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You can make a difference

It’s pretty hard to dodge sustainability now – every newsfeed is either awash with climate woes, or with some clean-slate brand wooing the public with its virtue.

We all know we need to be doing something – but it can be hard to know where to start. Thought-leaders like Jacquelyn Ottman have been writing for over 15 years about how environmental considerations should be integrated into every aspect of marketing. And, as all the research shows, customers want social responsibility now, as well as environmental ethics.

Often the best thing to do, when we don’t know where to start, is to start at the beginning. About the first thing we learn as marketers is the ‘4Ps’, and they’re fertile lands for us to tend and harvest as we tackle sustainability.

Every element of the marketing mix can be used as a driver to reduce the harm our brands do, and improve social and environmental outcomes.

1. Think about your product or service

Get to grips with the negatives throughout their lifecycle, from creation to distribution, to use and to after-use. Investing in developing products that do less harm can reap a double-whammy of rewards, both reducing energy, materials costs or risk, and generating new revenues.

If you’re dependent on finite raw materials, you could do like Michelin. They’re working to replace oil-derived butadiene in tyres, which is expected to run short by 2020, with something based on renewable organic matter currently treated as waste, like sugar beet, straw or wood. And Lego are on a mission to replace oil-based plastic with something similarly green.

If your product wears out, you could invest in making it last longer like Miele, or making it repairable like Fairphone. Funnily enough, customers prefer not to have to replace things every three years, and built-in obsolescence won’t win any popularity contests. Reliability gets more ‘likes’.

And product marketers don’t get to absorb all the sustainability fun. The service sector can use being good to drive innovation too. 

Farmers Life loans are delivered on mobiles alongside technical farming advice, which supports farm profitability and soil conservation. Launched in response to consumer need, product developer Obadiah Ngigi explained to The Guardian: "There was a credit gap, but also a need for conservation in order to make sure the farms were productive in the long term…We offer high-quality technical advice to farmers so they can build their soil and water capacity."

2. When working on your pricing strategy, it’s time to understand who really pays for low costs.

There is a growing level of consumer awareness that cheap products or services can have a high social or environmental price. Could you increase brand differentiation and command a higher price by trading more fairly? While best known for garment manufacturing or commodities, such as tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar, Fairtrade Certification applies to a wide range of product categories.  Ali Trading, who manufacture and supply sports balls to some of the biggest sports brands in the world, are among a dozen Fairtrade Certified ball manufacturers. Fifteen years ago, there were none.

Paying living wages is now law in the UK, benefitting companies who adapted early, and remains a hot topic internationally. While win-win contracts with suppliers, like that of Chanel No 5 with jasmine growers, can protect margins and benefit producers.

3. Distribution decisions present major opportunities for improvement.

From packaging products in mushroom fibre like Dell to ditching packaging altogether like the Robuust stores; from shipping under sail to making close to the place of consumption like NZ-owned Karma Cola, manufacturing in the UK. Changes in distribution can make a big difference and create stories customers love.

4. Promotion is probably the only bad place in the mix for a marketer to start.

The task for marketers who want to lead their brands in sustainability is to make substantive change then tell the story. The whole story. Sustainability has become urgent at the exact same time in human history, as we have all gained the power to promote anything in seconds to thousands of others for free.  This means that if you’re not candid about what you’re doing – and what you have yet to do – other people will be candid for you. Greenwash doesn’t pay, so don’t pretend to be greener than you are. Ever.

There are, however, countless brilliant examples of companies making real change then promoting it really well. One of my personal favourites is this suite of Sainsbury videos, which not only use humour to promote their initiatives, but also cast their staff as the stars.

The changes we need to make are so big that every one of us needs to play our part. The most exciting thing about being a marketer in the 21st century is the chance each of us has to be a catalyst for change in our organisations. We’re usually good at ideas and communicating. And we have a mandate to represent our customers, which means we have a duty to get our brands busy with sustainability.

You can start right now – schedule a session with your team to get to know your negatives, then write a list of ways you can could change product, pricing and distribution to address them. Have fun. Do research where you need to. Then, when you’ve made some decent difference, shout about it.

Kath Dewar (FCIM) is the MD of GoodSense Learning, where she is also a course director.

Kath Dewar Managing Director GoodSense Learning
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