing countries don’t have to knowingly trash the environment to lift their populations out of poverty. Garment workers typically receive a tiny percentage of the eventual retail price of the crap they produce. How about calling on Western consumers to not only cease buying this instant trash, but send a few pennies a month directly to the workers overseas to make up for lost income? Probably an impractical suggestion in various ways, but these calls to Western garbage producers to simply stop buying ignore the position of millions in the developing world who depend on this unsustainable industry.

      1. The sad thing here is the notion that working for poverty wages can ‘lift’ any ‘populations out of poverty’. Production was shifted to South Asia and Asia to dramatically reduce labour costs, not to improve the lives and livelihoods of the factory workers there. The issue of over-consumption is in the realm of personal choice. Recognising that your notion of making charitable donations to the garment makers of the new international order is ‘impractible’ probably misses the point that, in terms of relative value, the prices paid only amount to ‘charitable payments’. If the production process was gonig to lift the population out of poverty (?) we would have to pay more. Instead ‘we’ allow warehouse workers to earn, what are, poverty wages that ‘may’ (probably ‘have to’) be leveraged for ‘a loan’ that enables the worker to survive our own low-wage economy. It all fits together very nicely.

        1. I think you’re right and you’re wrong.
          The Cambodia garment industry has very definitely lifted many workers here out of rural poverty. With many factories now closed due to COVID (slump in demand from overseas; the virus hasn’t really hit here directly), workers have drifted back to their villages, where for most food is still cheap or free, and plentiful, but families are at the mercy of the next medical crisis, and those with loans secured against their land are losing it.
          Of course none of this was the intention of the Western investors. As you say, their main aim was lowering production costs, and if any benefits accrued to developing countries, that could be good PR as icing on the cake. And garment workers have been, or were being, lifted out of rural poverty, not elevated to Western standards of living.
          I don’t understand your point about charity. I’m saying garment workers here receive say 1% of the retail price, so if Western trash addicts kicked their habit, but sent 1% of the amount they used to spend on fast fashion directly to garment workers here, they wouldn’t lose out.
          I say that’s impractical because it’s not likely to happen, for a variety of reasons. But I still think the idea worth considering, as an alternative, or addition to, this idea of simply stopping the fast fashion machine, leaving millions of garment workers worldwide unemployed. All too often the argument focuses on the environment, and ignores the very real benefits the industry provides, and the effects of terminating them.

        2. Perhaps you meant that I was missing the point that garment workers in developing countries are paid peanuts compared to the industry’s turnover, profits, retail prices and so on.
          Far from it. I’m keenly aware of it, as are many garment workers here. But simply stopping the industry most certainly won’t lift them out of poverty, it’ll drop them back in it – as is happening with COVID-related factory closures.

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