For those of us who enjoy fashion but prefer it without a side of environmental damage or excessive consumerism, days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday are potential rollercoasters of disgust and delight.
On the delighting side: moving a long-coveted item from your wishlist to your closet; that tingly moment when you think to yourself how much better it really is to give than to receive; and the simple satisfaction of supporting brands and businesses you believe in.
On the less-delighting end: footage of people literally being trampled by deal-hungry mobs; contemplating other uses for the $36.7 billion that Americans are expected to spend this holiday weekend; and knowing that some families will congregate at malls, instead of around a meal, on Thanksgiving Day.
With extremes like these, it's tempting to take a "can't beat 'em, so join them" approach, or skip the holiday sales entirely. But unless you've taken a strict no-shopping vow, don't throw in the towel just yet. There are savings to be had this time of year, and a more efficient use of your financial resources can lead to less waste, both short term and in the long run.
Whether it's Black Friday, Cyber Monday or a plain old sale, shop consciously using these tips.
1. Use sales as opportunities to invest in quality pieces.
Instead of buying more, take advantage of the sale season to buy better. A well-constructed item made from high-quality materials is likely to stay in your wardrobe for years to come. Think about cost-per-wear and replacement expenses, and not just an item's upfront price, when determining if it's a good value. Beyond the financial benefits, we can put a dent in our levels of landfill pollution if we make a collective effort to buy fewer things with longer lifecycles.
2. When shopping for yourself, set intentions for your wardrobe.
From major markdowns to savvy sales people, there are plenty of forces pushing us to make impulsive, on-the-spot purchases. Having a clear vision of the closet you aspire to build (or maintain) helps to mitigate these influences–if an item falls short of the standards you set, discounts or sales pressure shouldn't persuade you to buy it.
Seeing the big picture is also helpful in avoiding redundant buys. Great finds can be hard to resist, but ask yourself whether an item fills a gap in your closet or moves you any closer toward the wardrobe you're trying to create. If it doesn't, take a pass.
3. And while you're setting intentions, set a budget also.
Interest charges have a way of making discounts disappear. Once those credit card payments are tallied up, sale items can end up costing more than the original retail price. To actually reap the savings from holiday sales, it's critical not to overspend. Deferring payments (a.k.a., charging it) can make it easier to shop in excess of what we need and can afford, whereas working within a budget requires us to give each purchase due consideration.
4. Beware of BOGO offers, package deals and gifts with purchase.
It's not that BOGO deals should always be a no-go, but remember that tactics like this are designed to make you spend more. Before opening up your wallet, ask yourself if what you like most about that second pair of shoes is that it's half-off, or whether you'll ever use the lotion in that fragrance set. If you've walked out of a store with things you neither want nor need, you haven't gotten more bang for your buck–unless "bang" means stuff that will sit around your house and eventually get tossed. As for freebies? There's nothing wrong with politely declining samples or "gifts" for which you have no use.
5. When shopping for others, look for extended return policies.
The thought counts, but (from an environmental perspective) so does how much use or value a recipient will derive from your gift. When shopping for a present, check the store's return policy to ensure that your giftee has enough time to make a return or exchange if necessary. Many stores offer extended return periods during the holidays.
6. Do your research on for-charity products.
The holidays can bring out our philanthropic leanings, but research shows that shopping is an inefficient way to channel that impulse. In the words of Charity Navigator, "sending a $25 check to a charity does much more to help that organization fulfill its mission, than if you were to make a one-time purchase of a $100 product for which the organization only received $0.50."
If you'd like to supplement direct donations via your holiday shopping, keep in mind that not all charity-linked goods are created equal. To evaluate an item, start with Charity Navigator's list of pre-purchase questions, including whether the product is something you actually want or need.
7. Never mind how much stores drop prices. How low will you go?
On discount-centric days like Black Friday, we're practically hardwired to look for the lowest price possible. But there's a point when these record lows become a little too much like actual "steals," and we should ask ourselves what big costs are not reflected in that tempting price.
It takes a whole bunch of people to make a single garment: farmers, mill workers, fabric cutters, patternmakers, sewers and truck drivers, just to scratch the surface. If a dress retails for $5, it's inconceivable that the workers who made it were paid a living wage. Also unlikely: that the manufacturer used non-carcinogenic chemicals to treat the textiles; that effective steps were taken to protect the environment from toxic pollutants; and that you'll still be wearing that dress this time next year.
To distinguish a deal from a steal, decide in advance what you think a fair price for a piece of clothing is–even by Black Friday standards. Reference companies you trust to see how low their prices get. If you come across a frock that's priced more like a Frappuccino than the number in your head, move along.
Still triple-crossing your fingers that your find was (at least semi) ethically made? Take a look around. If rock-bottom prices are an anomaly rather than the rule, maybe you just scored the deal of the century. Otherwise, remind yourself that dirt-cheap items often come at the expense of your health, the planet and other people's basic human rights; no matter what sticker says, it's a high price.
8. Your wallet is an influencer.
For all the downsides to consumerism, it can also be a powerful agent of change. Use your purchasing power to support social enterprises, ethical companies, and local and small businesses. When properly harnessed by mission-oriented companies, every dollar you spend has the potential to help create jobs, clean up the planet, and bring about social good.