As sustainability gathers momentum in the minds of consumers, companies must take action to keep up, says John Grant
Green marketing has an important role to play in the next phase of the economy. By ‘joining the dots’ and making sustainability visible, tangible and exciting it is accelerating and amplifying the sustainable change going on behind the scenes. The transport industry was moving in the direction of electric vehicles, on-demand models (rather than ownership) and lighter forms of public mobility, but it took the visible success of brands such as Tesla, ‘Boris bikes’ and Brompton bicycles to start shifting the culture.
Climate change concerns have spiked globally during the past three years. Under pressure from consumers, investors, governments and employees, many companies are setting ambitious ‘science-based’ targets and fundamentally changing their strategies to include sustainability. The current gold standard is a commitment to be ‘people and planet positive’ (IKEA), ‘regenerative’(Walmart), ‘resource positive’ (Starbucks) – in other words, to make a ‘net good’ impact.
Much of what these companies commit to will be achieved through farming, energy, transport, materials, manufacturing and recycling, not by marketing in the limited sense of brand, communications or selling things. However, marketing does have a role to play in leading and setting public expectations. Increasingly, the brands that catch the public imagination are those with sustainability and social good at their core. Impossible Foods, Oatly, Ben & Jerry’s, Tesla, Adidas Parley and The Real Real are the new ‘superbrands’. Where once ‘cool’ was dictated by technology or design, a new global generation wants products that are planet-cooling and conscious. Vegan beauty, clean eating and eco fashion are no longer contradictions in terms, as a new generation of company founders brings a responsible sensibility to bear, as well as social media skills. And movements such as B Corp are enabling these entrepreneurial paradigm-shifters to share and support each other.
With this wave of exciting and authentic successes comes a bandwagon. Environment, social and governance stocks are ‘overheating’ in the investment world; Tesla’s rose 700% in 2020, making Elon Musk the richest man on earth. One reason for this was the US’s turn towards climate-positive policies under its new president. This bandwagon is a positive force in encouraging mainstream companies to put more pace and resources behind greener marketing and innovation. Unilever has reached a point where, as CEO Alan Jope explained, it “will dispose of brands that we feel are not able to stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny, your skin soft, your clothes whiter or your food tastier." Marketing careers are now built on high-profile purpose campaigns that further the public good in the realms of diversity, sustainability or economic justice.
Improvement, not perfection
However, with that bandwagon inevitably comes an increase in greenwashing – brands and companies trying to appear greener than they actually are. The simplest way to avoid greenwashing is to put your money into innovation, education and things that make a difference, rather than simply proclaiming environmental virtue. When consumers demand action, you need to let people know what you are doing and, where appropriate, encourage them to reward your efforts.
Most greenwashing is not of the classic ‘fig leaf’ variety, such as the oil company Chevron showing off the butterfly sanctuary it funded – more often, it simply misinformed or misjudged, with companies making unsubstantiated, exaggerated or misleading claims. Lavazza Eco Tierra coffee tins used to carry a prominent “100% sustainable” label – a misunderstanding of the Rainforest Forest scheme’s requirement that a company must state clearly what percentage of its contents are certified (in this case 100%, because the contents were coffee beans only). It was mistranslated into a claim that Lavazza Eco Tierra, as a brand, was 100% sustainable. You don’t have to spend long in sustainability to realise that nothing is perfect – what’s important is improvement.
The other thing that can hinder greener marketing is a disconnect between a company’s sustainability strategy and its mindset, working methods and culture. Pioneers within these organisations need to become adept at ‘hacking’ the system. Companies are starting to realise that the models applied to digital transformation – favouring initiative, agility and less command and control – can help. Every marketing department has its ardent ‘greenies’, but many of these people struggle to get their more radical proposals approved. At Unilever, if these people have a bright idea they can step outside ‘business as usual’ and apply to a US$1bn fund for climate and nature, which operates like an internal venture capital fund.
Delivering the goods
Despite the global pandemic and economic challenges, the green marketing scene is vibrant, well supported and established. We now need to accelerate our efforts in order to deliver what companies have been pledging. Some of it, such as getting behind positive trends, will be easy. Some of it will be harder, because we can’t keep consuming, throwing away and growing the economy in the same way as we always have done. The competitive ‘rule of the jungle’ in marketing has not changed – there will be winners and losers. But those who are bold enough to disrupt are no longer on the fringe; they have every chance of seeing success at a scale and pace not witnessed since the internet boom.
John Grant is a communication strategist and author of Greener Marketing (Wiley, 2020).
12th March 2021