My regular collaborator, Jonathan Knowles, has a new piece in the Journal of Sustainable Marketing. He tackles the idea of sustainable marketing and the role of marketers in the world of for-profit companies. What then does he have to say about sustainable marketing and commercialism?
For-Profit Organizations And Social Progress
Knowles starts by arguing that social progress has a natural fit with public sector and not-for-profit organizations. The former generally has a wider remit, e.g., across all of society, while not-for-profits are often more narrowly focused on tackling more specific issues. Yet, commercial marketers have a major potential role in social progress too. There is a large number of them and they tend to have resources. What can/should they be doing?
To marketers, sustainability goes well beyond some of the narrow risk-focused views you might see in finance. Sustainable marketing isn’t only about doing something because there is an unacceptable risk if you don’t. Marketers generally wouldn’t see their main jobs as simply avoiding the sort of negative exposure that can arise in a world where business actions can substantially negatively impact the world.
Instead, marketers can focus on the positives. Sustainable actions can be good for the firm’s profits and society’s prosperity. The commercial positives to adopting a sustainable perspective in marketing can include:
- influencing consumer demand,
- fostering positive employee relations,
- attracting business partners,
- building up credit with regulators, and
- helping raise funds from investors.
The point is that there are often excellent, positive commercial reasons to embrace sustainability.
Sustainable Marketing And Commerciality
Indeed, Knowles sees the key to more sustainable business through its commercial possibilities. Rather than make a moral case, he suggests that it is better to make a commercial case for sustainability. Business can drive social progress but the way to make this sustainable — in the sense of being able to be continued — is to make sure that social progress is a commercially viable proposition.
Regulation, Innovation, And Sustainable Marketing
The logic of this leads to sustainable marketers seeing their commercial interests as aligned with regulation as such regulation sets the rules of the market. Sustainability-focused marketers should naturally understand the link between markets and society and so they should be in a strong position to advocate for structures to better align commercial interests with social welfare.
Given that socially-optimal outcomes are not being generated – either because there is a lack of “open and free competition” due to excessive concentration, or because of outdated regulation … it may be time to update “the rules of the game”.Knowles, 2023, page 4
The aim is to ensure that market structures drive commercial business decisions that are more likely to lead to good social outcomes. Traditionally, business might have seen its success as independent of social progress. Knowles wants to move business away from driving prosperity in a negative manner with regard to social welfare. Instead, it would be better to shift commercial choices to a situation where what is positive for prosperity is also positive for progress.
Such activities, aligned with support for innovation, can leave the world in a more sustainable situation at the same time as not expecting for-profit firms to abandon the aim of commercial success.
Success In Driving Both Progress And Prosperity
For corporate marketers, sustainability must be approached as a pragmatic, commercial issue ratherKnowles, 2023, page 6
than an ethical one. This is because the purpose of a business is to create a customer – and customers
pay companies to produce the things they want to buy. Social incentives, regulation, and technology
are the tools that marketers can use to ensure that corporations do as little damage (and, preferably,
some good) in the process of generating the products we purchase.
Read: Jonathan Knowles (2023) Effective Corporate Marketers Approach Sustainability as a Commercial
Issue, Not a Moral One, Journal of Sustainable Marketing, https://doi.org/10.51300/JSM-2023-116