Do marketers hold the key to a more sustainable future? 

The power of marketing is well known – you only have to turn on the TV or walk past a billboard for a reminder of the central role it plays in everyday life. But can it do more than simply sell us things? The potential for marketing to make positive social change has recently been coming into sharper focus.

The rise of the circular economy

Today’s consumers are increasingly aware of the need to do more than simply buy and use things. They have developed an understanding of what it takes to put products on the shelves, and the impact the process can have on our wider environment. Increasingly, we get a bad taste in our mouths when we buy something at a price that’s a bit too good to be true, knowing that to bring us the lowest prices, someone or something has paid a cost somewhere along the line.

More of us are re-using, recycling and saving energy in our daily lives. We’re also choosing companies who support a more sustainable kind of lifestyle – the ones who are cutting back on packaging, selling local products requiring fewer air-miles, or using socially responsible suppliers that pay fair wages and look after their workers.

We’re buying products that will last longer and stay out of landfill, we’re repairing rather than replacing our material goods, and we’re taking jars and bottles to packaging-free supermarkets – well, some of us, anyway.

How do we choose these ethical options? More often than not, it’s through marketing.

The ethical power of marketing

Marketing can help strengthen sustainable behaviours in two main ways:

  • Signpost us towards products and services that are in line with our values
    Marketers now have a huge range of tools at their disposal to connect consumers with products. Data-driven targeting allows relatively niche companies and customer segments to find each other, especially when it comes to matching local businesses with their customers.

    Meanwhile, social media marketing helps build buzz through word of mouth and positive reviews, often at a cost that’s much lower than traditional marketing channels, and therefore accessible to even the smallest startups.

    And then we of course have the influencer movement which not only champions certain products, but gives us an aspirational model for the kind of lifestyle these products fit into.

  • Educate us about how to live in smarter, more sustainable ways
    A single marketing campaign can spark changes to social norms that last for years, if not decades. Remember the ‘designated driver’ campaign? Harvard’s early behavioural marketers developed this in the 1980s to cut down on road fatalities, using marketing to make drink-driving socially unacceptable. Then there was the revolt against fur in the fashion industry, which exploded into the mainstream via the 1990s ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ PETA campaign. It banished fur from the fashion industry, seemingly for good.

    Marketing has a unique power to tap into social changes that are building below the surface, and translate them into mainstream consciousness. Through skilful and observant campaign planning, what’s on everyone’s minds can soon be on everyone’s screens. And the toolbox for building an awareness campaign is packed with powerful techniques like celebrity endorsement, memorable slogans, jingles and striking imagery which drive the messages home.

Do marketers have a responsibility to drive change?

It’s clear that the marketing industry has huge power in its hands. Channels are primed and audiences are receptive – the scene is set for campaigns that encourage socially and environmentally responsible behaviours.

But typically, marketers, and agencies in particular, are working to their needs of their clients – they’re the ones who pay the bills after all. So as a marketer who wants to do ethical work, the persuasive education begins with your clients. Getting their buy-in is the first crucial step.

Some marketers are doing this by branding themselves as sustainable, and therefore appealing to the kind of clients they want to work for. Others are bringing sustainability into conversations with their clients during meetings and pitches, highlighting the opportunities available for brands willing to tap into the circular economy zeitgeist.

Whatever route you take, the time is ripe for collaborations that lead to wider positive outcomes, not just profitable business results.

If you’re interested in developing a marketing approach that champions sustainability, or you have a business idea that’s founded on ethical principles, we’d love to chat to you. We have experience in branding, marketing and creating content for a huge range of businesses, and we love telling feel-good stories about how our clients change the world.

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