This page gives advice to managers, teachers, and students on sustainable marketing strategy. Eventually, I intend to share an entire course on the topic that I am currently developing. In the meantime, I will refer readers to relevant posts and other material.
Definitions of Sustainability
First, let me note that there are a number of definitions of sustainability.
- Green. E.g., does the firm use recycled materials or have net zero targets?
- Promoting sustainable development: E.g., does the firm in any way support the UN Sustainable Development Goals? If we can achieve these goals, see here, it would represent a massive positive change in the world. What can business do to help?
- Sustaining a business. E.g., are you planning for the long-term survival of the business? Many of the ways that marketing are accounted for encourage short-term thinking. How can we improve that?
These are different definitions but they have considerable overlap. Trashing the planet makes it hard to raise the lives of the people on the planet and is pretty likely to be bad for business long-term.
I will use all three senses and try and be specific if the definitions might conflict.
Stakeholders Are Key To Sustainable Marketing Strategy
One of the big topics in sustainable business is the purpose of business. Jonathan Knowles (a co-author of mine) and his colleagues have some advice on better understanding purpose. They outline the three purposes of a purpose: competence-based, culture-based, and cause-based. See here for more. The point is that those running a firm should have a clear idea what the company is there to do.
Indeed, what you think a firm is there to do is critical to understanding corporate objectives. There are rather simplistic notions out there, e.g., a firm is there purely to make money for the owners. I see this as not fully intellectually engaging with the problem. Milton Friedman’s view gives himself a get-out-of-jail-card relating to norms and ethics. These he says are important but he doesn’t define whose ethics or norms to use. Given this, his argument basically collapses to ‘focus on making money for the owners except when you shouldn’t’. It isn’t really helpful.
Of course, running a firm is hard so it isn’t surprising that Friedman’s advice is vague. Still, the main argument in favor of his position, compared to stakeholder-based ideas, is Friedman’s supposed clarity. For this reason, the lack of clarity in his idea really isn’t acceptable. For more see here.
A lot of thought has been given to what organizations owe stakeholders. In a stakeholder-based view owners are stakeholders. Other stakeholders, e.g., employees, local communities, matter too though. Engaging the stakeholders is something that managers should take very seriously, see here.
BTW the existence of stakeholders relates to all organizations not just for-profit organizations, here is an article on governmental stakeholders.
B Corps And Benefit Corporations
One way that stakeholders can be explicitly considered is by pursuing B Corp certification. This involves undergoing an assessment of the firm’s impact on a range of stakeholders. See here for the website of B Lab, which is the organization administering this certification. For more on B Corps see here and here.
Related but different Benefit Corporations are a legal form of company that explicitly say its managers will consider a range of stakeholders in their decisions. The idea is that this should help with shareholder lawsuits. Benefit Corporation status clarifies the law as managers can clearly consider the needs of people beyond shareholders as this is stated in the corporate charter. The shareholders, therefore, can’t really complain if managers do, for example, treat the workers well. In the UK there is a campaign to amend the Companies Act to get companies to consider a wider range of stakeholders, see here.
B Corp can be seen as more responsible companies. Ones that see their duties as much wider than just funneling money to the owners, see here.
For more on the idea that business can grow the pie (bring wide benefits as it is not a zero-sum game) see here and here.
Being Decent Wasn’t Invented Yesterday
While it might seem trendy now to think of business in terms of benefiting a range of stakeholders it is important to understand that this isn’t at all new. People have long seen business as a potentially positive force in the world. In many ways, it is a mistake to accept the idea that shareholder primacy — thinking shareholders are all (nearly all) that matters to the firm — is the natural state of affairs and by extension stakeholder views are novel. On the contrary, for as long as the idea of business has been around I am sure there have been people trying to make the world a better place through business. I can’t prove it but I’m sure some Greek merchant saw a higher purpose in sending amphora filled with high-quality wines around the Mediterranean world. (Even though at the Greek merchant’s heart there was probably a potentially offensive notion of helping the unenlightened barbarians who didn’t have the joys of Classical Greek culture).
We can certainly point to business people, like many Victorian Quakers, who took a relatively enlightened view (for the time) of business as being a force for sustainable development, see here. To be clear societies allow firms to exist. If firms don’t bring social value why allow them to register as entities?
Marketers have a role in helping people be more green. Research in this area is often in the decision-making literature. How can we help people make sustainable decisions? E.g., do you really need a straw? (Yes paper straws are awful but, although some people do, most of us never need straws in the first place). There is simply a lot of potential for us to choose better. Will better consumer choices alone solve all the problems of the world? That seems unlikely. Still, I live in the US and the good news is that there are an awful lot of very easy things that consumers can do better.
For more on aiding sustainable choices using decision-making research and organizational structure see here, here, and here.
Measuring Impact Matters
It is critical that we have results, not just good intentions. To this end, we need some way to measure whether we are doing a good job, see here.
I am a big believer in numbers allowing us to judge progress. It is not that numbers are perfect. They aren’t. Still, they are a lot better from the powerful “knowing” what is the best thing to do. If you are a pompous old man who hates numbers this one is for you, see here and for the dangers of a meaningless statement because it isn’t properly defined see here.
Progress Exists: Sustainable Marketing Strategy Can Help
The UN Sustainable Development Goals are explicitly based upon the idea of progress. To hope for progress, my guess is that it helps to believe in progress. This is not to assume that all will simply be well. We really need to put the work in to achieve progress. Still, with effort, it seems like there is an awful lot we can achieve. Such progress can be good for long-term business, the planet, and the people on it. For a few ideas about progress see here, here, here, here, and here.
What people see as progress varies between us. Still, things like lower maternal mortality should be widely seen as a good thing. There are business models that can help with that.
Sadly some of the people who seem to believe least in progress are progressives. I think we need to get past the idea of Malthus they often use — that starvation is an inevitable fact of life. It isn’t, and progressive people have got to stop playing homage to Malthus, who seems (I’m being polite) a cranky, dated, snob. See here for more on how awful Malthus is. Don’t worry he is very dead so you won’t bump into him at a party, (hopefully at least).
Business can help improve the lives of people. Indeed, that is pretty much all it is for.