What does it mean to be a sustainably-minded marketer?

Sarah MayerDo Good, Marketing Strategy

sustainability in marketing image with maze font

You might be thinking “sustainable marketing” — that’s an oxymoron. It seems unlikely that sustainability and marketing can coexist. Product companies use marketing to coax consumers to buy the things they make, and then the companies make more things, and consumers buy the things again. And so the cycle continues, and it doesn’t typically involve caring about the long-term health of the planet.

It’s true companies thrive when consumers buy their products. But, some companies are working to be more transparent about their impact on the environment, and they’re making progress in reducing that impact. Marketers can do better too.

Why might a company want to be more sustainable?

Marketing 101 tells us that consumer spending is a powerful force driving the market. A study conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value shows that consumers care about the sustainability practices of the companies from which they buy. The study also notes that sustainability priorities transcend age, which should perk up the ears of marketers that are sitting around creating personae of their target audience.

Nearly six in 10 consumers surveyed are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. Nearly eight in 10 respondents indicate sustainability is important for them.

source: IBM Institute for Business Value

If consumers demand more sustainable practices from the brands they love, then one can understand why a company might start to care about it. Giant corporations have pledged some pretty big changes of late. Walmart pledged to zero out its operational emissions by 2040. Google’s goal is to have its data centers run on zero-carbon power within the next decade. General Motors plans to go all-electric on light duty vehicles by 2035.

Small businesses have the ability to join this effort too, although it may be harder for them to make big commitments due to limited resources. As an example, say a restaurant owner wants to ditch the styrofoam and provide a more eco-friendly take-out container. In theory, this sounds great, but the environmentally friendly option may have a price tag that eats severely into the restaurant’s slim margins. One way around this would be for that restaurant owner to gather together a group of like-minded owners to make a much larger collective purchase, one big enough to reduce the unit price enough to make it economically feasible to buy green.

How does marketing enter this story?

They enter stage left. Ha, excuse the theater humor. Kidding aside, surely companies investing resources into these colossal commitments to our environment will want that be communicated wide and far. And as marketers, we’d agree that it’s important to share this information, but we recommend you do so as authentically as possible. There’s a difference between being green and green-washing.

Five Ways to Be a More Sustainably-minded Marketer

  1. Be transparent. Honesty in advertising is refreshing. Consumers today want to know how your product is sourced and whether you take any sustainable measures in how the product is made, processed, or delivered. Patagonia is really good at using their transparency in marketing. They let consumers know exactly the places where they are and are not able to reduce their carbon footprint.
  2. Source locally. Most anything you would source from a large big box supplier, you can likely get from a local business. It will take a bit more research, but in the end it will be so well worth it. As an example, one of our clients wanted to send all their loyal customers a holiday gift of a tea goodie box. We were able to source the tea, biscotti, and honey from local vendors and the gift received rave reviews.
  3. Continuously and thoughtfully improve. Whether you market a product or service or both, committing to improving that product or service creates value for the customer. Brands can expend a lot of resources on newer, faster, more complex processes and technology, so being judicious in choosing your efforts is important. Don’t innovate for the sake of it, but do listen to what consumers want and only invest in the things that will have an impact on their decisions to buy your product.
  4. Seek out intersectional opportunities. Innovative companies committed to sustainability look for ways to sell their product and do good at the same time. According to Forrester, “In direct response to the events of 2020, 36% of US online adults are looking for ways to contribute to local communities, and 31% spend more time thinking about global challenges like poverty or hunger.” A brand that can tap into this desire of their customers to give back, will likely see a positive impact on sales. There are lots of good examples, but OUTERKNOWN in particular does a nice job. One hundred percent of ITSNOTOK profits support Ocean Conservancy and their mission to clean and protect the ocean for generations to come.
  5. Be vocal. As a marketer, you might be a part of different networks, groups, or online communities. Speak up when you see an ad campaign that doesn’t feel right or where there was a missed opportunity to serve the consumer and the environment. The more we showcase what’s wrong in marketing and advertising, the easier it will be to learn from the mistakes.

We point to our work with organizations like 412 Food Rescue, Communitopia, City of Bridges, Landforce, and Sustainable Pittsburgh as the part of the inspiration that pushes our team to do better in marketing, and to be more diligent in following sustainable practices. Thank you to those organizations and many others for blazing the trail.

Want to chat about sustainability in marketing? We’re always up for a conversation about a topic we love. Connect on social or email us: hello@shiftcollaborative.com.