Climate change and the existential threats of global carbon emissions have become a primary concern worldwide — and not just one reserved for governments and political figures. The topic has worked its way into the modern conversation, leading many consumers to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. In fact, a third of global consumers will pay more for brands that produce environmentally-friendly products.
A good marketing strategy must align with consumer values, and in response, many brands have modeled their businesses around sustainability and have shifted their strategies to provide transparency around their efforts. But before you add a sustainability page promoting your brand’s environmental initiatives while creating a website, it’s important to understand how to ethically—and impactfully—implement sustainable marketing in your strategy.
A carefully designed sustainable marketing plan will help you avoid greenwashing, or misleading consumers into thinking your product, service, or organization is more environmentally-responsible than it actually is. In this article, we’ll not only define sustainable marketing, but show you how to effectively incorporate this concept into your business activities.
What is sustainability?
It’s important to understand the term sustainability in it’s modern conception before diving into how it affects marketing. The 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission first defined sustainability as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Born from this definition, British management consultant John Elkington coined the term triple bottom line, or the idea that business decisions should balance people, profit and the planet. Elkington wanted to rethink capitalism and challenge business owners to consider the energy, natural resources and waste produced from sourcing, manufacturing, transporting and disposing of product material in addition to potential profit.
What is sustainable marketing?
While sustainability can have different meanings in terms of business, sustainable marketing refers to how a brand promotes its socially responsible products and services and commitment to environmentalism. Unlike other marketing trends, this type of marketing is not just another brand marketing strategy to promote a brand or product-–it’s the culmination of your business’ commitment to environmental and societal change.
A sustainable marketing plan also needs to be just that: sustainable. This may imply an entire refresh of your marketing strategy and business operations while still considering your value proposition and customer pain points. To avoid greenwashing, sustainable marketing needs to also integrate and inform core business functions to ensure that the company practices what it preaches. If a sustainable marketing plan does not reflect actual business practices, it can lead to a huge loss of consumer trust.
For example, fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M contribute a large portion of the 80% of discarded clothing worldwide. Both launched sustainable product lines but provide insufficient detail regarding their supply and production chains, inviting harsh scrutiny. Critics wonder if this lack of transparency is a false marketing ploy designed to make the companies appear environmentally cautious.
Benefits of sustainable marketing
Tensie Whelan and Carly Fink of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business wrote in the Harvard Business Review that sustainable businesses, both large and small, experience greater business efficiency and better financial performance. This is important as the cost of climate change is impacting businesses indiscriminately.
Since sustainability requires a holistic business approach, it often leads to more innovation since these companies, as nonprofit digital marketing firm Yodelpop puts it, “look ahead to potential societal issues as opportunities.”
Sustainable marketing also contributes to long term consumer trust, giving businesses a competitive advantage. Consumers identify more closely with brands committed to the triple bottom line and transparency.
Creating a sustainable marketing plan
Sustainable marketing requires a multi-faceted approach. All departments must unify to achieve sustainability goals without deterring each other's business efforts. Because of its transformative nature, adopting a sustainable marketing methodology is a worthy, but complex, process. And the route you’ll take depends greatly on how long your business has operated.
Many newer companies were founded with sustainability as a fundamental brand value and adopted these practices from the get-go. For example, Oatly was created to reduce the demand for milk and the impact of the dairy industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. Oatly’s vision is to create “a food system that’s better for people and the planet,” and their sustainable marketing strategy centers around making customers feel that their purchase creates a more sustainable world.
According to Forbes, 70% of Millennials pay more for brands that support a cause they believe in, a statistic Oatly has taken and ran with: As part of its sustainable marketing strategy, the oat milk company uses a casual, hipster brand voice that speaks to its young, environmentally-aware target demographic. The company aligns its vernacular, graphics and font across all marketing assets to emulate the characteristics of its branding.
But they also know the value of consumer trust and work to attain it: Oatly is dedicated to ensuring all aspects of its business are as sustainable and transparent as possible. They do this by minimizing its impact, creating an alternative to milk, reducing the demand for dairy as well as committing to transparency. The company publicizes its environmental targets and their plan to meet them in its 2020 Sustainability Report. In addition, this document not only outlines the steps they’ve taken to reduce their carbon footprint, but how their product positively impacts the environment.
