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Sustainable Marketing Best Practices: Wild Green Ideas

Climate change is so hot right now – hotter than a solar power tower on a summer’s day. That’s pretty hot. Businesses are, bit-by-bit, realising it’s time to ditch the old-school marketing playbook and go green. This is your backstage pass to the fundamentals of sustainable marketing – because who said you can’t save the planet while looking after the bottom line?

Sustainable Marketing: Like Regular Marketing, But (The Planet Gets) Cooler

Sustainable marketing is more than a buzzword. It’s about integrating responsible, conscientious, planet-saving goodness into your marketing strategy. Look beyond the products – we’re selling a lifestyle that’s as green as the inside of a vegan’s refrigerator.

Where Mother Earth, Motivation, and Money Collide

Persistent pursuit of profit is so passé. Sustainable marketing best practices follow the triple bottom line – not trashing the planet, keeping people happy, and, of course, making enough money to outshine your less sustainable competitors.

Deep Impact, Wide Opportunity
Ironically, certainly from a dinosaurs’ perspective, this kind of deep impact might actually prevent a mass extinction. The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership outlines four areas where sustainable marketing efforts count most: Financial; Physical; Psychological (social and cultural); and Ethical.

FINANCIAL – Capitalising On The Green Economy
True financial change means a purpose-first approach to growth and profits. America’s National Retail Federation research shows that, in the US, 77% of consumers want sustainable and environmentally responsible products. This means setting targets for social and environmental progress that makes sense in your field, influencing those around you to do the same, and cooking up innovations that are on the cutting edge. Especially if you sell kitchen knives or katanas! Sorry. I’ll see myself out…

PHYSICAL – Sustainable Strides
A marketing footprint is the real-world impact of your marketing operations. This includes things like emissions, waste, pollution, habitat loss, and human health. However, for marketers, this is a story in two acts. Act One: we must calculate the direct footprint of our events, production, and campaigns. Act Two: we need to figure out the impact that our efforts have indirectly. Like, for example, promotional campaigns for fossil fuel companies.

PSYCHOLOGICAL – Green Consciousness
The real battlefield of sustainable marketing is narrow indeed: just a few centimetres of grey matter between the temporal lobes. This is where sustainable marketers can have the greatest impact of all, by influencing attitudes, beliefs, norms, and behaviours; not solely in the interest of profit, but for the good of the planet. We can create and deliver sustainable narratives, not just shifting the topic of conversation but changing what is conceivable to talk about.

ETHICAL – Awash with Greenwashing
In the words of Charlie Thompson, Director of Commercial Reach & Influence at CISL, “transparent, truthful and transformational brand advocacy and business-led change are needed.” One look around the supermarket will tell you everything you need to know about how common the problem of greenwashing is today. It’s the duty of sustainable marketers to ensure that any sustainability claims are truthful, meaningful, and transparent.

Now that you understand the areas of greatest impact, let’s look at what lessons we can learn from some organisations that are blazing a trail for us to follow.


3M – Green With Envy

To most of us, 3M is just that logo you see on sticky stuff. In reality, they make a lot of interesting products, mostly industrial in nature. Sticking stuff to other stuff, wearing things down, sealing things with mysterious gelatinous substances, and protecting surfaces and people from microscopic meanies. You know, the three A’s: Adhesives, Abrasives, and Anything else that makes money!

While 3M has a few PFA-shaped skeletons in its environmental closet, it seems they have been genuinely working to reduce their impact in recent years. Not only have they committed to some ambitious goals, but they are providing transparent reporting that shows how the organisation is performing against those goals. Goals like greatly reduced virgin plastics usage, renewable energy adoption, CO2 reduction, and CSR-related STEM investment, to name just a few.

So 3M appears to be ticking the transparency box with this reporting, but how else are they contributing? Well, one practice of theirs can help move the needle substantially.

I’m talking about influencing manufacturing and supply partners to follow the same sustainable marketing best practices as they do. This shows sustainable leadership in their industry and will, over time, push the entire sector towards a more sustainable future. Let’s hope it does so sooner rather than later.

You don’t need to live in a glass house but it couldn’t hurt to install a few panoramic windows! In other words, be more transparent to consumers and apply some gentle pressure on your industry partners to do the same.

