Marketing is essential for any business, but in recent years, sustainability has also become a crucial aspect of a brand’s positioning.
This has given birth to a practice that combines the two: sustainable marketing.
Sustainable marketing helps businesses resonate with consumers who are becoming increasingly conscious of their environmental impact and seek solutions that align with these values.
In this article, we’ll explore sustainable marketing, including its benefits and challenges, and share examples of how to implement it.
What is sustainable marketing?
Sustainable marketing aims to create, communicate, and deliver value to customers in a way that promotes environmental and social responsibility.
Simply put, it’s a way of marketing products and services that are produced and delivered sustainably.
Sustainable marketing takes into account the development, packaging, and promotion of goods and services that:
- Use eco-friendly resources
- Minimize environmental impact
- Are recyclable or biodegradable
It shows your brand’s commitment to sustainability and serves to differentiate you from competitors thanks to your greener solutions. The goal is to reduce waste, pollution, and energy usage while promoting more responsible consumption.
Advantages of sustainable marketing
Sustainable marketing is here to stay, and for good reason. From improving customer retention to increasing profit, sustainable marketing works to build successful brands.
Improved brand image and customer loyalty
Exhibiting your commitment to sustainable practices builds a positive brand image that aligns with the values of customers concerned about environmental and social issues and who are willing to pay a premium for eco-friendly goods and services.
That pays off according to Forbes, who found companies that support the aforementioned issues enjoy a more favorable image with 87% of consumers, while 88% are more loyal to those brands.
A surveyed 78% of people aspire to live more sustainable lives, saying it’s important to them. Also, 50% rank sustainability as a top-five value driver, meaning it’s an influential part of their purchasing decision and helps your brand’s value proposition stand out even more.
With more and more consumers demanding sustainable practices from companies, those that can meet this demand will score a unique selling point and a competitive edge over those that don’t.
Cost savings and increased profit
According to the Harvard Business Review, 90% of 200 studies on sustainability initiatives and corporate performance found that superior Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards lower the cost of business capital.
Sustainable practices lead to cost savings by increasing your operational efficiency and reducing your waste. For example, you could introduce renewable resources and implement energy-saving measures, resulting in lower expenses.
Additionally, McKinsey found that by lessening resource expenses, you can increase your operating profits by as much as 60%, evidencing a strong connection between resource efficiency and financial performance.
Environmental and social impact
Business operations have a profound effect on the environment: According to Statista, over the past 30 years, annual global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 50% due to:
- World population growth
- Improvement of global economies
- An increase in the demand for goods and services
- The combustion of fossil fuels generated by efforts to meet this demand
Add to that the amount of plastic waste businesses produce annually — over 300 million metric tons — half of which is from the packaging sector, and textiles being the second-largest contributor.
Sustainable marketing efforts can benefit not only you, but also the well-being of the world and its citizens and contribute to a greener future for everyone.
Challenges of sustainable marketing
On the flip side, sustainable marketing may not be a good fit for every brand. Knowledge limitations, new process implementations, and other concerns can hinder your brand from implementing sustainable marketing well.
Possibly the greatest challenge in sustainable marketing is that many companies lack the knowledge and expertise necessary to launch sustainable marketing practices (and execute well). Even with 90% of business leaders believing sustainability is important, only 60% of brands have a strategy for it.
If you don’t fully understand how your brand is being more sustainable, and you market yourself as such anyway, you also risk harming your brand perception. For example, you could say that you are using a new biodegradable material for packaging, but other experts online might point out (publicly) that manufacturing that material costs more resources and is only possible with cheap underpaid labor.
The research, development, and implementation of sustainable marketing practices require significant investment, and how much depends on multiple business factors like:
- Your operations
As such, it can cost you anywhere from next to nothing to millions. Given its range of potential expenses, this type of marketing can be a huge financial burden for small and medium-sized businesses, making it difficult for them to compete with larger companies.
It can also be costly to switch up your procedures in the first place. Even if changing processes will help save money in the long run, it can still cost plenty of capital to get started upfront.
Measuring its impact
Once you look into how you can measure your efforts, you’ll find the sustainability space has so many overlapping frameworks and reporting standards that it can be overwhelming.
Furthermore, quantifying the impact of sustainable marketing practices has its own difficulties, and companies may struggle to demonstrate the benefits of their efforts concretely.
