For most of the United States and Europe, this past Saturday probably came and went without much fanfare. A little further east, though, all hell was breaking loose.
That’s because the annual spending bonanza Single’s Day, a play on 11.11, was taking Asia-Pacific by storm. Originally a marketing ploy by tech-behemoth Alibaba, it’s grown to become global retailing’s single largest day of sales. Imagine Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Amazon Prime Day all rolled into one. Then, triple that. That’s Single’s Day.
By all accounts this year beat out any preconceived estimates. This was clear within the first five minutes of sales, which topped US$1.8 billion with 256,000 transactions happening per second. By the end of the first hour, sales were over US$10 billion. As midnight struck, the final tally was a jackpot US$25.3 billion.
Single’s Day has grown well outside the realm of just Taobao, Alibaba’s e-commerce platform. Today, the tech giant’s competitors and offline brick-and-mortar shops take part in what most now market as a global shopping festival. JD.com, Alibaba’s main rival, is estimating sales of US$19.1 billion from Saturday’s event. It’s still too early to know the impact on the rest of the economy, but suffice to say it will have been massive. With just the current figures, if we could conceive Single’s Day as its own country it would rank 82nd, right behind Belarus.
As 800 million Chinese enter the middle class over the next decade, Single’s Day will no doubt continue to thrive. It’s wholly indicative of China’s new purchasing power and global dominance. This begs glaring questions, though, about the values of consumption and sustainability. Production, packaging, and delivery all have an adverse impact when taken at such a massive scale. To create the billion-plus packages needed to send out these new shiny toys, for example, requires over 2 million trees worth of cardboard. Last year CNN reported only about 20% of these boxes would be recycled. Add to this impulse buys returned or simply thrown to landfill and we’re looking at waste of epic proportions. Greenpeace has even called Single’s Day “a disaster for the planet.”
While disastrous in its current incarnation, we can’t be naïve enough to think this consumer tsunami is going away. Although some would like to bury their heads in the sand and ask us to return to the Dark Ages, people love their gadgets, clothes, and travel. Instead, we as sustainability professionals must work within the realm of reality to address and rectify looming issues. A small consumer segment will no doubt purchase products with a sustainable message or history, but most will not. That means the onus of responsibility must take place on the back end.
Manufacturers and designers should work to build more sustainable products, incorporating circular thinking into creation. For those pesky impulse buys, return options should be user friendly and allow for immediate reuse or upcycling. In Shanghai, fashion retailers like Uniqlo, H&M, and Zara facilitate product returns and encourage recycling of old clothing in store and online.
When looking at the supply chain, delivery services must innovate new ways to get parcels from place to place. UPS Asia-Pacific does a great job in this area, particularly in their Hong Kong operations. Using sophisticated technologies, routes are scheduled and mapped based on traffic, location, and time of day to minimize emissions.
For marketers, we must consider the ethics in our advertising. Sustainability doesn’t have to be removed from profit. In fact, they should be part of the same conversation. The challenge is to position products either in a sustainable way or promote well those products sustainable by their nature. I’d love to provide an example of a company cashing in on Single’s Day by responsibly marketing, but I’ve yet to see one. If you have, it would be great to know.