Sustainability and conservation: can marketing save the planet?

By Rutu Mody-Kamdar

Whose responsibility is it to be responsible? Is this the government’s job? Or large conglomerates? Or the general public, perhaps? Definitions of sustainability have often been so broad and vague that they rarely assign the job to anyone in particular.

As a marketer, I have often wondered if sustainability is a conversation that can be woven in our heavily profit and revenue driven world. Marketing has always been a tainted child in the world of the most woke generation shifting gears and building narratives around conservation and minimalism. Marketing is, in fact, the antithesis of minimalism. As marketers, we have been accused of creating false needs, encouraging greed, overconsumption and materialism, and using several psychological hacks to sell products which in turn generate huge profits.

However, several brands have jumped on the bandwagon of sustainability campaigns. These campaigns are worthy of rewards and kudos, but do they end up changing behavior? Do they encourage a reduced mindset or are they just a eulogy to the mysterious world of sustainability, conservation and minimalism?

There are two sides to the coin. While organizations are half-heartedly trying to do their part to save the planet, consumers are also slow to embrace an enlightened consumer mindset. Although the needs of the current generation are different from those of previous generations and activism is widespread, thanks to social media there seems to be a distinct gap between value and action. One where we see consumers actively participating in debate and discussion, but rarely taking meaningful action.

When making a purchase, consumers have a simple value equation: “What do I get for what I pay for?” While wearing a shoe made from ocean waste is great for the environment, how good is this shoe for me? Is this okay with me? Are you all right ? And does it fit my value equation to pay a lot more? Until organizations crack this code, all sustainability-focused campaigns will continue to be elitist and superficial. Collective planetary benefits are vague and ambiguous for consumers to understand.

Brands think they’re doing their part by making consumers feel guilty by adding cheeky messaging that urges them to be more environmentally conscious. In choosing a laundry brand to recycle the towel in a hotel room, there is a passive-aggressive message that leads to existential angst where consumers often feel disconnected from the very purpose of being aware.

Marketing today must take an active role in converting consumers into conscious citizens and in establishing a dialogue about sustainability and conservation. But these messages must go further.

To begin with, marketers need to understand sustainability behavior. And add functional and personal benefits to products, rather than things consumers often can’t cope with. Guilt-ridden consumers rarely have lasting benefits. So, rather than marketing a shampoo on the fact that it comes from natural products and uses recycled water, try to talk about how mild it smells and is less harmful to the scalp. Getting consumers to understand what sustainability can do for them rather than what they can do for sustainability.

The author is Founder, Jigsaw Brand Consultants

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