They line train stations, airports, bus stops. They pop up on laptops, make up every other post on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and shine brightly on billboards the world over.
Adverts are among the quickest ways for brands to reach consumers. But what happens when they start pushing us to purchase things we don’t need?
Marketing can play a damaging role when it comes to overconsumption and the environmental impacts of consumerism, and it’s a problem companies need to fix.
How can organizations use sustainable marketing practices to shift consumer habits and attitudes towards environmental issues? How can marketing be conducted responsibly so that it helps to solve the pressing issues facing the planet, rather than exacerbate them?
The environmental impact of advertising
Advertising, which is just one aspect of marketing, can fuel materialistic attitudes and accelerates environmental problems.
“By encouraging unnecessary consumption, advertising harms our ability to create a sustainable world and preserve our prosperity, health, and even our lives in the face of climate change,” says John Sterman, professor of management and co-director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan School of Management.
“A lot of advertising is explicitly designed to persuade people that they can solve their personal, emotional, relationship, and even existential problems by buying something,” he adds, noting “it doesn’t work.”
Take fast fashion, for example, that takes ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into clothes for high-street stores. The idea is to get garments to market as quickly as possible.
The problem is that these items, which are continually being produced and advertised to the market, can end up in landfills as consumers scramble to keep up with everchanging styles.
Companies also use vast quantities of water during the production process, and that has a damaging effect on the environment and can lead to widespread water pollution in the countries being used for production. The production of one cotton t-shirt, for example, can use 2,700 liters—enough drinking water to sustain one human for three years.
The fashion industry is also responsible for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from humans, which makes the need to address the role advertising plays in driving overconsumption all the more urgent.
Green marketing examples vs greenwashing
There are, however, sustainable alternatives to marketing products or services.
Robert Dahlstrøm (pictured), professor in the marketing department at BI-Norwegian Business School, defines sustainable marketing as the effort to consume, produce, distribute, promote, and reclaim products in a way that focuses on the triple bottom line.
The ‘triple bottom line’ relates to how companies evaluate their performance based upon social, environmental, and financial factors. Sustainable marketing focuses on improving these three factors.
Sustainable marketing is shown in the marketing campaigns of retail brands like Patagonia, which prides itself on designing eco-friendly hiking clothing made out of recyclable materials.
In one famous green marketing campaign, Patagonia displayed a blue jacket with the text ‘DON’T BUY THIS JACKET’ emblazoned across the image. In the corresponding text, the brand outlined that they were willing to mend or recycle any Patagonia clothing, suggesting that there’s no need for consumers to unnecessarily purchase new gear.
While adverts like these emphasize brands’ commitment to solving pressing environmental concerns, Robert from BI-Norwegian warns that consumers need to look out for companies ‘greenwashing’ their marketing.
Greenwashing involves companies intentionally misleading consumers about their environmental practices or emphasizing one part of their business that’s environmentally friendly, while concealing other parts that are exacerbating climate issues.
For instance, when McDonald’s promoted their replacement of plastic straws with cardboard ones as eco-friendly, the fast-food giant later revealed that the new straws were unrecyclable.
One way to combat the problem of false claims and overconsumption is to regulate advertisements more stringently, suggests John from MIT Sloan. “A great deal of advertising is a form of pollution that needs to be regulated, in the same way that you're not permitted to dump toxic waste into our food and water.”
Regulatory advertising boards would need to go beyond verifying specific claims made by an organization to investigate the environmental impact of a business’s entire supply chain, to prevent companies from greenwashing.
How a green marketing strategy can help tackle overconsumption
Green marketing campaigns, like Patagonia’s, can help to solve issues of overconsumption.
Companies should convey the message that we need to consume less and think carefully about the products we buy. As a starting point, that could go a long way to shifting consumers’ attitudes and values towards choosing sustainable products and caring for the environment.
62% of consumers want companies to support their environmental values—this interest in environmental issues has only accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, there’s not a huge risk that companies would lose consumers if they swapped to using more sustainable materials and conducting more environmentally responsible marketing campaigns.
Although in instances where sustainability is not a major focus of a company’s consumer base, there may be less need to focus purely on environmental messages in marketing campaigns.
“Nike, for example, has a lot of products, athletic footwear, and clothing that are produced sustainably. Yet, Nike’s consumers are typically not thinking about sustainability when they're purchasing—the emphasis is going to be on the performance of the product,” notes Robert from BI-Norwegian.
Tailoring a green marketing strategy to a target audience offers the best way of maintaining consumer interest in eco-friendly products or services. But sustainable values can still inform companies’ product design and manufacturing without being explicitly featured in their marketing, as long as that approach flows across a firm’s entire supply chain.
Do sustainable values conflict with profit-driven goals?
No matter how sustainable a company’s marketing is and how environmentally conscious their products or services are, these values are often at odds with the intention to grow and expand, which usually involves selling more products.
‘Demarketing’ is a term that describes using marketing to reduce consumption, which is about disconnecting profits from material and energy use.
“Demarketing can be about offering a service, for example, asking consumers whether they need an automobile, or do they just need to own the capacity for an automobile to take them from place to place,” explains Andrew Hoffman (pictured), professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
However, demarketing presents a challenge for established brands. Using the example of fast fashion, companies may need to transition from selling large quantities of affordable products to selling fewer items at higher prices, which involves marketing to a new target audience.
Many businesses will have to commit to making huge changes—which may incur a loss of revenue and market share in the short term—to reduce overconsumption and combat climate change in the coming years.
Carbon reports, which are set to be compulsory for big organizations from 2025, offer a transparent way of measuring the carbon footprint of companies’ production channels and may factor high in consumers’ purchasing decisions.
Brands that pledge to reduce their carbon footprint are likely to reap the results in the long term, as consumers start to demand that companies fully commit to tackling climate change.
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