Sustainable marketing can’t be defined without addressing marketing’s primary purpose: profit. How can marketers achieve both profitability and sustainability?
Adanma Onuoha is NBS’s Marketing and Communications Officer.
In today’s profit-driven world, marketers are often charged with achieving very ambitious targets. Having been a marketer for over seven years, I’ve often found myself sucked into the world of profit, profit, and more profit.
The profit-centric nature of traditional marketing is reinforced by the ‘rewards’ marketers get for hitting specific targets. But as business sustainability awareness spreads, marketers are beginning to question the traditional form of marketing.
Marketing matters because it is very much intertwined with business. Marketing is present in every stage of a business, from ideation to production to sales. Marketers are the evangelists of every business, the business’s strongest advocate. My marketing career has personally been fascinating. I specialize in digital marketing and have found much fulfillment in helping businesses grow their brands online.
I have observed different marketing transitions or changes during my career. What I’ve found most meaningful is the current transition to sustainable marketing. The often-alarming impact of businesses on society and the environment calls for a more sustainable marketing approach. As marketers, we play a crucial role in influencing consumers — either towards a throw-away culture or to make more sustainable buying decisions.
Improving the impact of businesses has never been more critical. For many marketers like myself, not practicing sustainable marketing is no longer an option. The planet needs a new approach But to practice sustainable marketing, one must first understand what it means and its role in the big picture of sustainability.
What Does Sustainable Marketing Mean?
To understand sustainable marketing, I embarked on a journey. I came across several definitions. Some described sustainable marketing as ‘marketing environmentally friendly or green products’ while others stated that sustainable marketing was all about ‘not prioritizing profit over the planet.’
However, most definitions of sustainable marketing are parts of a much larger picture. To complete it, we must look to the definition of sustainability itself.
Understanding Sustainability or Sustainable Development
One of the most authoritative definitions of sustainability is as development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future generations (World Council on Economic Development (WCED)). This development is often pictured across three major areas: economic, environmental, and social. Businesses should create wealth to reduce poverty, but do so without harming the natural environment. Doing this requires thinking long-term and considering concepts like human rights and social justice and natural resources and waste.
…But Where Do Marketers Fit?
But for many marketers like myself, definitions of sustainability are often so broad or general that it feels like we are relieved of the responsibility. I mean, “meeting the needs of future generations” sounds like a job for the government or some big corporation.
To complicate things further, the word “sustainability” means many things in the world of marketing. Sustainability is commonly used in other business concepts like “sustainable competitive advantage” and “sustainable growth,” says Tima Bansal, NBS Director. There, it just means “strong” or “continuing.” It’s not hard to see why marketers might misunderstand sustainable marketing.
Marketers Can Make Sustainability Our Own
One of our marketing leaders, Philip Kotler, adapts the WCED definition of sustainability to say that “the concept of sustainable marketing holds that an organization should meet the needs of its present consumers without compromising the ability of future generations to fulfill their own needs.”
I think we need to be even broader. Once again, drawing on Tima Bansal’s words, sustainability should never be considered the job of a sole organization or, in this case, a sole marketer. As marketers, we must consider how our combined activities contribute to the sustainability of the whole ecosystem.
And, we can’t wholly define sustainable marketing without addressing the primary purpose of marketing; profit. Marketers are primarily employed to help businesses make profit. In fact, many of my marketing interviews have often started with “what can you do for our organization?” which translates to ‘how much more money can you make us?’.
My experiences lead me to conclude that sustainable marketing is simply marketers working together to foster marketing activities and strategies that promote environmental wellbeing, social equity, and economic development in a manner that enhances the business.
How Can Marketers Adopt Sustainable Marketing?
Knowledge is good, but practice is even better. Charging a marketer with practicing sustainable marketing might sound simple enough to an outsider. If you’ve ever had to sit at an executive meeting with managers and CEOs waiting to hear how much money you’ve made in the past quarter, you’ll know that practicing sustainable marketing often takes the backseat.
And that is why sustainable marketing should be practiced in little steps. Guaranteed, marketers often can’t completely change the direction of an organization in one fell swoop, but there are ways we can steer our organizations towards sustainable marketing. Some of them include:
Marketers can work with product developers and other key decision-makers to reach sustainability and profitability. Marketing Professor Dr. Rishad Habib (Ryerson University) told me that sustainability can be considered at each stage of the product development process, from the initial idea to sourcing raw materials to packaging considerations.
The issues aren’t always simple. A product might seem “green” by some metrics but not be truly necessary or sustainable. An example would be consumers buying produce in recycled plastic clamshells instead of buying it without any packaging at all. It’s key to consider the product life cycle, in terms of both environmental and social impacts.
When an organization is ready to embrace sustainability, marketing strategy becomes critical. Issues like planned obsolescence, unsustainable packaging, and fast fashion are direct effects of marketing strategies solely centered on capitalism and profit.
A proven strategy that marketers can tap into is the use of nudges, or subtle behavioral cues. For example, researchers found that hotel restaurants using “simple and nonintrusive ‘nudges'” like reducing plate size and posting signs about waste reduced the amount of food waste by around 20%. “There is a rising interest in behavioural insights and there are nudge units popping up around the globe, said Dr. Habib.
