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How to Be a Sustainable Marketer


Marketing is a tool that can be applied to anything. Sustainable marketing looks beyond profit.

Marketing is about “identifying, anticipating, and satisfying customer requirements,” according to the Chartered Institute of Marketing. 

How can you do that sustainably? 

NBS asked two experts: 

David Hardisty is a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, who studies “green consumers.”

Alena Kuzniatsova heads the marketing agency Orange Bird in Amsterdam, which works with sustainability-focused businesses.

We asked them:

  • What is sustainable marketing

  • How do you do it effectively? 

  • What are challenges and opportunities? 

  • Why does sustainable marketing matter? 

Listen to the Podcast

Interview highlights below.

What is sustainable marketing?

David Hardisty: Marketing is a lot of things. It includes informing people about what’s more sustainable, as well as influencing people, nudging them to be more sustainable. Just informing people usually isn’t enough — we need to also motivate people. 

The third big role of marketing is through the development process of new systems. Marketing isn’t only about communicating but also understanding the consumer really well, in order to inform product development. For example: if a company is developing a system to repair and reuse products, that system needs to be easy for consumers to do. Marketers know how to make something consumer friendly so that it fits right into their lifestyle.

Alena Kuzniatsova: At Orange Bird Agency, our specialty is marketing those companies and organizations whose products and services foster sustainability, so that their clean technologies, products and services replace the traditional and polluting ones. For example, we put a special focus on those companies who help to reduce greenhouse emissions. Our client, Grown.Bio, produces biologically-grown interior design products and packaging. The products are biodegradable and produced with a negative CO2 footprint.

Sustainable marketing is also about the requirement to stop stimulating consumerism. I consider it a professional sin for marketers to generate demand for unsolicited products or services, versus trying to satisfy genuine consumer needs and wants.

David: Marketing is not only advertisements, right? It’s everything about appealing to and understanding the consumer. Being a good company is good marketing. And so you can also lead the change within your company, saying to your own employees, “Hey, being a better company will appeal to people.”

What are tips for sustainable marketing?

David: A lot of marketing is really about satisfying who I am as a person, who I actually am or who I want to be. And then people tend to choose actions, products, services that are consistent with that. So as marketers, we need to show how sustainability is part of who we are in our everyday lives and who we aspire to be.

And if you can make sustainable products cool, that’s the Holy Grail. I’m thinking of electric cars. Companies had been trying to push electric for a long time and not getting anywhere and they were saying, “Oh, there’s just no demand out there, nobody wants electric.” And then Tesla came along and made electric cool — and suddenly everyone wants an electric car.

Alena: I think the barrier to sustainability is the belief that we will need to sacrifice things: limit economic growth or lower our standards of living. That’s no longer true. 

There are so many technologies, products, and services which might be less known, but are much more efficient, and more economical than traditional ones — like clean energy. For example, have you heard about stone-based paper? It’s an innovative Dutch company which produces paper from stone waste without a single drop of water and without cutting a single tree.

If we want to reach wider audiences, we need to show how our sustainable product or service is also more economic or makes more sense for the generations of today. If we just show how sustainable it is to use this product, we will only attract early adopters and some innovators.

What are challenges and opportunities for sustainable marketing? 

David: The market for sustainability is growing — younger generations are more interested in sustainability than older generations. Also, I’ve seen some recent survey data that due to the pandemic, people are seeing how interconnected everything is, how fragile things are, and they’re actually more concerned about sustainability now than they were before.

A big part of being better for the environment is moving away from new material consumption. So there’s still a lot of stuff that we can market like reusing stuff, refurbishing stuff, experiences, digital things, right? That can fit really well with this new economic imperative, where we’re facing tough economic times. Companies benefit, too: they can sometimes make big margins on these products. 

Alena: Even when people want to reuse products, there can be barriers. I personally decided that I will only buy used clothes. I was trying so hard and I live in the Netherlands, where the circular economy is booming. But I had to cancel this decision after looking for used clothes. There are some shops but the offerings are so limited in sizes or choice. So attitudes can change – but the infrastructure is not yet at the point where those attitudes can be realized.

David: Another challenge companies should watch out for is what people say versus what they do. If you’re doing market research and asking people, “Hey, which one would you buy,” people are much more likely to say they would do the sustainable thing than to actually do the sustainable thing. It’s important to measure behavior rather than relying on what people say.

Also, be careful about greenwashing. If you’re making sustainability claims and they’re not backed up, that really rubs people the wrong way. So if you move into sustainability, become educated about your particular industry and all of the details.

What impact can sustainable marketing have? 

David: Consumption is so important in our economic system. Businesses and governments are watching it all the time, and so if we change consumer behavior, that’s going to change the whole system.

People might say we need different laws, but people will only vote for laws and support politicians that are at least somewhat consistent with their lifestyle. So when people change their individual behaviors, there will be a good effect from those behaviors, and it will help change the larger system.

Alena: The problem of climate change is too big to expect that somebody else can solve it. Everybody has a part to play and consumers have too much influence with their purchases not to activate this power. While governments work out better policies for sustainable development, businesses can develop sustainable products, and consumers can use their power of choice. 

What resources do you recommend? 

David: In an academic paper, “How to Shift People to be More Sustainable,” my colleagues Katherine WhiteRishad Habib and I reviewed research on marketing. We identified five key factors to use: social influence, habits, appealing to the individual self, feelings and cognitions, and making things more tangible, so that spells S-H-I-F-T. We have a recent summary of it in Harvard Business Review, called “The Elusive Green Consumer,” and another piece on The Conversation

Alena: I encourage visiting our website, Orange Bird Agency, and checking out our blog, which provides advice on how to market your sustainable company, product, or service. And if you are a marketer who would like to switch to sustainable marketing and join forces, reach out — so that we can work together and help sustainable companies reach wider audiences.

See also NBS’s report on how consumers reward sustainable action: Socially Conscious Consumerism.

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