Singles’ Day, Asia’s answer to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, has once again been and gone. It is a fascinating phenomenon, taking China by storm every November 11th, as young people celebrate being single by treating themselves and friends to gifts. The event is becoming increasingly important to the Chinese economy; last year, shoppers spent the remarkable sum of $17.4bn in 24 hours. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the majority of these purchases took place on a single platform, Alibaba, where payments surpassed the $7bn mark within just two hours. This year, reports are confirming Alibaba has smashed its Single’s Day record once again as sales cross $25 billion. Following the Chinese celebrations, November will witness two more shopping extravaganzas, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, where consumers across the world will take advantage of special discounts online and in stores.
The intense consumer activity is obviously great news for economies across the world and online delivery companies alike, but the November consumer-driven boom does come with an environmental price. Last year, more than one billion parcels were shipped on Singles’ Day, requiring huge volumes of cardboard boxes, packing tape, bubble wrap and plastic. Greenpeace estimates that just a fifth of these materials are recycled. While there are environmental challenges to consider, such as greenhouse emissions and deforestation, we also need to look at ways of adapting the current business model. For instance, it is crucial that we move towards a circular economy, where resources are put back into the supply chain as opposed to a “produce – use – discard” process.
The concept of the circular economy is rapidly capturing attention as a way of decoupling growth from resource constraints. It opens up ways to reconcile the outlook for growth and economic participation with that of environmental awareness and equity. Many companies are now using current technologies and trends to estimate the materials cost savings of adopting a more restorative approach. Leading companies drive innovation across product design, development of product-to-service approaches and new materials recovery methods. These are demonstrating potential to disrupt the linear economy. A deeper and broader understanding of how to capture commercial value across supply chains from a very practical perspective is needed to accelerate and scale this trend.
By adopting a less wasteful business strategy, companies can make better use of their resources and save money and time in the long run. Through its work, The Consumer Goods Forum is actively promoting the benefits of the circular economy, organising workshops, reports and major conferences like the annual Sustainable Retail Summit to encourage enterprises to revolutionise their supply chains.
Of course, pollution and waste are not just associated with Singles Day in China. Black Friday and Cyber Monday can also have damaging impacts due to the type of vehicles used for deliveries, the packaging used and the rate of product returns. Cyber Monday poses particular problems due to the difficulties involved in e-waste disposal and the short product lifecycles of consumer electronics products.
What is clear is that across the world businesses need to work towards a more sustainable way of operating, whether achieved through public awareness campaigns designed to tackle waste at the consumption stage, or taking action to eliminate waste levels earlier on in the supply chain. The Consumer Goods Forum is at the forefront of these initiatives, bringing the biggest names in the FMCG industry, such as Alibaba, Marks and Spencer, Nestlé, Mars, Tesco, Unilever and Walmart, together to discuss best practices for addressing environmental issues. The CGF-organised Sustainable Retail Summit 2017 in Montreal last month covered all relevant topics, providing a forum for debating the best approaches to eliminating food waste, improving recyclability of materials and giving back to communities. Through collective action, we can ensure that the shopping extravaganzas of the future, whether Singles’ Day, Black Friday or Cyber Monday, are more manageable from an environmental perspective.
Environmental sustainability is not the only issue to consider as the shopping season approaches. Social issues like forced labour also need to be top of the agenda in boardrooms across the globe. To match consumer demand during the November shopping calendar, businesses will understandably be focussing on maximising efficiency across their supply chains, monitoring for any operational issues and tracking performance. They should take the opportunity to run traceability checks, identifying any exploitative labour practices in their own operations and throughout their global supply chains.
Forced labour remains a problem across the world; recent UN estimates suggest that as many as 25 million people are trapped in slavery. Businesses must ensure they use modern tools like data analytics to discover and immediately address any wrongdoing. Thanks to initiatives like the CGF’s Forced Labour Priority Industry Principles, stipulating that every worker should have freedom of movement, no worker should pay for a job and nobody should be indebted or coerced, the industry is aligning and making progress. Companies should not just be tracking their supply chains through periods of extreme consumer activity – they should be doing this all the time, ensuring workers are properly protected.
Singles’ Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are tremendously exciting for all those involved. Their economic benefits are there for all to see. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to forget the environment and the people who might be involved in creating the products. While some may call for state intervention, we believe that the private sector can take a leading role in creating a safer, healthier environment for all, as well as protecting workers’ rights.
Director, Environmental Sustainability
The Consumer Goods Forum