The ever-increasing hyper competition in the business world today has made firms so fixated on profit and more profits. At the end of each financial year, shareholders are eager to know how much profits their firms made. After all, one of the basic expectations of firms is the maximisation of shareholders wealth. However, recent developments have brought to fore the importance of sustainability; and firms, as a result, are now incorporating sustainability in their operations. As espoused by Miller (2020), business leaders are increasingly recognising the power of sustainable business strategies in not only addressing the world’s most pressing challenges, but also as a means to achieving competitive advantage in today’s very crowded and highly competitive marketing place.
In the business world, some companies have been rapidly adopting the sustainability mindset and consequently have begun to evaluate themselves according to the triple bottom line. This measurement of performance includes three areas: people, profit and planet. So, while businesses must be profitable in order to survive, for them to be sustainable they need to equally consider the other two priorities of people – all stakeholders in and outside the company– and the planet.
What then is sustainable marketing?
The term ‘sustainability’ embraces anything from environmental conservation to factory conditions, to employee relations, and much in between. Accordingly, incorporating sustainability into a firm’s strategy and operations can be daunting.
The World Council of Economic Development defines sustainability as development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future generations. Sustainable marketing is the promotion of environmentally and socially responsible products, practices and brand values. In the words of Philip Kotler, sustainable marketing is the approach firms adopt to meet the needs of its present consumers without compromising the ability of future generations to fulfil their own.
Martin & Schouten (2011) explain sustainable marketing to be the process of creating, communicating and delivering value to customers in such a way that both natural resources – resources nature provides – and human capital resource – resources people provide – are preserved or enhanced throughout.
Sustainable marketing versus green marketing
Often times, the term green marketing has been used to describe sustainable marketing. Whereas there are some similarities between the two terms, there exists a difference. Green marketing mainly focuses on activities that enhance environmental awareness and protection, whereas sustainable marketing encapsulates that of green marketing in addition to social and economic issues.
Sustainable marketing – any benefits?
Proponents of sustainable marketing believe its adoption offers significant benefits for firms. The following are some of these benefits:
- Aids customer acquisition: If any firm is considering avenues for acquiring new customers, then embracing sustainable marketing as one of its core principles is a must. Studies have demonstrated that almost seventy percent (70%) of consumers are more than willing to purchase brands that support a cause they care about. Millennials are now being touted as one of the most significant consumer group, and studies show that they are quite keen on where they spend their money. Along with Millennials, 28 percent of Gen-X consumers rate a brand’s environmental impact and ethical production as two prominent criteria that influence their purchasing decision regarding a brand.
- Increase in sales and market share: Does the adoption of sustainable marketing have an impact on the firm’s sales and market share? Several reports and studies point to a positive correlation between sales increase and sustainability. Unilever, a global FMCG giant, posted a 69 percent increase in sale for its products associated with a sustainable agenda. The outcome of this impressive performance led its CEO, Alan Jope to announce: “we will dispose of brands that we feel are not able to stand for something more important than just making your hair shinier, skin softer, clothes whiter or your food tastier”.
- Premium prices: Another benefit of adopting sustainable marketing is the ability of such brands to charge a relatively higher price. An IBM 2020 study concluded that over 70 percent of consumers are more than willing to pay an extra 35 percent more for brands that are perceived to be sustainable and environmentally responsible.
- Strong brand reputation and positive WOM: Consumers are now demanding for brands that focus on ‘purpose’. A survey conducted by Cone/Poter Novelli indicated that 78 percent of consumers are willing to tell others to buy from a purpose-driven brand. Sustainable marketing has a positive effect on branding by enhancing brand equity.
- Employee retention: Sustainable marketing can also boost the retention rate of employees, especially with regards to Millennials and Gen-Z employees. This fact was buttressed by responses from a Millennial Survey conducted, which reported that 70 percent of millennials were willing to stay with a company if that company had a clearly laid out, strong sustainability plan. Gen-Z employees are also touted as the first generation to prioritise ‘purpose over salary’.
- Increases investor confidence: Increasingly, investors all over the world are becoming more conscious about where to invest their monies; and sustainability has become a key assessment criterion been used. Larry Flink, CEO of BlackRock – one of the world’s leading providers of investment, advisory and risk management solutions, boldly stated in his 2021 letter to CEOs that his firm will not invest in any organisation that cannot show a climate or sustainability plan.
Alongside the benefits just stated, Whelan & Fink(2016) posited in a Harvard Business Review article, Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability, other benefits – such as improved operational efficiency, risk management and enhanced innovation.
Challenges associated with sustainable marketing
Inasmuch as the adoption of sustainability offers enormous benefits for firms, it can equally present some challenges to firms that practise it. These challenges include:
- Reputational damage: If one of the benefits of sustainability is enhancing the reputation of firms, how can this then be a challenge? Well, the making of false sustainability claims can prove counter-productive and affect the reputation of firms. Greenwashing is the use of green marketing to give the incorrect impression that the company’s strategy, operations and products are designed to be beneficial to the environment. German car manufacturer, Volkswagen, had to pay US$14.7billion as compensation to settle deceptive advertising and cheating allegation in its ‘clean diesel campaigns’ (FTC, 2016). Over a period of seven years, VW deceived consumers of selling or leasing low emission, environmentally friendly cars that met emissions standards and command higher resell value, all in an attempt to tout its sustainability credentials. It however came to light that these cars were installed with highly sophisticated software devices specifically designed to defeat emissions test. The fallout of this gaffe by VW wrecked a lot of harm to its reputation. For firms employing sustainability, genuineness and honesty in its execution and communication is non-negotiable as even the slightest hint of insincerity or poor execution can result in potentially irreversible reputational damage.
