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Should sustainable brands take part in 11.11?

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Alibaba‘s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival is expected to rank #1 in sales for 2020.

While most of South East Asia prepares for their version of Black Friday, we've prepared some fast facts about what is the highest-grossing annual shopping festival and question whether sustainable brands have a reason to take part.

What is 11.11 or Single’s Day?

Originally the 11th of November had nothing to do with shopping, and the was simply chosen by a group of university students in Nanjing to celebrate being single in the 1990s. It was an excuse to get together in the sorority with other girlfriend-less lads and chill. It gained popularity across campuses, grew to include girls too, and was soon a university gone national event where singles either celebrated their bachelor status or proactively did something to end it. Some retail moguls were quick to catch on and see the opportunity. In 2009, Alibaba executive (now CEO) Daniel Zhang transformed the day into "双十一", meaning “Double 11” (the term was even trademarked in China and the groups has threatened legal action against media outlets that accept advertising from competitors that use this term)which is now synonymous with a cultural event of unabashed retail therapy across the country.

What is Alibaba’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival?

Alibaba's 2020 "11.11 Global Shopping Festival promotes spending double digits (or more) but is not merely another usual sales campaign. Its success lies in its ability to create an event where lines between shopping, discounts, and experiences are blurred to create a seductive and highly-engaging shopping environment with a communal feel that drives consumers to participate with their friends, family, and colleagues to experience and share under the influence of key opinion leaders they follow. The festival has been described as a "fast-paced combination of physical and virtual, entertainment, variety, and performance" invigorates every single one of the senses". A lot of work goes into preparing for the day so as to be top of consumers' minds and playing on their FOMO amidst an overwhelming amount of promotions and virtual games, and importantly, once open, analyzing the data in real-time to re-course the offer propositions and get the most out of the event.

11.11 sells more than Black Friday

Surely nothing is worse than Black Friday - the queueing, breaking into stores, slashed prices, panicked buying, and then reselling (or throwing away) impulse buys in the days that ensue the massive sales that take place. According to Adobe Analytics, Black Friday should rake in a whopping US$10.3B (39% YoY) in 2020. But that pales in comparison to the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival which to itself has over 2 million new products on its B2C platform Tmall alone (twice the number of new products from last year), with an anticipated highest-ever consumer turnout driven by an estimated 800 million participant users. Last year it only took 1min 08 sec for Alibaba's sites, Tmall and Taobao to hit $1 billion in sales during Singles Day, and the yearly 24-hour 11/11 Global Shopping Festival reached RMB268.4 billion (US$38.4 billion), exceeding the previous year's haul of RMB213.5 billion (US$30.5 billion) by nearly 26%. This year, the sales are spanning over two periods from Nov. 1 to 3 and Nov. 11 with further additional sales in categories usually exempt from the discounts such as apartments and automobiles. . We have seen one-day promotions being replaced by series of events all building momentum up until the "big day" offering all the more opportunities to sell and promote and build up the dear of missing out on the upcoming offers.

Single's Day kicked off early with a five-hour livestream on the evening of 31 October, broadcast on Hunan Satellite Television, Youku and other platforms bringing in 70 celebrities and 17 Taobao Live studios to entertain and encourage shopping.

Not just Alibaba, and not just 11.11

Just 111 minutes into the first sales period of the Global Shopping Festival 2020 over 100 brands of the likes of Dior, Nike, Apple, L'Oréal, and Lancôme generated RMB100 million (US$15 million). Beyond Chinese and Pinduoduo who also host similar campaigns each year, the e-commerce behemoth is joined by a growing list of international retailers — Walmart, Target, Amazon, and South Korea's 11th Street among them — who are stretching out the timelines of their 2020 Christmas holiday sales events after a disastrous year facing the coronavirus pandemic, in a bit to upend shipping and logistical challenges heightened by the sanitary crisis. Here in Singapore, Qoo10 and Lazada are not exempt from the frenzy and you will have seen this purple campaign across most of the MRT stations in the weeks leading up to the event with pre-sale specials and promotions encouraging you to follow updates on new discounts and one-tome-only offers that drive up the FOMO.

Alibaba's green efforts in 2019

In 2019, Alibaba's annual festival themes were “new business,” “new consumption” and “green action,” reflective of the e-commerce industry’s growing concerns with sustainability, while still investing in the global reach of the shopping event. While Alibaba does not limit the type of product sold on the platform, they leveraged what they know how to do best - create technological solutions - to forecast online shopping saving 200,000 kilowatt-hours of energy on Singles’ Day itself through the use of renewable energy sources and conservation efforts like liquid-cooled servers. Alibaba’s logistics arm, Cainiao dedicated a day post-festival to the recycling of cardboard packaging by converting 75,000 locations into permanent recycling stations and to contract express courier services to pick up used cardboard boxes and packaging (we talked about it here). Gimmick? Meaningful? Greenwashing? What about the products?

Sustainability & shopping for 11.11

In more recent years, the Alibaba group has brought overseas brands to the platform - even more so with the recent travel restrictions preventing consumers from purchasing directly overseas - and brands to participate range anywhere from to sustainable shoe company Allbirds. Now staple shoes in Hollywood and Silicon Valley wardrobes, the company recently marked a full year since opening its first store in China and on Tmall. Does it make sense to consumers for a brand to become a part of a shopping emporium whose identities certainly does not lie in sustainability? To Allbirds who argue that in order to access new consumers they can educate about their purpose (and ultimately sell their shoes too), the answer is simple - yes it does. But should they be supporting a shopping spree festival? Last year, the company participated for the first time and released two special-editions of its signature sneakers to celebrate.

It's a tough job to keep a balance, but the group observed that live streaming, a popular sales approach in China, enabled them to amplify their storytelling of their “Materialistic” campaign, which encouraged people to rethink consumption and reflect on the source and impact of the products they buy to Chinese consumers, who are simultaneously showing a growing interest in environmental issues and starting to demand more eco-friendly products.

Instead of relying on cheap, polluting synthetics, we utilize natural materials like New Zealand merino wool, Brazilian sugarcane and South African eucalyptus. While we understand this is a crowded retail time, we also see huge potential to leverage Tmall to educate shoppers on the Allbirds ethos and our commitment to making ‘better things in a better way'. - Joey Zwillinger, Allbirds co-founder

But what if the education misses the mark? What if the products simply became another excuse to spend, contributing to the platform's