The 1970s focused on ecological or environmental marketing. Fast forward to the 1990s, the emphasis on environment-friendly products persisted which came to be then known as green marketing.

Today, the focus has shifted to the sustainability of marketing activities. The emphasis here is on the marketing efforts of organizations which should be sustainable over an extended period of time.

So what is sustainable marketing? The contemporary interpretation of sustainable marketing is that it should deal positively with the ecological environment and be sensitive to the needs of future generations.

In fact, sustainability should be viewed in a broader concept, having a triple bottom line that incorporates ethical and social issues in addition to environmental issues. The Brundtland Commission Report (1987) has defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Why should we, as normal consumers, pay heed to the sustainable marketing practices adopted by organizations?

The reason is simple and very evident today. The world is facing a crisis on many fronts. Not least of all are challenges forced upon us due to systematic climate change brought upon by environmental degradation, excessive and wasteful consumption, to name a few.

Hence, it is imperative, that there is a conscious move towards adopting sustainable marketing practices by the firms to bequeath a better and healthier world to future generations.

Progressing meaningfully towards sustainability calls for radical solutions. And it’s just not about developing new products and product substitutions in the marketplace. It necessitates adopting and establishing a holistic approach that promotes and encourages the acceptance and adoption of sustainable practices.

This does not exclude combining profit-making for firms with sustainable environmental quality for society in general. There are many organizations that are increasingly embedding sustainable marketing practices in their operations and have even been very vociferous about being more mindful of the needs of the environment and society, in general.

Unilever is a case in point in sustainable marketing

Our activities are to double our business but to do that while reducing our environmental impact and footprint .. on the road to well-being doesn’t go via reduced consumption. It has to be done via more responsible consumption.

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever (2009-2019) and a strong advocate of sustainability in business

Unilever has adequately demonstrated its commitment to sustainability initiatives. In 2010, Unilever launched its sustainability program with a focus on three core areas:

  • improving the health and well-being of 1 billion people,
  • enhancing the livelihood of millions and
  • reducing environmental impact by half.

Unilever has initiated the concept of Sustainable Living Brands which among others include brands like Dove and Lifebuoy. Dove has helped over 35 million young people with self esteem education since 2005. Lifebuoy has reached over one billion people with its handwashing campaigns to encourage a healthier lifestyle.

Other Case Studies in Sustainable Marketing

A discourse on sustainability and sustainable marketing practices would be incomplete without mentioning The Body Shop.

The Body Shop, a venerable British brand, has been admirably practicing sustainable marketing since the early 1970s. The Body Shop is integrating environmental and social values in its mission and culture and thus responding to environmental vision rather than just consumer demand.

There are many other firms that have also been espousing sustainable marketing practices for quite some time now.

Patagonia, the popular outdoor clothing retailer has made green marketing a consistent and enduring part of their marketing strategy. Patagonia is an ardent supporter of the Go Green movement, so much so that their mission statement pledges that the company will “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm and inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”.

Johnson & Johnson, the brand behind Band-Aid and a line of well-known baby products, has set sustainability goals that include increasing product recycling to reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020.

Interestingly, Nike is an example of a company that did not have a stellar record when it came to sustainability, but over a period of time, they have incorporated substantial changes such that Nike tapped Morgan Stanley’s list in 2015 of most sustainable clothing and footwear brands.

Read: The Torchbearers of Sustainable Fashion

Globally, firms are increasingly embracing sustainable marketing practices as it affords them a key competitive advantage now and in the future. In an era that is inundated with a plethora of me-too products, sustainability can play the role of a key differentiator and help create a preference for the brands in the eyes of the consumer.

Does that evoke some doubt?

A glance at Unilever’s performance would probably dispel all doubts regarding adopting sustainable marketing practices profitably. At the end of 2019, Unilever announced that their purpose-driven brands grew 69% faster than their other brands and delivered 75% of the growth. This evidently points to the fact that sustainable marketing isn’t only timely, it also drives revenue.

Hence, it is time, firms that have been slow on the uptake with respect to adopting sustainable marketing practices should make sustainability a cornerstone of their marketing.

A recent Nielson study found that 79% of Gen X, 85% of Millennials, and 80% of Gen Z globally say it is “extremely important” or “very important” that companies implement programs to improve the environment. This, indeed, drives home the imperative for companies to increasingly embed sustainability in their business practices.

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Dr. Sujata Khandai majored in Economics from Madras University and an MBA from XIMB. She extensive experience in the area of branding in the consumer durable industry. Currently, she is with Amity University Uttar Pradesh as a Professor of Marketing. She is the Deputy Dean (Academics) and also the Director of Amity College of Commerce & Finance.

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