In this article I’ll explain to you exactly how I came to the concept of ‘sustainable marketing’ to help you think about whether the way in which you run your business’ marketing is sustainable.
MARKETING IS THE DEVIL’S WORK
I’ve often heard or see people berate marketing for all that’s bad about our current consumer culture. Marketing is seen as the devil’s work; the thing which makes us all go crazy on Black Friday, perpetuates terrible messages about women and their bodies, and constantly lies.
Marketing feels like it’s ‘tricking’ us into buying. At it’s worst, it makes us angry because it’s rubbish. At it’s best, it makes us buy something – but for many people, buying things is the worst.
Even at its most creative and intelligent, marketing is about selling something – a bottle of pop, a car, a dream – and that can feel at odds with living a sustainable, reduced-consumerism lifestyle. Added to that is the incessant churn of contemporary marketing, where shiny, ‘viral’ ideas are prioritised over meaningful information, and swathes of digital content clog up our online spaces while our doormats continue to flood with junk mail.
Marketing is a necessary evil – but it’s still evil.
So how, exactly, can this ugly business process be done in a sustainable way?
a quick aside
There’s a difference between sustainability marketing and sustainable marketing. Sustainability marketing is when the sustainable aspect of your business, product or service is used as a marketing message. For example, the promotion of H&M’s Conscious collection is a sustainability marketing campaign; it’s a sustainable (ish) product, and it’s being marketed.
Sustainable marketing is where your marketing processes are in themselves sustainable.
The next step is to work out what being ‘sustainable’ means.
what does sustainability mean?
One of the most challenging things about ‘sustainability’ is it can mean very different things to different people. Here are a few ways it’s been understood before in relation to business.
Our Common Future
In 1987, a document called Our Common Future – also known as the Brundtland Report – was published by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. This document outlined three areas of sustainable development which should be considered when understanding how to support developing nations:
These three areas are commonly used as a way for organisations to put into place holistic sustainability programmes through corporate social responsibility (CSR). For example, they might donate money to charity, encourage each employee to do a day’s volunteering, and make sure the business recycles as much waste as possible.
The Brundtland Report is also well-known for this definition of sustainable development:
“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Encyclopaedia of Global Environmental Change
In 2001, the Encyclopaedia of Global Environmental Change was published. This included a new area of sustainability: human sustainability.
Human sustainability refers to:
“the private good of individuals, rather than between individuals or societies. The health, education, skills, knowledge, leadership and access to services constitute human capital.”
This element of sustainability is less frequently used, but for me it’s one of the most important.
The ‘triple bottom line’
You might often hear businesses about sustainability for the ‘triple bottom line’. Previously, the ‘bottom line’ would’ve meant profits for a company. The ‘triple bottom line’ refers to sustainable profits, community and planet – or the economic, social and environmental areas outlined in the Brundtland Report.
MARKETING AND SUSTAINABLE DEFINITIONS
Looking at these explanations of sustainability, it might feel like marketing is only really satisfying economic sustainability. It’s designed to help businesses sell more things and therefore increase profits.
However, there’s a type of marketing – known as societal marketing – in which “marketers must endeavour to satisfy the needs and wants of their target markets in ways that preserve and enhance the well-being of consumers and society as a whole”.
This seems like a step in the right direction; marketing which encourages economic sustainability while also taking society and individuals into consideration.
The problem with definitions
When I became conscious of my journey in sustainability, I researched ideas like this. I wanted to understand how the way I worked could fit into this – how the marketing I did for my clients could be completely sustainable.
What I found was that these definitions sometimes seemed to be at odds with the pursuit of a sustainable world.
Businesses believe profits have to be made and, for lots of businesses, they have to grow. Yet constant growth is not sustainable or realistic (think of the housing market or the dot com bubble).
Consumers’ needs and desires may not be in accordance with their wellbeing. My desire is to eat pancakes for every meal, but I’m pretty sure that won’t do my wellbeing any good. Similarly, fulfilling their needs and desires might damage society’s wellbeing, rather than preserving or enhancing it.
We can’t predict the future. We can’t know what the needs of future generations might be, not really. We can barely distinguish between what’s necessary and what’s desirable right now, let alone in a future which is utterly unpredictable.
We have four areas of sustainability: economic, social, environmental and human. Which one gets top priority? However much we might try to spin four plates at once, we have to choose one to start with, and one to keep coming back to. Which one will it be?
THE KEY COMPONENTS OF SUSTAINABLE MARKETING
With all this in mind – the ‘evils’ of marketing, the diversity of what sustainability is, the challenges the definitions present – I came up with my understanding of sustainable marketing. It is a work in progress (just like life) and as I use it with my clients and teach it to my students it will take a clearer form. For now, here are its key components.
Sustainable marketing satisfies the four areas of sustainable development.
The marketing practices I conduct must satisfy each area of sustainable development:
- Human – through knowledge and skills
- Social – through connection and empathy
- Environmental – through minimal impact on the planet
- Economic – through business maintenance
This includes prioritising sustainable methods of delivering marketing (for example, choosing recycled paper or low-energy event ideas) to limit negative impact.
Sustainable marketing challenges the idea of constant economic growth.
While the marketing practices I conduct do encourage people to buy products from my clients, they don’t do so at the cost of the other three areas of sustainable development. Through my work and client relationships I challenge the idea of constant economic growth, instead focusing on economic maintenance.
Sustainable marketing acknowledges its role and responsibility in shaping the future of a business, a customer and the four areas of sustainable development.
My marketing practices and their potential impact are carefully considered before they’re put into use. I acknowledge the responsibility I – and my practices – have in shaping my clients and their customers, and act accordingly.
Sustainable marketing challenges preconceptions of wants and needs.
The marketing practices and strategic approach I take challenges preconceptions about consumers’ and society’s wants, needs and wellbeing. It avoids relying on received wisdom and seeks to see the consumer and society as a complex whole (rather than a set of demographic data).
Sustainable marketing can be applied to unsustainable and sustainable products.
These sustainable marketing practices can be used for any product or service, no matter its inherent sustainability credentials, as long as the client wants to work in a sustainable way. Saying that…
Sustainable marketing strategically identifies the most sustainable route for a business to take and helps them achieve it.
Through the marketing practices I suggest, my clients are encouraged to take a sustainable approach to their customer and operations. This includes developing products or services which better satisfy the four areas of sustainable development, with the support of other experts.
For many people, marketing is a necessary evil which contributes to our obsessively consumerist culture. It seems to work entirely for economic benefit, despite specific types of marketing – like societal marketing – attempting to benefit individuals and society.
When thinking about doing marketing in a sustainable way, historic definitions can result in conflict between business operations, individual needs, societal wellbeing and the unpredictable needs of future consumers.
Yet I think there are ways we can create sustainable marketing. As my own practices develop, I’ll be able to give you more and more specific examples. But for now, sustainable marketing at its core is about fulfilling the four areas of sustainable development, challenging preconceptions and acknowledging its responsibilities.
Take a look at the way in which you run your own (or your clients’) marketing. Try applying the key components I’ve outlined above and see whether it makes your job easier, more enjoyable and more successful.