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So long Black Friday: Reinventing consumption

5-minute read

September 15, 2023

Businesses make stuff, people buy stuff. And in the process, an untenable amount of carbon is spewed into the air, endangering the future of all living creatures, including us humans. To reverse the impact, we need to reinvent how, when and what we consume. Doing so requires a cultural reinvention of sustainability.

Reduce scope 3 emissions. 3. Reinvent consumerism.
Reduce scope 3 emissions. 3. Reinvent consumerism.

Why? Because consumption is driven by cultural habits and expectations, as well as people’s values surrounding wealth and status, ownership and sharing, belonging and novelty. To a large extent, businesses shape consumption behaviors by appealing to these values through both the products and services they create and how they market them with communications and advertising.

Promotional strategies can encourage unsustainable behaviors and consumption patterns. Propositions like ‘frictionless purchasing’ with easy returns, disposable products and ‘buy-now-or-miss-out-forever’ help to normalize accumulation and waste. Businesses can rechoreograph these dynamics with circular and regenerative modes of innovation that prioritize longer-term promises and multi-dimensional ideas of value instead, refocusing their power to shape people’s desires and expectations in ways that take planetary and non-human species into account more fully.

This effort must not be one-directional where organizations focus all their energy on trying to influence their customers. At COP26 we spoke about the need for organizations to reduce the burden on people. It’s a two-way street where organizations and people begin to relate in new ways, including interactions between customers and organizations, employees and leaders, and cross-organizational relationships.

Sustainability itself also needs an overhaul. Most people, 3 in 5, don’t strongly relate to the idea of living sustainably.1 We have an opportunity to change how sustainability is defined, how people connect with it, and how organizations attempt to stimulate action. By making sustainability more human, we can align with people’s lives better, lighting a path to more widespread and wholesale engagement. We think this opportunity is significant and necessary. This is Our Human Moment.

Extending responsibility

Organizations are already pressured to extend their responsibilities in this direction. As Scope 3 emissions emerge as a regulatory imperative for businesses globally, the importance of customer experience is being joined by the importance of sustainable experience.2 A powerful cohort of other stakeholders (shareholders, employees, and even the children of CEOs) are increasingly concerned about how products are made and consumed. In response, businesses will need to unite their efforts to improve product/service design and product/user experience with a concern for product lifecycle design.

As their remits extend to encompass longer timeframes of ownership and usage, and systemic understandings of consumer behavior, product and marketing managers will be encouraged to think less about ‘consumption moments’, one-off promotions and single-use products.

Within the organization, chief marketing officers will be on the hook to deliver products and services in ways that meet people’s expectations of sustainable value; effectively marrying consumer demand signals and behavior with production practices. In short: they will be encouraged to take on even more responsibility for what is produced, and not just how it's marketed.

Walking the walk

These days, corporate walls are more like windows. Missteps and malfeasance are routinely outed by members of the public and regulators when the “talk” doesn’t align with the “walk.” Given such momentum, there’s an imperative to ensure internal activity mirrors what is said and done externally. Yet, misalignment remains commonplace. In 2020, the European Commission found that a considerable share of environmental claims (53.3%) provide vague, misleading or unfounded information.3 In response, the Commission published its Green Claims Directive proposal in March 2023, which aims to contribute to “the fight against greenwashing” with new requirements for the substantiation and accuracy of environmental labeling, messaging and advertising, with significant penalties for non-compliance.4

With similar momentum, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is reviewing its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, which could lead to stricter penalties for misrepresentative sustainability marketing.5 All talk and no action might soon make even less financial sense than it does today.

Aligning organizational activity with public-facing sustainability messaging also matters because genuinely sustainable action creates a sense of brand sincerity that fosters loyalty and new ways to generate value. Globally, 74% say sustainable practices and commitments are an important consideration when making purchase decisions, and 80% agree that clear demonstrations of a sustainability commitment add value to a brand.6

In particular, a poor environmental record is one of people’s top three concerns when deciding whether to buy from a brand.7 The consumer demand for action stretches right through the value chain with 76% of people believing it's important or very important that companies live up to their environmental commitments along the supply chain.8 Any attempt to paint a positive but misleading picture of sustainability credentials, whether through a lack of data and understanding or an explicit attempt to mislead, promises to harm relationships with consumers and businesses’ achievements too.

