Marketing for Sustainability

8 08 2012

As part of my Masters studies, I wrote a paper entitled “Marketing for Sustainability”.  I would love to share the original paper but unfortunately, in the six years since then, I have upgraded from my tired old family PC to a laptop and moved house a total of four times.  I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t keep a hard copy at the time but the fact remains that almost all of my hard work is now lost.

That said, I have a burning need to share my ideas on this subject so what follows is along the same lines as the original.

Sustainability is a complicated topic.  There are many interpretations of the word and, more often than not, it is misused.  I see sustainability as the ultimate balancing act – the goal being to balance economic, social and environmental aspects of a project / business / community / whatever is to be considered sustainable.

In many cases, a perfect balance is not achievable but does that mean we shouldn’t try?  A small sacrifice in one area, e.g. economic, to ensure a socially and environmentally responsible outcome will produce greater long-term benefits than raping and pillaging in the name of big profits.

So, how do we get this “short term pain, long term gain” message across to the masses?  How do we get them to buy it?

In the past, the environmental lobby have tried the altruistic message – because it’s the right thing to do for the planet / future generations – but in reality, the majority of the general public simply don’t care.  We live in the NOW; we want instant gratification and if it comes wrapped in plastic, all the better.

Those that care about social issues – poverty, cultural identity, (dare I say it) boat people – have invited us to their “pity parties”.  This may seem harsh but I am talking about marketing of the issues, not the people that are actually in need of genuine assistance, and I do see a theme – Oh, woe!  Help us because we cannot help ourselves.

My problem with these marketing strategies is, if you want to sell something to someone, any first year Marketing student will tell you that you have to answer the buyer’s question: What’s in it for me?

Yes, there is a portion of the community who will respond to their need to feel better about themselves, to do something good just for the sake of it, but that is only one market segment.  What about the rest of the population who care more about money / themselves / 50 Shades of F***ing Grey?

This is the problem that sustainability has had since the concept first became popular in the 1960s – they’re only selling to one market segment!  This is not a sustainable business model.

All is not lost.

Environmental marketing is getting better.  Trendy, must-have eco-products that look great and save you money are making an impact and that’s because they speak to the needs of the consumer.  Even though creating more stuff is a bit self-defeating, the reality is that it is becoming increasingly more desirable to be environmentally conscious.

The ultimate challenge will be to communicate the complexity of true sustainability in a way that speaks to each market segment (including those that really don’t give a …) and make it “the new black”.




2 responses

10 09 2012
David Thompson

I wonder whether we need to stop selling sustainability altogether and start selling the benefits – things like increased quality of life for consumers and greater certainty for businesses?

10 09 2012

Keeping in mind that what is required is cultural change, or rather, an acceleration of the cultural change that has already started (with the likes of us).

It’s been done before, but only at major tipping points, i.e. the beginning / end of the World Wars and the Great Depression, which helped give the required “push start”.

The move towards our current consumer culture was a little more insidious, but so is our current crisis. I actually think we could learn a lot from the advertising of the 1950s.

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