How to Balance Marketing and Sustainability

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Managers should define the concepts and goals of marketing and sustainability, and their relation to strategy, then use the marketing team to drive change.

Can the concept of marketing (which promotes consumption) and the concept of sustainability (which calls for the responsible use of resources) be reconciled? After visiting numerous sides of the debate, the authors suggest managers begin with productive conversations to define the concepts and goals of marketing and sustainability, and how they relate to an organization's strategy. Managers can then use their marketing team to drive change both internally and externally.

Background

A growing body of thought—both academic and professional—disputes the idea that sustainability and marketing are incompatible. But can the concepts of sustainability and marketing shed their histories, assumptions and misunderstandings to co-exist? How can managers redefine the traditional view of marketing as a driver of consumption and sustainability as a driver of conservation to work together for their business? That answer, according to the authors, depends on the manager.

Findings

  • If a word can mean anything, it means nothing. Promoting conversations about sustainability and marketing without widely accepted definitions creates confusion. Productive conversations start by defining the words and goals attached to each concept.

  • Understand the reasons for undertaking sustainable initiatives. Managers need to define not only what sustainability means to the organization but what it looks like. Managers also need to understand their own motivations and those of others. If managers cannot explain why they and their organization are committed to a change, others will also have difficulty following the rationale.

  • Will they buy it out there? Sustainability must be sold externally. Marketing can move consumers toward sustainable buying decisions; however, those decisions are still made within the traditional framework of concerns about price, brand, and availability.

  • Will they buy it in here? Sustainability must be sold internally. When employees buy into the concept of sustainability, they show a greater sense of loyalty and pride in their company, which is communicated to customers. However, changing behaviour takes time, and beliefs do not evolve overnight.

  • Let the marketers do what they do best. In many companies, the marketing team, which is best suited to create this shift in thinking, has been left out of the sustainability process. Managers can use the creativity and innovation inherent in the system by moving marketing to the forefront of the organization.

Implications for Managers

Increasing pressures are coming from everywhere: environmentally responsible legislation and regulation, resource costs and scarcity, public and shareholder demands for socially responsible investments, greater media coverage of corporate irresponsibility, anti-corporate pressure groups, and general changes in social attitudes and values. Managers must be prepared to lead the discussions from both marketing and sustainability vantage points. Solid definitions and consistent application of those definitions will separate your organization from the confused herd still wrestling with the basics.

Implications for Researchers

This paper provides a baseline look at the issues, but will likely spark conversations within boardrooms, which, in turn, can develop into intriguing results. The changes in the definitions of marketing and sustainability may become increasingly radical as more minds focus on their meanings, their relationships, and their associated goals. Future research should focus on this continued evolution in thinking.

Methods

This paper is a review of academic and practitioner literature conducted by four UK authors, intended to elevate the discussion on this topic.

Peter Jones, Colin Clarke-Hill, Daphne Comfort & David Hillier. (2007). Marketing and Sustainability.Marketing Intelligence & Planning. 26(2): 123-130.


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