Bold moves: How green marketing can help to deliver sustainability

26th March 2021


Greener marketing cover

Author

IEMA

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.

Conscious change

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).

Subscribe

Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.


Transform articles

SBTi clarifies that ‘no change has been made’ to its stance on offsetting

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has issued a statement clarifying that no changes have been made to its stance on offsetting scope 3 emissions following a backlash.

16th April 2024

Read more

While there is no silver bullet for tackling climate change and social injustice, there is one controversial solution: the abolition of the super-rich. Chris Seekings explains more

4th April 2024

Read more

One of the world’s most influential management thinkers, Andrew Winston sees many reasons for hope as pessimism looms large in sustainability. Huw Morris reports

4th April 2024

Read more

Vanessa Champion reveals how biophilic design can help you meet your environmental, social and governance goals

4th April 2024

Read more

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

4th April 2024

Read more

Regulatory gaps between the EU and UK are beginning to appear, warns Neil Howe in this edition’s environmental legislation round-up

4th April 2024

Read more

A project promoter’s perspective on the environmental challenges facing new subsea power cables

3rd April 2024

Read more

Senior consultant, EcoAct

3rd April 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close