”Since we are part of the problem, we are looking to be part of the solution” was the slogan adopted by Burger King in 2020 as part of an advert drawing attention to global warming and, more specifically, methane produced by cows. These few words illustrate companies’ desire to show their commitment to protecting the environment by adopting more sustainable marketing.
The connections between overconsumption and climate disruption have been clear for a long time: use of raw materials, soil depletion, polluting modes of transport etc. At first sight, the words “marketing” and “environmentalism” seem like uneasy partners. Marketing defines itself as “the set of actions aimed at understanding, predicting and, potentially, stimulating the needs of consumers in relation to goods and services and adapting production and commercial activities to the needs specified in this way.” Sustainable marketing therefore makes complete sense in a world that is leaning more and more towards consumption that respects the principles of sustainable development.
The term “sustainable development” appeared for the first time in the Brundtland report, which was written in 1987. This report, entitled “Our Common Future”, was the work of the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development. It gives the following definition of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It covers three pillars: social, economic and environmental.
Sustainable marketing is a type of marketing that respects these three dimensions. The term was highlighted by sociologist Gérard Mermet for the first time in 2002. For him, sustainable marketing is “a fantastic opportunity to rebuild the relationship of trust between offer and demand, a relationship that has become stretched.” For companies, this means showing respect for their employees and clients, adopting an ethical position that respects the principles of sustainable development and seeking to protect the environment, all through concrete actions.
In sustainable marketing, the goal is no longer to consume as much as possible but to make purchases while respecting values such as honesty, transparency or even localism. A groceries shop might therefore insist on the quality and traceability of its products by prioritizing local distribution channels. They might cut back on plastic packaging, selling loose goods or using cardboard packaging instead, and advertising might be less intrusive. Clients are no longer seen as individuals who must be persuaded to buy as many products as possible. Instead, they are understood as people looking for quality products that they need.
The space itself may also receive special attention. Offices and open space environments can inspire collaboration and teamwork using spatial arrangements that encourage interaction: large tables, sofas, break areas, etc. It’s about adopting an environment organized on a more human scale rather than focusing on profit while paying special attention to the things that support wellbeing at work.
Other values may be highlighted depending on the brand, their targets and the message they want to communicate: self-acceptance and natural products for cosmetics’ brands, trust for banks, employee creativity and innovative solutions for start-ups, etc.
One of the fundamentals of marketing is communication. This also plays an important part in sustainable marketing, as long as brands don’t exaggerate or lie. Some brands let themselves be tempted by “greenwashing”, exploiting clients’ better natures in order to appeal to them. “Greenwashing” is defined as “the misleading use of arguments presenting good environmental practices in marketing or communication operations.” The aim of companies using greenwashing tactics is not to respect the principles of sustainable development but to jump on the bandwagon of environmentally friendly products to sell more. It’s basically the opposite of sustainable marketing.
Sustainable marketing can thus be hijacked from its original goals to serve incompatible interests, as profitability remains the spearhead of marketing. However, sustainable marketing and profitability are not completely incompatible. For example, investing in the use of packaging made from recycled plastic can be seen as a long-term investment.
In 2011, the outdoor clothing and equipment brand Patagonia made a splash with an advert in the New York Times that used the tag line “Don’t by this jacket”, followed by a photo of one of the brand’s jackets. By publishing this advert on Black Friday, Patagonia wanted to deliver a powerful message against consumerism. At the same time, showing their jacket in the country’s leading national paper helped to build brand awareness. Between the values of profitability, ethics and communication, the development of sustainable marketing, while necessary, still retains porous boundaries with consumerism.