How do discounts and sales hurt the environment?

You may have noticed discounts ramping up recently. Sales seem to be more frequent, practically turning into all-year events instead of a few days scattered throughout the year. As a result, it is not uncommon for consumers to hold off on buying an item at full price since they can wait a few weeks and get it on sale. This is causing brands to use discounting more to move products. The cycle continues between consumers and brands, expecting discounts and providing discounts until nothing sells for full price ever again. Meanwhile, never-ending sales are wreaking havoc on the environment.

The most obvious impact on the planet is overconsumption. When consumers see something on sale, they think they are getting a good deal and are more likely to buy it, even if they don’t need it. Discounts promote unnecessary shopping, especially in developed countries. Overconsumption of cheap clothes leads to more trash in landfills, pollution in the atmosphere, and human rights problems like unsafe working conditions in garment factories. All issues that are more likely to affect those living in developing countries negatively, and may not be realized by shoppers who are excessively buying clothes on sale.

Consumers are also becoming more disconnected from the “true cost” of clothing. The term, made popular by a documentary of the same name, refers to the environmental and human issues caused by cheap fashion. The $15 sweater from Boohoo would cost significantly more if it had been made with environmentally-friendly materials and ethical labor. But since the cheap sweater does exist, clothing produced sustainably looks too expensive in comparison. Sales have the same effect, making sustainable fashion seem unnecessarily pricey. So now many environmentally-focused brands offer discounts to get consumers who don’t want to buy at full price. This leads to another issue; shoppers are thinking that brands are purposely pricing their clothes too high to accommodate discounts. If a brand can afford to put their products on sale, they were too expensive in the first place. That logic further causes a drift from the reality of what it takes to make clothing and the price consumers pay.

The truth is many brands don’t plan for discounts when they are pricing their products. Some sales happen every year — Black Friday — but some sales and discounts are simply a result of a slowdown in shopping — COVID-19. So when clothes sell for a discounted price, profit margins decrease. A side-effect of this is less money for initiatives that would advance the brand; environmental initiatives are an example. Less money for sustainability projects is a significant setback since most fashion industry changes are a result of brand actions. It’s not just future goals for sustainability that suffer from falling profits. Initiatives already in place are at risk if a brand struggles; dropping profits due to COVID-19 have seen big retailers canceling orders from their suppliers and not paying what they owe. This has resulted in a substantial human rights crisis, which prompted social media activists to respond with #payup, proving that when a brand turns to discounts to sell, revenue becomes a priority over people and the planet.

Offering discounts or sales on fashion items is not new, nor is it unique to a specific retailer type. Sustainable brands offer special promotions all the time, rarely considering that it could have a negative environmental impact. Unfortunately, discounts have become a necessary evil in the current fashion industry. To change this, there needs to be a reset among brands and consumers and a recognition that sustainability goes beyond the physical product.


Brands have the power to become more sustainable and stop discounts and sales. If not for the environment, then at least for the image of their company. Forbes, Business of Fashion, and Fast Company have all written about how discounting causes consumers to second guess the quality of what they are buying. Consumers should be confident that what they are buying is high quality and worth the price, especially if a brand is claiming to be sustainable. Luxury and independent brands have already created a reputation for seldom discounting their clothes. Usually, this is to keep brand prestige or protect profits, but other retailers could use it for marketing. Imagine if Madewell said they would decrease the frequency of their discounting to curb overconsumption and educate consumers about the cost of responsible fashion. Sustainability is not just about using organic cotton and recycling jeans; to be a sustainable brand, the company's culture needs to change as well. This includes the frequency of sales and discounts.