Patagonia – To Buy Or Not To Buy, Is That The Question?

Was Patagonia’s famous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” New York Times ad a genius marketing ploy, or a genuine call for sustainable, responsible consumerism? Well, the short answer is… both! For the long answer, read on.

Deserved or not, Patagonia has happily donned the upcycled-polyester crown of responsible, anti-consumerist outdoor wear. The advert, and other moves the American apparel retailer has made since, have increased Patagonia’s revenue enormously. In the two years following the 2011 New York Times ad, their revenue increased by 40%. The outdoor leisure brand champions recycling, reuse, and repair. It also runs the largest garment repair centre in the US and has been scaling up similar operations in Europe.

And that’s not all. I would argue that Patagonia is in the business of consumer education. It’s been pushing consumers and, as a result, the entire apparel industry towards more responsible consumption. With the exception of cheap, mass-manufactured clothing – the type you see taking over Amazon like a relentless and unsettling fashion virus – many premium brands now consider recycled materials, product longevity, and repairability as appealing features that differentiate them from the aforementioned. This is especially true for outdoor leisure. Arc’teryx, Fjallraven, Mammut, Rab, Osprey, Jack Wolfskin, and Salewa are just some of the major brands following Patagonia’s lead.

Following Patagonia’s playbook requires deep commitment to the cause, and willingness to provoke the kind of backlash being a trailblazer always attracts. The company’s 2011 NYT ad would have backfired horribly if their sustainability bona fides weren’t so far ahead of the curve. You can influence consumer attitudes, beliefs, norms, and behaviours – but only if your brand is living those values already. And it certainly helps if you’re preaching to the choir; more than two thirds of outdoor leisure consumers value sustainability.

Beyond Meat – Beyond the Pale?

2000. That’s how many kilocalories an average woman requires to survive for one day. Now if you wanted to supply all of that fuel in the form of beef, you would need a smidge under 240 square metres of land to do so. Multiply that by 365 days in a year, and you’ve got 87,600 square metres, or almost 22 acres of land. Our final case study, Beyond Meat, claims to use 93% less land to manufacture what is, from a nutritional standpoint, an identical product.

Beyond Meat, along with many other recently emerging brands, is a new category of business entirely. Brands like Tentree, Fairphone, and Imperfect Foods are built as sustainable enterprises – from the ground up. Not only do they have sustainable business practices, theirs is the very business of sustainability!

Beyond Meat’s goal is to reduce the negative impact of meat consumption. Just as Tentree, Fairphone, and Imperfect Foods are aiming to revolutionise the fashion, smartphone, and grocery industries, Beyond Meat aims to make it easy for even the most voracious carnivore to switch to a plant-based diet.

Sustainable enterprises have a distinct advantage when it comes to marketing for particular audiences, and theirs is the uphill battle to drag the rest of the industry with them into the future. It’s not all uphill though, don’t worry. There are some distinct advantages to building a sustainable enterprise, such as:

  • Better regulatory alignment – lower costs to conform with regulatory trends
  • Attract and retain young talent – millennial and Gen-Z employees value sustainability
  • Innovation by nature – the cutting edge sees emerging opportunities first
  • Brand reputation and demand – consumers choose brands that prioritise their health and the environment

This may be a non-intuitive one, but the biggest lesson to be learned here is caution. Greenwashing has been a major issue ever since hippies first started hugging trees in the ‘70s, but the emergence of viable sustainable enterprises shows that consumers are becoming more sophisticated and discerning in their buying patterns. Great care must be taken to research, verify, and back up any sustainability claims made as part of your marketing campaign.

Before you Go

So there you have it. Get out your eco-resin surfboard, it’s time to ride the eco-wave of sustainable marketing! Keep in mind that the sustainable marketing landscape can differ a great deal from country to country, so what works for one company may not be universally applicable. Researching the area you operate in is the key to making the deepest impact. If you’d like some one-to-one guidance for your unique industry or cause, why not reach out for some personal coaching with our experienced mentors?


Donal comes from a corporate communications background with many years of experience working with big tech leadership teams to spread vision, visualize data meaningfully and streamline employee communications. Recently Donal has shifted his focus to climate-related causes, championing the same communication values for conservation, sustainability and climate-focused causes.

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