The evolving relationship between sustainability and marketing

March 02, 2016

Emma Upton discusses the new hybrid marketing models that are taking sustainability messages direct to consumers.


The relationship between sustainability and marketing is evolving.

Green marketing, cause-related marketing, ethical marketing, sustainability marketing, mission marketing, sustainability communications, social brand, purpose-driven brands, meaningful brands, sustainable brands…  These are just some of the new business and marketing terms entering into mainstream use and making it onto the lips of many – a sure fire way to indicate that conventional marketing is out, and a new era of green marketing and sustainable branding is in. And it is here to stay.

The importance of aligning an organisation’s marketing strategy, messaging and activations with its sustainability and responsible businesses practices and behaviours is being realised by large and small organisations and brands alike. Driven by a greater awareness of both global issues and businesses’ ability to solve these problems; increasing examples of the business benefits to be achieved by embedding sustainability into marketing practices; and by a change in consumer mind-set and purchase decision making. We are seeing a new hybrid of consumer-facing marketing purposes, strategies, communications and activations emerging – all of which are empowering consumers to make better, responsible and sustainable purchase and consumption choices.

But as the business terminology develops, and with no clear definition or clear cut between the different terms, it may also appear to be quite a confusing concept. It is not always obvious as to what the terminology and evolving relationship means and looks like in practice. How exactly are companies moving from a traditional form of marketing to a more holistic form of marketing which encompasses the wider business purpose, sustainability and corporate responsibility?

The evolution

Embedding sustainability into marketing practices has and is being developed in numerous ways, depending on the individual organisation and their products and services. The strategies and activations implemented range from the eco-labelling of products, through to fully integrated marketing and sustainability strategies which emit from a central business purpose, and are embedded into every element of the business. Through research, the team at Corporate Citizenship have identified some key approaches that organisations are currently using to address and drive this evolving relationship and reach a new conscious consumer.

1. On-pack eco-credentials

Communicating that a specific environmental or societal certification has been met. Many brands have visible certification or labelling incorporated into product packaging, as a way to communicate with customers that the product has met a specific  or numerous  environmental and societal certifications. Common certification labels used on packaging include Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Carbon Neutral, Carbon Reduction, Water Reduction and FSC – this strategy of labelling enables an organisation to subtly share the eco-credentials of its products with the world. Certification can cover either one aspect of a product and its production or the product and its processes as a whole. For example, Kingsmill is actively reducing the carbon footprint of its key products, achieving the Carbon Reduction Label from The Carbon Trust. It now uses the labelling on product packs to communicate its commitments to carbon reduction to millions of shoppers nationwide, and to provide a value-added reason to buy Kingsmill over competitor products.

 2. Cause-related marketing and promotion

The most well-known (and over-used) term for marketers. Through cause-related marketing, companies openly support a cause and actively communicate this through their marketing, advertising, promotions and communications  raising the profile of both the brand and the cause. A great, and well known, example of this is Age UK and Innocent: for the last decade, Age UK groups around the country have knitted little woollen hats for Innocent smoothie bottles. For every ‘be-hatted’ smoothie that’s sold, Innocent donates 25p to Age UK. As well as raising over £1.75 million to date, ‘The Big Knit’ tackles social isolation amongst older people. Innocent have now taken this initiative further by now partnering with Oliver Bonas to create a range of hand-knitted hats. Oliver Bonas will donate £5 from every adult hat and £3 from every kid’s hats sold to Age UK. Other long-lasting and impactful examples include Make a Wish Foundation and Fairy, UNICEF and Pampers, Carluccio’s Action for Hunger, Help for Heroes and Noble Foods, and Kenco Coffee vs. gangs.

3. ‘Behind the brand’ exposé

When “too much information” is a phrase never uttered. Some companies and brands look to build customer trust through increased or total transparency, they are hot on exposure and detailed sharing of their product and service impacts, and openly communicate issues which they as a company face and seek to overcome. For example Chipotle have labelled all the ingredients in their menu items, including GMOs  a move which made Chipotle the first American fast food chain to voluntarily display the presence of GMOs in their products. Online clothing retailer Everlane is another great example: the retailer’s consumer website features a world map, dotted in the locations where it has factories. When shopping, customers can see where the items were made, and even have the ability to take a virtual tour of the factories, accessing stories and images of those who produce the products. Everlane also reveals the true costs and mark ups of products to customers – ensuring its customers are empowered to make their own decisions as to whether to purchase.

4. Campaigning for Consumer Behaviour Change

Driving and inspiring positive change through influencing consumer behaviours and perceptions. Increasingly, brands are using advertisements, prime commercial air time and social media to drive and inspire positive social and environmental change, through influencing and changing consumer behaviours and perceptions about many different aspects of sustainability. Through marketing communications brands encourage, educate and cajole consumers to do things differently in order to make the planet a better place for everyone. A recent example is the Colgate SuperBowl 2016 commercial ‘Every Drop Counts’, which in an impactful 30-second clip, encourages viewers to turn off the taps while brushing their teeth to save thousands of gallons of water each year. Ariel’s ‘Turn to 30’ campaign to get consumers to wash clothes at lower temperatures in order to save energy and battle climate change is another great example. One brand tackling a key issue of food waste is Birds Eye, with its ‘Waste Less, Save More’ campaign encouraging consumers to freeze food rather than throwing it away.

 5. Changing the status quo

Shaking up traditional marketing and sustainability models and thinking all over the place. Certain organisations have realised their power to solve social and environmental problems and are finding alternative ways of evolving the relationship between sustainability and marketing and engaging consumers. For example ‘One-for-One’ organisations like TOMS have given consumers a different perspective on how brands can operate. By purchasing a pair of TOMS shoes, eyewear, coffee or bags, through TOMS One-for-One model a person in need is helped through improved access to footwear, eye care, safe water and safe birth kits. By purchasing their products, consumers are actively helping someone in need. Nudie Jeans is another example, as Nudie Jeans Repair Shops have popped up for customers, encouraging them to bring old jeans back in to be fixed for free  both saving money for consumers, helping them to become less wasteful, and helping the brand to build long term relationships with customers.

6. Driven by core purpose

The holy-grail and the harmonious marriage of sustainability and marketing! Organisations and brands that live their purpose in every aspect of the business  from supply chain, to product impacts, to consumer engagement: sustainability is embedded into every aspect of the organisation, and marketing communications naturally capture this. A prime example is Patagonia, which has numerous, engaging consumer-facing initiatives to help reduce its impact on the environment and society, whist educating and inspiring consumers to think and behave differently when it comes to consumption. From the ‘Footprint Chronicleswhich give customers an insight into Patagonia’s entire supply chain, through to campaigning to protect outdoor spaces, to showing the environmental impacts of items of clothing to encouraging customers to repair, reuse and recycle their clothing – Patagonia has it all, and shows no signs of slowing down in its mission to change the world one jacket at a time, bringing customers and consumers along for the ride too.

What does this all mean?

The different methods and strategies shared above, all highlight how the relationship between marketing and sustainability is evolving, and how the two functions can work in harmony together to communicate in a different and innovative way to consumers. Communicating this message in a clear way, which empowers consumers to make better purchasing decisions based on their own values, makes it easier for them to make responsible and sustainable consumption choices. As the relationship between sustainability and marketing continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see which strategies and campaigns stand the test of time, and which new strategies and tactics arise in the coming years as consumers become ever more knowledgeable, conscious and demanding of organisations.


Emma Upton is Marketing and Business Development Executive at Corporate Citizenship.