Written by Laura Oviedo-Guzmán
As I thumbed through my planner the other day to pencil in important dates for this month, a particular November 11th holiday caught my eye. And no, it was not Remembrance Day; it was Singles’ Day. I rushed to my computer, thinking I would find a cross-cultural sibling to my own country’s–Colombia’s–Love and Friendship Day. I was so wrong. Singles’ Day is the biggest shopping event in the world. What started as a way to celebrate one’s singlehood has morphed into a substantial consumerist holiday, with sales totals four times larger than those from Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.
When I first became aware of the magnitude of Singles’ Day, I thought, how have I never heard of such a massive event? The answer? Singles’ Day is primarily celebrated in East Asia and is not commonly observed in Western countries. Singles’ Day originates in China, specifically at Nanjing University. The most widely accepted narrative regarding this holiday’s origins involves four male, single students from Nanjing University, who discussed ways to beat the shame and monotony of singlehood one night before bedtime. Thus, Singles’ Day–then known as Bachelors’ Day–was born, and so was the custom of meeting up with other uncoupled friends and exchanging gifts to celebrate their “self-partnership” (a term popularized by Emma Watson in 2019).
As Singles’ Day spread throughout universities in the region, other celebratory activities cropped up, like attending mingling events hosted by universities, purchasing gifts for oneself, or going on a solo date to a restaurant. Seeing a lucrative opportunity, businesses like restaurants, karaoke parlours, and clothing retailers began to offer steep discounts on their products to attract more sales. The practice of knocking a good few bucks off the price was adopted by online businesses as well, most notably by Alibaba. This Chinese multinational company specializes in e-commerce and retail.
November 11th, 2009, was the first time that Alibaba’s CEO Daniel Zhang used the day as a 24-hour online shopping event, pioneering the highest-grossing shopping day in the world and forcing other online e-commerce businesses to follow suit to stay competitive in the market. In addition to discounts, in 2009 was when Alibaba offered offline entertainment for the first time. Three years later, Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, successfully trademarked the term “Double 11”, which the company uses to advertise the shopping event it is best known for.
As the years have gone by, Alibaba has brought celebrities like Taylor Swift, Kobe Bryant, and Mariah Carey to garner attention and business. The company enlisted Cirque du Soleil in 2018 to create a “Christmas for brands and customers,” as Chris Tung, Alibaba’s chief marketing officer put it. In 2018, Alibaba’s gross merchandise volume exceeded $30.8 billion in the 24 hours of the sales event, it broke the previous year’s $25.3 billion record set during Singles’ Day. Chris Tung’s and Alibaba’s methods proved effective.
While participating in Singles’ Day sales might seem like harmless self-care practice, it is crucial to note the effect on the environment. In 2017 SixthTone, a Shanghai-based online magazine, published a condemning article regarding Singles’ Day. It cites that the clothing sales from 2016’s Singles’ Day alone released 258,000 tons of carbon emissions. A further 52,000 tons were released during the delivery phase, and 3 million tons were released by placing orders electronically. In response, Alibaba pledged to make packaging biodegradable and to switch to electronic invoices. While that may seem like an acceptable response to the issue, it does not address the fact that shopping frenzies like this continue to demand more resources from the environment than it has available and continues to release more carbon emissions than our planet can absorb.
The environment is not the only one affected by Singles’ Day. Employees, from delivery drivers to engineers working at Alibaba’s headquarters, are routinely required to overextend themselves when “Double 11” rolls around; the burden of Single’s Day is forced unto the underpaid and undervalued hirelings. The same SixthTone article recounts how “freight networks will go into overdrive” to respond to the massive demand for goods and delivery, and couriers are expected to meet delivery times under extremely rigid deadlines. A Harvard Business Review article reports Alibaba engineers will “will remain at the office overnight, sometimes for days at a stretch, catching naps while camped out with sleeping bags” at the company’s headquarters. This same article noted that military metaphors were a common theme at Alibaba headquarters in the days surrounding Singles’ Day, with one signed by employees pledging commitment during the holiday, reading “ONE heart together fighting the war of Double 11”.
Even though 4,000 couples married on 11/11 in Beijing, nearly six times as many as the daily average of 700, Singles’ Day’s original intent to celebrate people’s single status with the community has been opaqued thanks to Alibaba’s efforts to commodify the holiday. Unfortunately, for the planet, for workers, and for people looking to get partnered, Double 11 is a “holiday” that capitalizes on people’s love for shopping. Singles’ Day additionally preys on our recognition, whether conscious or not, that being uncoupled in a society that places so much emphasis on romantic love creates a hole that is frequently easier to fill with a lifetime supply of sorghum liquor or a new jacket than with self (I mean “self” in the psychology sense, which defines it as “an automatic part of every human being that allows us to connect with others.”)
According to Daxue Consulting, Singles’ Day 2021 was a bit different than those of previous years. For example the Cosumerist Retrogrades, a group found on China’s Douban social media platform, “discouraged buying driven by impulse across the platform.” As the tide shifts in our collective understanding that “self-care” need not invoice the planet and that connection to self and others prove to be far more nourishing than a discounted item, many remain hopeful that Singles’ Day celebrations will regress to its community-centric origins.
“Chinese Shoppers Spend a Record $25bn in Singles Day Splurge.” The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/12/chinese-shoppers-spend-a-record-25bn-in-singles-day-splurge.
“For Alibaba, Singles Day Is about More than Huge Sales.” Harvard Business Review, 11 Dec. 2019, hbr.org/2019/12/for-alibaba-singles-day-is-about-more-than-huge-sales.
“Singles Day – November 11.” National Today, 11 Nov. 2020, nationaltoday.com/singles-day/.
Taylor, Kate. “We Went to Alibaba’s 24-Hour Shopping Extravaganza That Is like Nothing in America, Featuring a Mariah Carey Performance and an Online-Shopping-Themed Cirque Du Soleil Act. Here’s What It Reveals about the Future of Retail.” Business Insider, www.businessinsider.com/alibabas-singles-day-2018-photos-2018-11#singles-day-kicks-off-with-a-four-hour-gala-imagine-macys-thanksgiving-day-parade-had-quadruplets-with-prime-day-and-youve-got-the-general-idea-1. Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.Tone, Sixth. “Let’s Make This Year’s Singles’ Day the Last One Ever.” #SixthTone, 2017, www.sixthtone.com/news/1001163/lets-make-this-years-singles-day-the-last-one-ever. Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.