Decoupling sustainability and marketing

Decoupling sustainability and marketing (+ communication) may sound as an utterly bold provocation. Unfortunately a lot of passionate sustainability professionals would agree with me. Behind the scenes, of course, and after promising not to mention their names.

The main obstacle

Indeed, one of the main obstacles to a real, effective and rapid transition to more sustainable economy is the fact that sustainability has fallen in the hands of marketing people and communication spinners. Moreover: instead of the last mile of a long and complex process, communication of sustainability and its use for marketing reasons has become too often the first (and often only) step that companies take.

This means that the easiest way to get sustainability consulting contracts is by providing services that are functional to communication, reporting and “green marketing”.

Unfortunately, sustainability is a complex issue, regarding first of all the setting of strategies, then the establishment of strategic objectives that are strictly connected with a company’s overall ones. Then the top leaders of a company, as per ISO guidelines, must take responsibility for the achievement of sustainability objectives. They must oversee, provide the resources, assign responsibilities along the processes, support continuous improvement and finally be accountable.

Objectives must be cascaded

Objectives must be cascaded throughout the organization processes, translated into goals, action plans, subject to measurement and continuous improvement. A lot of research and innovation is needed throughout the industrial processes and the value chain, regarding also the business models, to achieve the objectives. All this is well beyond the competence of the marketing office, though they should certainly have a voice in the overall effort as well as any other part of the organization.

Therefore an effective sustainability strategy requires first of all a cultural shift and the redefinition of an organization’s vision. A strong commitment by the chief leaders is the next step. Readiness and will to perform profound changes are indispensable.

How much more simple to pick a few buzzwords from the marketing lingo and leverage a generic preference from the public towards “green” products. I admit, the above is a brutal synthesis of what is going on, but the basic elements are there and the situation is grim.

Reasons why it is wisest to embrace real Sustainability

The situation is depressing for some very simple reasons:

  1. sustainability and the circular, regenerative economy provide excellent solutions to the need for improving human life quality and the protection of the ecosystem, preserving resources for the future generations;
  2. sustainability has been demonstrated to be an excellent – perhaps nowadays the only – way to assure profitability, resilience and long term success to many companies. Therefore cheating on it is a stupid way to miss opportunities;
  3. the degradation of ecosystems and of the quality of human life that our society, driven by unsustainable economy and foolish economic policies, is appalling. It is currently getting humanity to a point of no return that equals doom.
Decoupling wellbeing from material growth

Some enlightened economists and thought leaders, among them some brilliant entrepreneurs, talk about the need of decoupling wellbeing and the idea of prosperity from “growth” or “material growth”. More plainly, they suggest to quit thinking that wellbeing equals “more stuff”. I agree, of course, having myself tested how much wellbeing one can gain by renouncing more material wealth and possessions in exchange for a more meaningful life. By the way, in the end it leads also to more economic prosperity, which is not necessarily “having more things”.

However, since there is a dramatic inertia in the changing pace of economic systems and even in single organizations, we must take some shortcuts. They are mostly cultural, and have to do with the governance of sustainability. Some positive features I have outlined above. One step that is paramount and needs be taken ASAP is decoupling sustainability and marketing (and communication).

Green marketing brings the worst of two worlds

As it is excellently exemplified with a couple of case-histories in this article from Dr. Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz, the “green marketing” hype is not only promoting unsustainable goods to naive, ill-informed and sometimes lazy consumers. It is also bringing about “the worst of two worlds” by pushing the sales of products that will neither be compostable nor recyclable at their end-of-life, while falsely inducing their clients to believe that they are doing “the right thing”.

As a consequence, we need to put sustainability back into the C-suite of organizations, requiring them to be fully accountable for robust objectives that fulfill the definition of Sustainability as: 

Definition of Sustainability

The capability of an organization to transparently manage its responsibilities for environmental stewardship, social wellbeing and economic shared value over the long term while being accountable to its stakeholders for securing its social license to operate. 

Robert B. Pojasek, 2012

When leaders have correctly taken responsibility for the achievement of the organization’s sustainability objectives it will be clear why decoupling sustainability and marketing was important. At that point I am sure that they will reinstall the management of its complex processes in the hands of the appropriate managers. At such point sustainability will recover its status of:

the best way to manage an organization, appropriate to its context, so that it matches some of the needs of its stakeholders without harming any.

This definition is mine, and it’s the foundation of a sound Vision based upon the principles that I have expanded in my 2015 book “Sustainable Leadership”.

Embedding Sustainability

Only then, when sustainability is fully embedded into a company’s industrial and management processes, will marketing and communication people be allowed to take it and share the organization’s objectives and performance. Then they will help the customers do “as much of the right thing” as it is possible at the current state of technology. Then they will also become the essential connecting link between the organization and its stakeholder, fostering collaboration in the pursuit of mutually satisfactory results.

Perhaps at that point they will have also realized that the public of customers is awakening more every day. Hype and false statements have a very short-lived drive on sales: they certainly cannot assure a long lasting success nor the resilience of a business.

In the meantime, please: let’s cut the crap, learn some self-restraint, guys, and try to be truthful in your statements!