If you’re trying to justify the ROI and direct financial benefit for sustainable business practices, you’ll have a difficult attribution model to build.
Another huge issue with sustainable marketing is the possibility of greenwashing, which is when companies make false or exaggerated claims about the environmental benefits of their offerings. This deceit can permanently damage a brand’s reputation and lead to legal disputes.
For example, in the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned two HSBC environmental ads because they misled consumers regarding the bank’s contributions to climate change.
One ad claimed HSBC was helping clients transition to net zero emissions or become carbon neutral when in reality, the bank was financing industries like oil and gas that emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.
Examples of sustainable marketing practices
Now that the upsides and drawbacks have been covered, it’s time to show you sustainable marketing in action. These practices can take many forms, so, to give you a better idea of its possible applications in your business, here are some common examples.
Eco-labeling is simply displaying environmental certifications or labels on your products to indicate your brand’s sustainability credentials.
Image: Mindful Chef
The UK-based meal kit retailer Mindful Chef, in cooperation with ClimatePartner, claimed a first in its industry by introducing carbon labels on their recipe kits in December 2021.
These labels convey the life cycle carbon footprint of the brand’s meals, proving they’re in line with the WWF’s target of reducing diet-related emissions.
2) Adopt sustainable packaging
You can also adopt eco-friendly materials (e.g., biodegradable or recyclable) for your packaging, which effectively reduces the environmental impact of your products. Even minimizing the use of plastics can make a huge difference.
In 2019, the fashion brand ASOS committed to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s initiative that aims to eliminate plastic by attaining a circular economy.
As part of the New Plastics Economy plan, the brand pledged to remove problematic and unnecessary packaging by 2025 and has since removed over 40% of its own brand packaging lines.
3) Source materials sustainably
Your company can source materials from suppliers that employ green business practices and have a positive impact on their environment and communities.
Patagonia, an outdoor apparel brand, pushes sustainable sourcing. In fact, they center their business around sustainability, conservationism, and environmental activism:
- Materials and products are made under the guidance of environmental and animal welfare responsibility programs.
- Patagonia is transparent about owned facilities and suppliers across their supply chain, conveying their dedication to reducing energy consumption, waste, and emissions.
The company’s initiatives have borne fruit in the form of a significantly increased bottom line, boosted revenue, tax cuts, and higher employee satisfaction.
4) Reduce waste
Waste-reducing programs for recycling, composting, and lessening the use of packaging are another great way to bolster your sustainable marketing strategy.
Image: Sierra Nevada
The California-based beer company Sierra Nevada, for instance, is committed to what they call “low-impact brewing,” which involves activities such as:
- Diverting 99.8% of their solid waste from landfills
- Sending their byproducts to livestock farms, where they’re used as animal feed
- Composting food waste and other organic materials on-site, then using it for estate farming
- Recovering and reusing heat and steam for energy.
Their efforts have allowed Sierra Nevada to build the first LEED platinum brewery awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
5) Promote sustainable behaviors
Encouraging sustainable behaviors among your employees and customers, such as reducing waste and energy consumption, conserving water, and implementing reusable materials emphasizes your dedication to long-term environmental sustainability.
Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), an outdoor brand and co-op, strongly encourages their employees and members to take part in such activities but takes it a step further: Through REI’s Cooperative Action Network, employees and members wrote 100,000 letters that were sent to Congress, urging the governmental body to act on climate, equity, and conservation issues. This action led to the passage of two bills tackling the climate crisis and equity outdoors.
REI is also taking steps to create a circular economy in which used gear and rentals will compose most of their business. The brand is also urging members to reduce waste and reuse gear through Re/Supply.
6) Use renewable energy
Incorporating renewable sources of energy like solar or wind power into your operations can effectively reduce not only consumption but also your carbon emissions.
Image: Goya Foods
Goya Foods, a brand that sells various Latin cuisine products, is one of the top 10 corporate solar users in the U.S. food and beverage industry.
Their California facility alone is equipped with 3,402 rooftop solar panels, allowing it to attain a net zero carbon footprint. This solar energy system generates the exact amount of energy the facility needs, enabling it to achieve a carbon neutral status.
7) Offset carbon emissions
Companies can reduce or remove emissions and compensate for what they generate by investing in carbon offsets, such as renewable energy projects or reforestation efforts. These efforts also serve to strengthen their sustainable marketing strategies.