While the reality remains that no business can produce zero waste or carbon emissions, there is still tremendous opportunity for companies to reduce their impact as much as possible. Oatly is a great example of how newer companies should create a sustainable marketing strategy because it exemplifies how to gain—and keep—the trust of your target audience.
On the other hand, legacy companies often need to update their product and marketing strategies to better align with sustainable values. One of the most well-known examples is Lego. When the company was established in 1932, environmental impact was not a primary concern. But with the increased consumer demand for sustainable business practices, the company announced its new sustainability plan in September 2020. Today, Lego has an entire website page dedicated to its sustainability goals. Two primary targets include a commitment to creating all Lego pieces from plant-based materials, such as sugarcane, by 2030 and producing all packaging using recycled or renewable materials by 2025.
Lego markets this initiative with website images and a YouTube video of Lego men collecting trash as well as tree structures made entirely of Legos. The toy company uses recognizable visuals of its iconic colorful building blocks and of course, the classic Lego man. The connection to childhood evokes emotion and nostalgia, and also screams the importance of creating a sustainable world for future generations. Lego shows that older companies are still able to incorporate sustainability into their business strategies.
Now that you have an idea of what your business needs to do, here’s how you can start creating a sustainable marketing strategy.
Take advantage of existing resources
Keep in mind that sustainability is not a separate sector, but should be incorporated into your entire business. However, the idea is still relatively new and companies may not know where to begin. Here are some useful resources you can use to get started:
The Small Business Administration offers a free Sustainability Toolkit that includes an abundance of information. You can also check out Constellation Energy’s guide on creating a business sustainability plan.
In addition, there are climate consulting firms your business can hire such as:
Lastly, check out these free online carbon emissions calculators to get a quantitative understanding of your company's environmental impact:
Start broad and think long term
As Adanma Onuoha, the Marketing and Communications Officer for the Network for Business Sustainability says, “The public knows that sudden change is almost impossible, so you need an objective that targets high-scale change over a large timeframe.”
It’s helpful to designate a point person or team to keep track of your sustainability efforts as your business works toward its goals. Depending on your company size, you may even want to hire a sustainability director. Once you’ve named an owner of the project, have them create a list of sustainability goals, in collaboration with the rest of your staff. These goals shouldn’t be new marketing campaigns–they should be actionable steps you implement over time so your company can slowly adapt. Once you have a comprehensive strategy in place, start thinking about how to market your company’s dedication to sustainability to consumers.
Promote communication across your company
Your strategy needs to address your product’s lifecycle. While your product development may cause minimal environmental detriment, other areas of your company may still produce unnecessary waste and carbon emissions. Ensure all departments communicate their processes as part of your sustainable business strategy. Product developers, business executives and marketers need to align business activities and ensure that sustainability goals are implemented. If you do this, you’ll not only earn the public’s trust, but you’ll safeguard the business from any unintentional greenwashing.
Form partnerships with other companies
Sustainability forces businesses to think on a broader scale beyond profit through collaboration and transparency for the greater good. Marketers need to consider how combined industry activities contribute to a sustainable ecosystem. According to the Guardian, doing so allows all parties to do away with the “limits of their individual power to create transformational change.”
A primary example of this is B-Lab, the nonprofit organization that certifies B-Corporations. According to their website, B-Lab “creates standards, policies, tools, and programs that shift the behavior, culture, and structural underpinnings of capitalism.” This organization works with business partners to create more holistic, economically-beneficial and environmentally-friendly business models. Those who certify as B-Corps have access to the organization’s resources to help bridge the gap between individual companies. In addition, B-Lab helps unify values and goals while ensuring they still earn a profit.
Another example of an industry partnership is Sephora’s Clean and Planet Positive program. This partnership expands their original Clean at Sephora program, which included 50 makeup and skincare brands dedicated to chemical-free and plant-based ingredients. Sephora announced this new alliance in July 2021 and to be considered, companies must meet four requirements: a commitment to climate, sustainable sourcing, responsible packaging and donation to an environmental cause. All packaging is labeled with a green seal so customers know which products are a part of the program. As of writing, the program includes only 18 brands.