Is this the beginning of the end for traditional Christmas shopping?

Christmas shopping in Oxford St
CC BY 2.0 Cristiano Betta – Christmas shopping in Oxford St, London

British retailers brace for "unbelievably bad" profits this year. Can climate change be blamed?

Retailers in the UK are nervous. The weeks leading up to Christmas are usually when the biggest profits are made, but 2018 isn't looking good. Numerous brands have issued profit warnings for the fourth quarter. November was described as "the worst on record, unbelievably bad" by Sports Direct, and online retailer Asos said its November were earnings were far worse than expected. Womenswear chain Bonmarché said "trading was worse than during the 2008 financial crisis, when the British economy slumped into the deepest recession since the 1920s." An economist at Visa said, "Despite the lure of Black Friday, consumer spending slipped again in November, as it has in seven of the past 11 months."

Analysts offer various reasons for sluggish sales. First is the weather – or should we say climate change? Britain has been dealing with unseasonably warm temperatures this fall, and in recent days has been hit with freezing rain, snow, and high winds. The former makes it difficult for retailers to sell winter clothes and the latter discourages people from leaving their homes to do last-minute Christmas shopping.

A second reason is the uncertain political climate, which has people worried about their finances. Low interest rates over the past decade have encouraged excessive spending, but as those rates now rise, people are increasingly pressed to pay off debt and spend less. And when they have less to spend, they avoid stocking up on superfluous stuff:

"When budgets have been squeezed, consumers have put a higher priority on going out than they have on buying things, leading to speculation that the UK might have reached 'peak stuff'."

Just think of the meteoric rise of concepts like minimalism, decluttering, mindfulness, and simplicity. Change is apparent to anyone who spends any time online, and the folks at Ethical Consumer would agree. Their annual surveys track spending habits and depict a clear shift toward more ethical purchasing in recent years. Tim Hunt, co-editor, told the Guardian,

"We anticipate that consumers will be focusing on making ethical shopping choices more than ever this Christmas in response to the rise in environmental concerns we’ve seen growing this year. Most recently, consumers have been alerted to the negative impact of palm oil and are looking for sustainable palm oil, or palm oil-free products."

Ethical Consumer's Markets Report for 2018 showed that sustainable clothing brand sales were up nearly 20 percent and sales of second-hand clothing for environmental reasons increased 22.5 percent, attributed to media attention on the environmental impacts of fast fashion. People are also avoiding unethical brands: "Over a quarter of those who responded to our YouGov survey stated that they had avoided buying a product or using a service due to its negative environmental impact in the past year – an increase of 65 percent since 2016."

One might say the chickens are coming home to roost, that decades of rampant consumerism are finally catching up. A study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology (cited by Science Nordic) found that "between 60-80 per cent of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption," so we know that personal consumption is a contributing factor to climate change. As the recent IPCC report pointed out, there will come a point in the near future when we'll be forced to acknowledge this connection and change our habits accordingly.

Do I feel sorry for retailers and their employees? Of course. It's always frightening when the only societal model you've ever known is at risk of disappearing. But should we be fighting to save something that is inherently harmful to our planet? No. The time has come to reevaluate which products and services truly benefit us, use fewer of the Earth's limited resources, and cause the least amount of damage at time of disposal. Perhaps that means fewer mannequins in windows and junky souvenir shops, and more repair cafés and backyard produce pop-up stands.

There will doubtless be a process of upheaval as we adjust to a new way of (non-)consuming, but it's necessary. Far greater losses are at stake if we continue to support the status quo.

Is this the beginning of the end for traditional Christmas shopping?
British retailers brace for "unbelievably bad" profits this year. Can climate change be blamed?

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