Is marketing at odds with sustainability? Thomas Lingard, Global Climate & Environment Director, Unilever, shares his view on how marketers can be a positive force for change.
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The elephant in the room for the marketing community is simple to grasp. Marketing drives consumption. If it didn’t, no one would do it. And yet we know that increasing consumption of many types of goods and services drives greenhouse gas emissions up, not down.
The products and services that we all make, advertise and sell are at the heart of the consumption conundrum. Economic activity brings societal benefits, not only to the end consumer, but in the economic value created along the supply chain. But with so many environmental costs externalised outside of the final price, the net societal value created by many products and services may not be what it seems. Only systemic solutions – environmental taxes and regulations – can fix this bigger problem, and they are coming with increasing speed. But in the interim, marketing has a crucial role to play in this world in transition.
The first step is to understand the footprint of your products. Many products with the most damaging impacts can be substituted with imperfect but better alternatives. We mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Marketers who really understand the impacts of their products, understand the value chains that sit behind them. They understand the options to improve products to shift consumer demand to more climate-friendly alternatives, and help their brands succeed in the future.
Second, there are whole new categories of products that haven’t always had the marketing love they deserve. If you’re a brilliant marketer who wants to save the world, consider the role you might play in the following transition: right now, we need renewable energy to scale to approximately eight times the current global supply. We need a revolution in demand for electric vehicles and cycling. We need to persuade consumers to adopt a rapid shift to more climate friendly diets, accelerate demand for concentrated and compacted versions of household and personal care products that deliver the same benefits with a reduced footprint. We need home-owners to rush to insulate their houses, to replace gas boilers with low carbon energy solutions that are still poorly understood by most people. With regards to durable goods, we need people to buy less but better, products designed for repair not replacement, ending the throwaway culture that plagues our planet.
The benefit profile of many of these new products and services is sometimes different. Like many people, I found that carrying a reusable coffee cup was an inconvenience at first, but quickly became part of the routine and a virtue signalling status symbol. I now wouldn’t be seen without it. People are complex, as are the factors influencing purchasing decisions. Products that offer a chance for the consumer to be part of building a better future at the same time as cleaning their clothes, feeding their family, doing their banking or going on holiday need to be mainstreamed in the shortest possible time. Only marketers can drive this.
The third is the role of the marketer in protecting consumer trust as eco-claims become ubiquitous. The risks of the new eco gold rush are clear. Sceptical consumers will rightly react to ‘too good to be true’ claims that unlimited consumption is possible because it’s “climate neutral”. Sustainable consumption at one level is an oxymoron, at least while so much of the global economy remains powered by fossil fuels. Mindful consumption is perhaps a better term, and a sense of humility in recognising that nearly every act of consumption has multiple environmental impacts.
Companies wanting to be part of the vanguard should sign up to the WFA Planet Pledge, joining a global community of leaders committed to real emissions reductions and helping lead the development of industry standards to prevent greenwashing.
By embracing these three actions of understanding product footprints, accelerating demand for greener products, and leading by example in the fight against greenwashing, the marketing community has a genuine shot at surprising its critics and demonstrating its potential to be a force for good as we collectively rise to the challenge of the climate emergency.