- Non-aligned stakeholders: Sustainability should be a philosophy that is pervasive in a firm, and accepted by all stakeholders. Hence, the non-acceptance of any stakeholder group – possibly due to lack of understanding – can pose a challenge, especially if that stakeholder group is a key player, wielding high power and higher interest. It is thus imperative that a very broad and wide stakeholder engagement and consensus building is carried out to ensure total support for the adoption of sustainability as a core business principle and strategy before it is rolled out. Stakeholders should be made to understand the enormous benefits sustainability offers to get their full buy-in. The way out is for marketers to embark on continuous sustainability education across all stakeholder groups, with information regarding sustainability constantly being reviewed, disseminated and simplified.
- Loss of focus & profitability: Sustainability initiatives often come as additional cost to companies. As a result, a company should be able to price its products to recover these costs or these initiatives should position the products and services of the firm as superior in order to earn extra. Absence of this means the firm is operating at a cost disadvantage against the competition. The internalisation of this cost, coupled with the lack of receiving extra benefits, predisposes a company to loss of sales, market share, and ultimately, profitability. Additionally, adoption of sustainability as a core business strategy can potentially let a firm deviate from its main focus of achieving economic profitability and sustainability. The approach for marketers to adopt is to ensure sustainability initiatives are very well-researched and assessed prior to their execution.
Role of marketers in adoption of sustainable marketing
At the very core of every business is marketing. Onuoha(2021) argues that marketing is present in every stage of a business, from ideation, through production to sales. Marketers serve as evangelists of every business, and the business’ strongest advocate. Hence, for a successful implementation of sustainable marketing activities, marketers should be the ones championing it.
Marketers have often been held responsible for driving consumption through the roof. Some have even been tagged as creating products and services that have damaging effects on the environment.
With all these ‘accusations’ against marketers, it is imperative for marketers to be at the fore front of sustainability issues, taking full control in alleviating the problems they have ‘created’.
As noted by Carvill et al. (2021) in their book Sustainable Marketing, there is no one better placed to affect change, align with and influence customers, and drive hope for a better, more sustainable future than an ‘educated and aware’ responsible marketer.
Marketers can effectively contribute their quota to the sustainability agenda in a number of ways, such as:
- Product development: Arguably, one of the surest ways firms, and marketers at large, can adopt sustainability is through the product and services they churn out onto the market. Sustainability can be incorporated at each stage of the product or service development, right from the choice of raw material and ingredients to use for the product all the way the packaging considerations. Mega Lifesciences Pty Ltd., for instance, in its bid to reduce the company’s carbon footprints, have reduced their rubber wrapping material from 130.5g to 102.98g, a significant reduction of 20 percent. Bel Aqua Mineral Water also announced that effective June 2021, all bottles on the market will be made from 10 percent recycled plastics. MacDonald’s, on the other hand, has shifted from plastic straws to paper straws in a way to be sustainable and preserve our planet for future generations. These actions go a long way to demonstrate the marketer’s role in adopting sustainable marketing principles.
- Strategy: Marketers, in their quest to improve the sustainability credentials of their firms, should also consider their strategy as an avenue to achieve that aim. Consequently, marketers should ensure that at the core of their brand strategy is sustainability. The purpose of each brand should be aligned with improving sustainability. Through the creation and deployment of strategies tailored toward the reduction of waste and operational costs as well as enhanced efficiency, marketers will play an enormous role in creating a win-win situation for their businesses and customers while simultaneously embracing sustainability.
- Communications: At the heart of marketing is communications. Hence, by leveraging their superpowers as consumption influencers, marketers can create very compelling branding and marketing communication messages that will intensely arouse consumers’ desire for making purchasing decisions based on sustainability credentials. Marketers should view every marketing communication session or piece as an avenue for sustainability education. As a result, every marketing campaign, advertisement, sales promotional activities, public relations and publicity activities should demonstrate sustainability awareness. Marketers should be more intentional about their role in sustainability education. Marketers should ensure adherence to honesty in all marketing communication; and that sustainability claims – whether to an external audience or internal audience – should be accurate, clear and meaningful/relevant.
- Partnerships: There are times the burden of sustainability is weighty for a single firm to handle and thus calls for collaborative efforts or partnerships. One such partnership that is worthy of emulation is the Ghana Recycling Initiative by Private Enterprises (GRIPE). This partnership, established in 2017, is an industry-led coalition formed under the Association of Ghana Industries (AGI) with a stake in the plastics sector to integrate sustainable waste management solutions, particularly around plastics. Initially formed by eight (8) multinational companies with varied products and a proven track record of involvement in sustainability actions concerning plastics in other countries, the group now boasts thirteen (13) members.
Organisations should be on the outlook for key sustainability issues that align with their ethos. Areas – such as waste management, land preservation, recycling, education, food choices and reforestation – are avenues marketers can look out for in their sustainability agenda. We need to ensure the preservation of our planet for generations yet unborn. David Katz, CEO of Plastic Bank, quizzes: “If sustainability reporting was given the same weight as filing taxes, how will your company fare?
About the author
Godfrey is a Chartered Marketer and National Business Manager of Mega Lifesciences Ghana Ltd. He also lectures at Ghana School of Marketing and Simon College of Marketing. Godfrey undertakes Corporate Trainings, and can be contacted through [email protected],0205220830.