The multinational conglomerate Honeywell, for example, plans to uphold their pledge to become carbon neutral by 2035 through the following actions:
- Investing in and completing more energy savings projects
- Shifting to renewable sources of energy
- Electrifying their fleet of vehicles
- Using credible carbon offsets to balance out any remaining CO2 emissions
Upcycling involves turning waste materials into new products. It’s a sustainable, yet creative solution that can help your company minimize waste and its overall environmental footprint. Some brands even build product lines around the concept.
Outerknown, a brand founded by professional surfer Kelly Slater, produces a broad assortment of sustainable clothing. Among their offerings are upcycled clothing items made from eco-friendly materials like upcycled cotton, recycled polyester, and other similar items.
9) Cause marketing/Donating to environmental causes
Advertise your commitment to long-term sustainability by partnering with environmental organizations and promoting their causes or regularly donating a portion of your profits to them. If within your means, you can develop funding strategies to support such groups as well.
That’s something materials science company PANGAIA has undertaken in their pursuit of building an Earth-positive future. To give back to communities, they’ve joined forces with conservation initiatives and NGOs via two funds they created in partnership with Milkywire:
- Tomorrow Tree: To expand PANGAIA’s tree planting efforts into supporting the conservation and protection of forests, as well as reforestation
- Bee The Change: To raise awareness about the importance of pollinators and help grassroots NGOs taking action to preserve them
10) Provide sustainability education
Your brand can actively educate customers and employees on sustainability issues and teach them how to live in a way that combats many environmental challenges.
For instance, Unilever launched their Unilever Compass strategy to mobilize their brands, people, and partners to pursue the company’s sustainability initiatives. It takes a holistic approach to achieve its goals and covers multiple environmental and societal issues such as:
- Climate change
- Protecting and regenerating nature
- Creating a waste-free world
- Better access to nutritious food
- Equity, diversity, and inclusion
How companies can implement sustainable marketing practices
We’ve proven sustainable marketing is a triumph for both your business and the world we live in. But to implement it for fruitful, yet cost-effective results, companies should follow these key practices.
Conduct a sustainability audit
A sustainability audit involves assessing your energy consumption, waste generation, and application of renewable resources to identify areas for improvement. More specifically, it checks:
- If you possess the proper support and infrastructure for a sustainability program
- How you engage employees and ensure fair treatment
- How you give back to the community
- What you’re doing to reduce waste
- The resource-conservation initiatives you run (if any)
- Your carbon footprint
- The environmental footprint of your product development and life cycle
- Your supply chain’s sustainability
Practice what you preach
Sustainability marketing only works if your efforts are genuine. Any brand that claims to be committed to environmental-friendliness but fails to follow through with action will experience a major drop in consumer trust.
Take a holistic approach to sustainability and ensure your messaging, mission, and operations align.
Transparency is key
Clearly communicate your sustainability practices to your customers. People don’t expect brands to be perfect, but they highly value transparency. In fact, thanks to the social media boom, 86% of Americans say it’s more important than ever for a business.
If you fall short in some environmental aspects, for instance, share how you plan to act and remedy those issues.
Adopt a long-term perspective
Sustainable marketing strategies require a long-term commitment, so your initiatives must take into account the bigger picture. Anticipate taking small but consistent steps for years in an effort to achieve a minimal environmental footprint.
Focus on the customer
When developing sustainable products and services, center your efforts around the needs and values of your customers (while keeping sight of your mission as well). Your purpose is highly important, but you need your buyers’ loyalty to pursue it effectively.
Partner with stakeholders
Companies should work hand-in-hand with their stakeholders — such as suppliers, customers, and community organizations — to promote sustainable practices.
As a concrete example, you could develop a leaner, more streamlined supply chain where those involved implement waste-reducing and energy-saving measures from end to end, ensuring their overall impact on the world is minimal.
Measure and report progress
Although difficult, do your best to quantify the overall impact of your sustainable marketing efforts. Then, share the results with the many stakeholders who contribute to your sustainability and your brand’s success.
Wrapping up — Move to greener pastures with sustainable marketing
Sustainable marketing is a strategic approach that can help your brand build a positive image, gain a competitive edge, and reduce costs — all while promoting environmental and social responsibility.
Although its overall implementation may pose some challenges, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Let the sustainable marketing practices and examples we’ve shared inspire you to create and adopt your own strategies for more responsible business operations.