Written by Shari Monnes | Boston
on January 13, 2022

It seems that everywhere we go these days, people are talking about sustainability. But what does it really mean? The definition of sustainability seems to change depending on who you talk to. And when it comes to sustainable marketing, the true definition can be even more difficult to grasp.

It’s time to dive in and eliminate some of the mystery surrounding this term we’ve been throwing around for decades. What exactly is sustainable marketing? More importantly, what isn’t sustainable marketing? And what are the sustainability marketing practices that really work?

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look.

What is sustainable marketing?

“In marketing and among the public in general, there’s a lot of confusion about exactly what sustainable marketing is,” said Charlotte Wibäck, Head of UP FOR GOOD, UP’s specialty area for sustainability, CSR and non-profit marketing.

“For many of us, the word sustainable conjures up images of recycling bins and canvas shopping bags. It’s all about keeping the environment clean and healthy for future generations. When others use the word sustainable, they simply mean a practice which can be continued over the long term,” she said.

The real definition of sustainable marketing encompasses both of these ideas. The definition of “sustainability,” according to the World Council on Economic Development, means development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of the future.

“This big picture definition of sustainability encompasses a wide variety of environmental, social and economic concerns,” added Charlotte. In practical terms, sustainability means striking the fine balance between wealth generation for present generations and preserving the natural environment for the future.

You may wonder where exactly marketing fits into all of this. In most cases, a marketer’s first responsibility is to generate profit. However, marketers can work together to develop and implement best practices that allow them to accomplish their goals in a sustainable and equitable way.

“It’s important for marketers to ask themselves how they can promote environmental, social and economic sustainability while carrying out activities to generate profit for their businesses,” said Charlotte. “It’s both an effort to promote sustainable practices within the organization, as well as letting the world know about the practices the organization follows internally – both to create goodwill and to be responsible. Accountability is a two-way street.”

While it’s easy to forget about sustainability with so many other pressing needs on a company’s agenda, there are small steps that marketers can take both as individuals and as a group to make their practices more sustainable. In doing so, they can guard the interests of future generations as well as those of the people counting on them today.

What are the best sustainable marketing practices?

 “It’s not enough simply to proclaim your devotion to this ideal without changing any of the basic elements of your marketing practice,” said Charlotte.

The most sustainable marketing practices demonstrate consistency and responsibility.  “It is not just a matter of knowing the right words to use. It means coming up with a solid plan and implementing that plan with integrity,” she added.

Sustainability marketing should include a long-term plan to take responsible actions and to communicate your commitment to them

Show long-term commitment. Consumers will want to see that your plan endures over a period of time. It shouldn’t be just a seasonal promotion, but a long-range objective with a date attached to it. For example, you might announce that all production will be 100% sustainable by the year 2035. By clarifying that your plan is long-term, you erase the perception that this is just a temporary marketing scheme to get consumers’ attention and reinforce real commitment to the goal.

Include specific goals or actions. It’s important to be specific in your marketing language. It’s not enough to just use words like “sustainable” or “eco-friendly.” Give specific examples of what your brand is going to do to exemplify these qualities.

Above all, be consistent. All elements of your marketing should follow the same principles. Don’t announce that you will now stop sending out paper mailings and flyers to reduce waste while simultaneously using paper to wrap packages. Don’t ban single-use plastics in production and then send out a product encased in bubble wrap.  Consumers will be quick to spot inconsistencies like these.

Switch to digital. If you haven’t done so already, transition your marketing communications to a digital format. Using digital tools can help reduce your carbon footprint and reduce waste. Move your product catalog online, limit packaging inserts (consider putting product guides online, too) and opt for remote training or meetings whenever possible.

What is a sustainable marketing strategy?

Business is not unlike the environment. It is a vast ecosystem in which the actions of any one person have a large ripple effect for the future. A sustainable marketing strategy always keeps the recognition of this ripple effect to the forefront.

By running our business, whether large or small, the same way that we always have, we are on a crash course in more ways than one. Irresponsible use of the earth’s resources brings with it serious consequences down the road, both economic and environmental.

Successful marketers know how to adapt at lightning speed to the constantly changing demands of our culture. To be successful, you have to be willing to innovate and to adapt at a moment’s notice. And one need to which we will undoubtedly have to adapt in the future is the need for sustainability.

The more your business grows, the more you will face pressures from consumers, investors, and from government entities to make it more sustainable. Implementing sustainable practices now is the best way to be proactive, heading off these obstacles before they occur.

As with any other kind of innovation, those who drag their feet will soon be left behind by their competitors. In order to compete efficiently in the market where green practices need to be more than just greenwashing, you’ll need to be ahead of the game instead of behind it. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to look into every aspect of your business, whether it’s the packaging you use, the suppliers you choose, or your relationship with the local community.

Greenwashing – a practice in which companies make insincere claims about their efforts to be more sustainable – is not a substitute for real changes and practices aimed at making a difference for the future of the planet.

Talk to your community and find out what goals are important to them. It could be the provision of clean water. It could be the reduction of carbon emissions. Acknowledging and seeking to meet those needs can bring you the competitive edge you need in the future.

How can marketing and sustainability go together?

The words “marketing” and “sustainability” do not seem to belong together. In fact, they seem almost like opposites. But they don’t have to be.

When we consider the real meaning of the word sustainability, it has two sides that are of equal importance. The idea of sustainable marketing is simply meeting the needs of present consumers while taking the needs of future generations into account.

The goal of marketing is, first and foremost, to help businesses be successful – to make a profit. To abandon this concern is not sustainable, any more than abandoning any regard for future generations would be. Both concerns go hand in hand. So ultimately, sustainable marketing fulfills the goal of making a business successful while promoting overall environmental and social wellbeing.

Brand messaging is another powerful tool at your disposal. Communicate your commitment to an ethical product without passing on the cost to consumers. Present data about your efforts to reduce your carbon footprint, to use sustainable packaging materials or to reduce the amount of energy your production processes use. These communications are valuable in helping you build sustainability in your marketing campaigns.

Sustainability does not have to be a dirty word or a mysterious puzzle to marketers. On the contrary, when implemented correctly it is the most reliable path to profit both today and for the future.

In summary, sustainability marketing should:

    • Show long-term commitment
    • Include specific goals or actions
    • Be honest and consistent
    • Reflect your brand messaging

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