Greener marketing for The Transformative Twenties

category - campaign
sector - retail
type - opinion
Covid-19 has made ‘pivoting’ a matter of survival as well as principle for brands. But in the move towards a greener economy, what should businesses prioritise?

Sustainability has been through a sea change these last few years. Previously, it was about reforming operations and managing risks. Sustainability professionals mainly audited and reported. It was a subset of compliance; being seen to do the right thing while not actually doing that much.

Many organisations have since woken up to the extreme crises, both environmental and social, that are impacting global citizens. Sustainability is now the imperative to transform business and its impacts. Some have even suggested we ditch the word ‘sustainability’ and call it something else, like regenerative business.

One such awakening was at British brewing company BrewDog. As its founder James Watt writes on its blog: ‘It hit us like a 400-volt shock in a copper bathtub. The blindingly stark realisation that we were not doing anything like enough. And in fact, that we were massively contributing to the existential problem that our planet and our species are curre ntly facing. An equally stark realisation followed soon thereafter: if we don’t have a planet to brew beer on, then our whole business is pretty pointless.’

Now, companies are making serious commitments to a radical transition that goes well beyond reform and reporting. Companies such as Microsoft and Unilever have this year announced targets to reduce carbon emissions or even be carbon negative by 2030, and both have launched £780 million ($1bn, €851m) climate funds.

Starbucks wants to ‘[give] more than we take from the planet,’ while supermarket chain Tesco is working with the WWF to halve the footprint of UK customers’ shopping baskets. Nearly 1,000 major companies signed up to Science Based Targets, which means at a minimum they’re aiming for net zero emissions from their value chains by 2050.

Published by:

28 September 2020

Author: John Grant

Image: By planting forests and switching to wind power, BrewDog has become the first beer maker to be Carbon Negative. Sustainability report by BrewDog, UK


Tony's Chocolonely Unfair Fair by HERC, Amsterdam

So, what do these commitments mean for marketing? Firstly, get the product right for tomorrow’s green economy. Meeting these commitments means taking action in the supply chain, sourcing, service and product design. There is usually a nettle to grasp. For Starbucks’ CO2 footprint, its biggest producer (at 21%) was dairy – hence Starbucks partnering with oat milk brands to offer plant-based alternatives.

Secondly, set an inspiring radical purpose that defines your value to society. TESLA produces cars, but it’s also here to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Tony’s Chocoloney wants to make chocolate 100% slave free. Unilever’s CEO Alan Jope has even said: ‘We will dispose of brands that we feel are not able to stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny, your skin soft, your clothes whiter or your food tastier.’

Embrace your cause in your marketing and don’t be afraid to be partisan. We’ve seen it with Nike and its support of Colin Kaepernick and Ben & Jerry’s support of people seeking asylum – they know that by championing an issue they will polarise opinions. And that’s okay. As Netflix said in a tweet (that gained 1m likes) during the Black Lives Matter groundswell, ‘To be silent is to be complicit.’ Being radical today – provided you are sincere – is to be in tune with mainstream feelings.

Another aspect, which is hugely relevant to Generation Z, is be performative. If you look at the way brands and trends catch on in the era of TikTok and YouTube, an element of physical ritual or movement is often a factor. Like upcycled fashion brand andagainco, which built three times the following of Burberry through mesmerising clips of sewing and remaking clothes.

But what do these commitments mean in the long-term? Businesses must go through a transformation at least as radical as the last 25 years. It’s a paradigm shift. A journey of 1,000 pivots. Ranging from farming and deforestation codes to redesigning their business models and purpose. Those that cannot or will not pivot face a Darwinian form of disruption at the hands of others. And as Unilever has shown, such a transformation can also drive business success: its portfolio of Sustainable Living Brands grew 69% faster than the rest of the business in 2019.

John Grant is the author of Greener Marketing, his new book for 2020 that unpacks how meaningful marketing can make a positive impact on the climate crisis and on improving human life in troubled times.

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