Black Friday will look pretty different this year. Massive retailers like Walmart and Target will forego opening stores on Thanksgiving night as they usually do in an attempt to stave off potentially COVID–spreading large crowds, and business for the vast majority of stores will move online, making the shopping experience dramatically dissimilar from past years. The one thing that’s certain not to change? Companies’ sneaky attempts to appear like they’re pursuing sustainable practices while remaining the resource–guzzling machines they are.
Ikea—the Swedish retailer well–known for its affordable furniture—will begin rolling out its “Buy Back” program later this month, which will allow consumers to sell their used Ikea furniture back to the company. This initiative will be implemented in 27 countries. Notably missing from that list is the United States. What does that say about our consumer culture compared to the rest of the world?
Ikea is known and often scorned for selling cheap, disposable furniture, and running ad campaigns that encourage people to throw out their old furniture and to buy more when it breaks. Americans buy into this disposable mindset so much so that Ikea doesn’t even feel the need to market themselves as sustainable to U.S. consumers, knowing that we’re so invested in disposability that we will purchase their products in similar quantities whether or not the buyback policy and sustainable marketing is implemented in local retailers.
However, there certainly has been a movement in recent years, mainly among younger generations, to buy from sustainable retailers and follow ecologically–friendly practices in many more areas than just the furniture sector. Unfortunately, given that sustainable brands by nature cost more than other brands, a lot of young consumers and those from low–income backgrounds are excluded from joining the sustainability movement. It’s simply impractical to expect a broke college student or someone struggling to stretch their paycheck to the end of the month to invest in resource–conserving fair trade products, as much as they might like to support sustainability, and it’s unfair to expect them to do so.
That being said, it’s often a relief for people like this to see that more affordable brands like Ikea and especially fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara appear to be turning a new leaf and make the transition to producing sustainable items while maintaining their trademark low prices. This misleading marketing practice obscures the fact that their “sustainable” practices generally involve some sort of halfhearted pledge to use organic or recycled cotton in a few products that is then used to paint the company as a trailblazer in sustainable practices to ensure that those who have no choice but to buy fast fashion are more likely to buy from their company.
Although any step towards sustainable practices is a step in the right direction, fast fashion and sustainability are inherently incompatible in the long run. Companies that are founded on cheap labor and disposable products need to stop branding themselves as sustainable after implementing just a few practices or offering certain products that are sustainable. Again, it’s great that they’re offering products that fit a range of budgets, but the marketing campaigns convincing oblivious consumers that what they are buying is in fact produced by sustainable means is dishonest and misleading for hopeful consumers.
Especially ahead of Black Friday, we as consumers must consider consequences when we make our purchases, given that our behavior drives the market and thus guides company behavior. Those with the privilege to comfortably purchase truly sustainable products must be aware of clever advertising traps and exercise their ability to push unsustainable companies towards sustainable practices by showing a desire for sustainably–produced goods from reliable companies. These include, but are certainly not limited to, California skincare brand Youth to the People, which not only produces eco–friendly products in reusable containers, but also supports nonprofits like the Los Angeles Downtown Women's Center, and activewear brand United by Blue, which has removed all single-use plastics from its supply chain, practices ethical manufacturing, and hosts frequent beach cleanups.
Although fast fashion and disposable, unsustainable products aren’t likely to ever truly disappear, because sustainable products are often impractical and simply out of range for large proportions of the population, we may, over time, be able to make sweeping changes in company behavior through our buying practices—starting this holiday season.