Is it time for marketing to grow a conscience?

Strathclyde Business School Dubai’s Maya Moussly talks sustainable marketing


Marketing has often been seen as this ‘evil force’ driving consumerism, making us buy more, spend more, buy things we don’t need and ultimately produce more, burn more fossil fuels and increase global carbon footprints all the while lining the big corporations’ pockets.

Today, Gen Z and Gen Alpha see through the hypocrisy and fallacy and are calling us all out. Recently one of my third-year students asked me to explain how ‘global leaders’ fly into global events to discuss climate change issues and cutting emissions to reduce global temperatures by 1.5C, having arrived via their private jets. The dichotomy is real.

In recent years we have seen an increase in marketing initiatives that claim to fall under the sustainable marketing umbrella.

There are three camps, some are merely an extension of a pre-existing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, some are token activations that often come off as green washing and others that are genuine enough in their endeavors.

Change is hard but needs to come from the leadership, it must be incorporated within vision and mission of an organisation.

In marketing speak, it needs to be embedded within a brand’s DNA. Simon Sinek calls this the ‘Finding your why’ – the belief or purpose that is the driving force behind everything that the brand does. Brands born in the recent decade do this very well.

An Italian SME that truly imbibes this ethos is Sea2see, with each sale of a pair of glasses or frames they are supporting the fishing communities that are involved in the collection of marine plastic, which is then used to make the frames, in turn providing these communities with a new source of income.

4Ps of marketing

Such brands really take on and demonstrate how to activate the added extra 4P’s of marketing, People, Planet, Prosperity, and Plastic. However, the more established brands will have a harder time changing their operations and shifting their outlook to a more sustainable approach.

Today, sustainability is being viewed as a unique value proposition that allows companies to maintain price premium with sustainability as their differentiating factor. Despite many companies seeing this as the way forward only 24% are using it as their competitive advantage.

An important catalyst to this discussion is the cost of becoming more sustainable and who should be incurring such costs. Should they be included in the price hence the consumers end up paying for it? Or should companies absorb it and reduce their profitability.

Much debate leads us right back to the start…. can marketing and sustainability be a match made in heaven and if not what needs to change? According to Jones, Hill, Comfort and Hillier (2008) the two concepts are incompatible, sustainability is attainable through the reduction of consumption while the objective of marketing is to increase it and profitably.

Change is imminent and current and future marketeers can be the change agents to drive the ‘sustainability’ message forward. Consumers need ‘educating’ to become more aware, to care more and be willing to act.

Good intentions

Consumers care about the environment but not many are willing to change behaviour especially if it will cost them more. One of the key challenges for sustainable marketing is to encourage consumers to act on their good intentions.

A much wider element of the conversation is recognising that sustainable marketing does not work in isolation but part of the wider business strategy, which requires businesses to develop relationships with their local communities, legislators, educational institutions, and many other stakeholders.

This simple preposition change is perhaps an approach marketers could take as a challenge they need to meet; in working for the betterment of society, by being open, transparent, and authentic in their communication and by walking the talk.

by Maya Moussly, Global Practitioner, Strathclyde Business School Dubai