By creating strategies that reduce waste and operational costs, marketers can help create a win-win situation for businesses and consumers while still embracing sustainability.
Marketing communication is “a cultural enterprise that has a cultural impact,” writes marketing author Richard Varey. Brand messaging is one of the most powerful tools a marketer has. Imagine a world where marketers harness their superpowers as consumption influencers to create branding and messaging that stir consumers towards making more sustainable buying decisions.
One of the most exciting things about being a marketer is seeing how the marketing strategies I took part in influence user behaviour and create new consumption cultures. An excellent place to start practicing sustainable marketing is to explore ways to facilitate more sustainable cultural behaviours through marketing communications. For example
Consumers are interested in buying ethical products, but resist paying a premium
Descriptive messaging (relying on social norms) results in consumers buying more eco-friendly products
People are more likely to install solar panels if their neighbours have them
Businesses are realising that sustainability isn’t a one-organization issue. To make a significant impact, businesses must foster sustainability partnerships. One of the most significant partnerships I’ve seen is the coming together of long-time rivals and superstores, Target and Walmart, along with 16 other merchants, to find a solution to sustainable personal care. To address challenges like the lack of a common definition or any regulation, they focused on creating a common product rating system to evaluate sustainability. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition similarly developed the Higg Index as a standardized way to measure sustainability in fashion.
I’m also interested in the potential for partnerships at an even smaller level — departmental levels. Collaboration between companies’ marketing departments should be encouraged as relates to sustainability. It’s time we go beyond the greenwashing competition of which brand uses the most ‘green words’ in ads to actual impact.
Education and Awareness
Marketers are sustainability educators. Every meeting with managers/CEOs and every marketing communications strategy session is an opportunity for sustainability education. We should be more intentional about our role in sustainability education
For consumers, we play the critical role of shifting branding and advertisement toward a more sustainability-oriented messaging. With executives, we can draw on studies showing how becoming a sustainable organization affects the bottom line positively. Given that most business leaders and stakeholders are mainly concerned about profit, it is our duty as marketers to show them how implementing sustainable practices can increase company profits and result in a longer life cycle for products and in fact, businesses.
Not Without Issues: Challenges of Sustainable Marketing
As with many initiatives, adopting sustainability has its risks. Some of these are universal regardless of the organization or group. Here are a few challenges marketers often face:
Lack of appreciation or poor understanding of sustainability benefits by business leaders, consumers, and other stakeholders. In this case, marketers must recognize their roles as sustainability pioneers. Sustainability education isn’t a one-time thing; it should be a continuous effort. Sustainability information should be reviewed, simplified, and disseminated incessantly.
Loss of profitability can also occur, especially in cases where businesses dive head-on into green initiatives without thorough testing. This sometimes happens, in a bid to appeal to consumers. Marketers often have to deal with the fall out of such losses. A solution: Sustainable marketing initiatives, like regular marketing campaigns, must be tested before implementation. The delicate nature of sustainability makes this testing even more important. Professor Habib notes: “People may have negative associations with sustainability, believing that if a company focuses on sustainability it is compromising on quality. Companies can combat this with proper messaging, emphasizing that quality and sustainability don’t need to be a trade-off.”
Reputational damage is another common issue when casually adopting sustainable marketing. You might remember Volkswagen’s ‘Clean Diesel.’ Volkswagen had released an ad campaign to debunk that idea that diesel was bad environmentally; the company claimed to use a technology where diesel emitted fewer pollutants. It turned out that the German car giant used highly sophisticated software to cheat in emissions tests, resulting in a $14.7 billion settlement –and reputational fallout. The lesson: Make sure there’s foundation beneath your statements
If you’re new to the world of sustainable marketing, it might be overwhelming. But with sustainability, every little step counts! The little step I’ve found most helpful is self-education. Understanding sustainability is imperative to practice it. Marketers can start by reading research materials, joining sustainability communities like the NBS LinkedIn page, and fostering workplace discussions.
Here are resources from NBS and other sources that can help you on your journey.
Kuzniatsova, A., & Hardisty, D. 2021, October 1. How to be a sustainable marketer [Audio podcast episode]. Network for Business Sustainability.
White, K., Hardisty, D.J., & Habib, R. The elusive green consumer. Harvard Business Review.
Bansal, T., & Agarwal, D. 2021, March 10. Corporate sustainability – Meaning, examples and importance. Network for Business Sustainability.
Cotte, J., & Trudel, R. 2009. How ethical consumers reward companies. Network for Business Sustainability.
About the Author
Adanma Onuoha is a long-time marketing specialist who served as Marketing Communications Officer at NBS from 2020-2021. Adanma manages marketing and communications, both traditional and digital. She brainstormed and executed ideas that grew the NBS community, and importantly, educated our audience on sustainability and related matters.
Review of this article was provided by Dr. Rishad Habib, assistant professor in Marketing at Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University. Rishad researches sustainable and prosocial consumer behaviours, particularly how consumers react to shifting norms and novel marketing practices and managerial strategies to encourage positive behaviour.
About the Series
“The Basics” provides essential knowledge about core business sustainability topics. All articles are written or reviewed by an expert in the field. The Network for Business Sustainability builds these articles for business leaders thinking ahead.