Rewriting the narrative

Brands need to seize the opportunity to reinvent consumption by doing their part to change mainstream culture. How? Through storytelling, businesses can create new consumption myths and metaphors that incite new behaviors; ones that introduce people to the importance and potential of sustainability without relying on complex explanations or abstract terminology. Through compelling narratives, brands can capture collective imaginations and bring alternative realities into view.

If this all sounds a little conceptual, consider IKEA. The Swedish furniture giant rewrote the Black Friday trope. During the last weekend in November, instead of focusing on frenetic bargain-hunting, the company emphasized its “Buyback and Resell” scheme where customers gain store credit for returning their used furniture for resale. Ikea’s effort to reverse cultural expectations of ‘limited time offers’ stood against business-as-usual practices and signified how things can change.

Or take Coors Light. The Molson Coors beer brand opened a pop-up store in New York called the “Plastic-Free Future Mart.” Everything from the products to the walls, to even the ink used on the signage was made from 100% plastic-free sustainable materials, including biodegradable spent grain boards made from brewery waste.

Getting started

Sustainability can be difficult to fully grasp. And even harder to understand when considering exactly what to do and what not to do. To guide efforts, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Focus on the big targets

When it comes to consumption, nothing is set in stone. Radical reinvention is possible. That reinvention needs to start with consumers who have above-median incomes. The top 1% of global emitters are responsible for almost one-fourth of greenhouse gas emissions growth since 1990 most especially because demand for energy intensive luxury goods and services, such as package holidays and vehicle fuel, has risen with higher incomes.9

Those with more to spend not only consume more but also have less incentive to consume sustainably to save money (e.g. when buying second-hand items). Changing their behavior will have an outsized impact on carbon emissions but it will require significant shifts in culture. Brands and organizations can lead the way.

Simplify messages

To embed sustainability throughout a company, and reinvent consumption in the process, simplification is our friend. We must make sustainability terminology, science, ideas, demands, and opportunities easy to grasp and apply. An example of this is our work with Project Everyone. In 2016, 193 countries united to adopt a world-changing plan – 17 Sustainable Development Goals aimed at tackling the world’s biggest challenges.

However, when creating a new way to promote the goals, we quickly learned that most people struggle to understand them. So, we created the World's To-Do List using sticky notes. Each hand-written goal was ‘placed’ in iconic locations across the globe before our film launched at the UN General Assembly. With the vehicle of simplification, the SDGs became accessible and intelligible for everyone.

Be honest

If sustainable consumption is to become both relevant and actionable for people, everyone involved needs to be more honest about both the trials and the tribulations involved. That means owning up to failures and asking for help from partners. Sustainability could become more collaborative and less exclusive in its terminology if we make it more human. Such inclusivity and honesty would foster more equitable, and therefore more valuable dialogue between people and organizations.


Organizations are uniquely placed to reinvent consumption by continuing to do what they’ve always done brilliantly – shifting culture and creating new behaviors. But today, everything must be done with new sustainable ambitions and practices in sight.

Examples of how this reinvention can happen are emerging already. With fewer stakeholders, smaller organizations might be able to reinvent more nimbly, but some of the world’s largest companies are going against the grain of traditional stakeholder expectations and discovering new forms of value in the process. This reinvention happens when we unite creativity with sustainability expertise. We can blend new modes of communication and design with circular modes of manufacturing and distribution. We can create new consumer experiences with equity and inclusivity baked in.

And we can find new ways to talk about sustainability that are relevant to people’s lives rather than abstract or alien to them. Black Friday remains a cultural event, but with the right level of collective effort it could move from people’s calendars to the history books.

Embedding sustainability

This blog is part of a series discussing how leaders can embed sustainability into different aspects of their organizations to create value and impact. The other topics are:


  • Mark Curtis, Sustainability Lead – Accenture Song
  • Oliver Pattenden, Global Research and Insight Director – Accenture Song Sustainability Studio