Marketing and sustainability

Kiran Kapur | 25 March 2021

Series 7, Episode 33

Thomas McAlinden and Nigel Clark join Kiran to discuss what we mean by Sustainability, why it isn't just greenwashing, and where companies should begin their "Sustainability Journey". We also discuss the concept of secret sustainability that is why some organisations are sustainable but don't talk about it.

Kiran Kapur (00:13):
So today we are going to be talking about the really important topic of marketing and sustainability. And as one of my guests said, "Marketers are a bit all over the place when it comes to sustainability." So I am joined by Nigel Clark, who is the Head of Marketing Communications at SLR, which is a global marketing environmental consultancy. And by Thomas McAlinden, tutor of the college who has a passionate interest in this area. So we've agreed that marketers are a bit all over the place with this. Nigel, can I start with why you think that is?

Nigel Clark (00:46):
Yeah, sure Kiran. I think that is the case because I think marketers have tried to do their best in this arena but it's not really worked so far. I think they've come at it in a way that they're trying to project the best of their companies, the best of their brands, and yet they've been accused of greenwashing or just spinning a story.

Nigel Clark (01:19):
I think in some instances they're seen as or were seen as a profession that is just trying to sell more stuff, which seems almost completely opposite to the sustainability message. And then I think we've tried to address issues like packaging plastics, which then might not be the biggest impact that your brand has on the environment or sustainability issues.

Nigel Clark (01:53):
So I think we're a bit mixed up.

Kiran Kapur (01:55):
Thomas, is that your view as well?

Thomas McAlinden (01:57):
Yeah, just with regards to marketing sustainability, some would argue that they're both different sides of the same coin in the sense that marketing really tries to, as marketers yourself you know we try and drive consumption. Because remember when we start to trying even get down to the basis of what marketing is, different definitions, but even if we use the CIM one, talking about identifying and satisfying consumer leads of what's at a profit, we need to try and motivate and get consumers to consume.

Thomas McAlinden (02:28):
And as Nigel was highlighting there, that goes directly against with regards to sustainability and in that regard trying to be more sustainable in our consumption and reduced our consumption, [inaudible 00:02:40] well. So there is this debate between the two and it's something that's again, helping lead to organizations really reflect upon the practices and with them changing some of the practices like you'll probably see within the news, like Brewdog, even Levi's and many others.

Kiran Kapur (03:00):
Okay, so Nigel, can we actually think about what we mean by sustainability? So you said marketers are a bit all over the place with it. What is it?

Nigel Clark (03:10):
Well thankfully some bigger brains than ours have thought very carefully about this and the United Nations have a set of sustainability development goals, there's an acronym of SDGs that people might see in the marketplace. So there is a definition there of what sustainability covers, and to be honest, it's very broad.

Nigel Clark (03:35):
It doesn't exclude economic benefits because we still have billions of people living on less than $2 a day, and to say to them, "You've got to just consider environmental impacts and not your economic position," is... Wouldn't wash with anyone. So you hear these phrases about the triple bottom line or people planet profit, sustainability is a very, very broad agenda and I think that's where marketers get a little bit lost because they think it's just environmental factors or it's just climate change, or it's just packaging or whatever.

Nigel Clark (04:22):
It's a very broad agenda and it's quite a complex agenda, so you do have to get your head round this otherwise the risk is that you just are seen as treating it as a very simple approach and that's where greenwashing comes in.

Kiran Kapur (04:42):
You work for a global marketing environmental consultancy, so when a company comes to you and says, "We need to do something about this," where do you start?

Nigel Clark (04:50):
Well we start by trying to understand where the key impacts of that company or that brand are. So we would with them look across the sustainability development goals and consider where they have a significant impact, either positively or negatively, because there is an upside to this as well. We would consider and look at that picture in the round, look at the totality of their impacts. That would be our starting point. There is across a number of industries some very good benchmarks, some very good guides.

Nigel Clark (05:37):
So if you're in pharmaceuticals or if you're in consumer goods, or if you're in energy or mining, then there are industry benchmarks. There are industry standards to look at all stitching underneath that broad framework of the United Nations sustainability development goals. So there is a way of understanding where your impacts are and that's the best place to start.

Kiran Kapur (06:05):
Okay. And Thomas, what do you see when we talk about sustainability, what do we actually ... In your [inaudible 00:06:12] you said you were passionate about it. What do you mean by it?

Thomas McAlinden (06:15):
Yeah, well to lead on from what Nigel was talking about, just understanding sustainability, trying to think about how do we meet our own needs today, just where we live and from our consumption. But at the same time being mindful that we're leaving the world really, and a place where especially as a father our children are actually able to grow up in and meet their own needs as well.

Thomas McAlinden (06:42):
And we start talking about understanding that we try and ... Or move away from this idea of over-consumption and understanding that we don't actually need quite a lot of these things in order to live. And as I say, you'll come across many terms within business and indeed in marketing of different definitions, but I suppose that for me is the one that I like to adhere to. Really just meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.

Kiran Kapur (07:15):
That gives us a background to it, I think we'll talk later a little bit more about the company's purpose and how they can use this. But Thomas you brought some fascinating research in about secret sustainability in companies which I must admit was completely new to me.

Thomas McAlinden (07:32):
Yeah, shamefully I can't remember the author's name. I will find it out because they do deserve obviously the credit, but yeah, it's with regards to not only about organizations ... What drives them to adopt sustainability, which obviously you need to understand as well, but thinking about those organizations indeed are sustainable or indeed are, and thinking about how they do communicate now, if you go online you'll probably see, especially on LinkedIn, BrewDog, the CEO or one of the founding owners of BrewDog talking about the sustainability initiatives that they do. So they're very vocal about what they do.

Thomas McAlinden (08:13):
But there are some organizations that aren't and the transparency matrix, which we showcase to you before with regards to transparent companies, dark companies, opaque companies and so on, really just highlighting why are some companies very vocal in what they do and why are some not so vocal in what they do. Even if they are indeed being sustainable and the kind of manufacturing and production and everything else.

Thomas McAlinden (08:44):
And it gives us this rises at well then to what is known as secret sustainability, where there are some organizations that are sustainable, and that is kind of embedded within the business practice, but they don't show it to about it from the rooftops, which is a shame. But again, it's also from the research, from that talking about the perception and cynicism from really us as consumers, because we think then that if that there must be some sort of downstate to these organizations, if they are sustainable, because that has that perception then perhaps that it may cost more money for the kind of good that perhaps we make them have to go on and buy.

Kiran Kapur (09:33):
So Nigel, do you, is that something you would agree with, that there are companies that are actually doing sustainability and however we describe it, but are just terrified to talk about it?

Nigel Clark (09:44):
I think it's absolutely true. Kiran, I think Thomas has explained that extremely well. I think as we sort of started out, you know, marketers are a bit all over the place because quite a few of them have been burned by the experience of talking about where they are on sustainability or where they are on their environmental impact. And rather than being rewarded for that by consumers or by the market, they've actually just been burned on it because people don't believe them. So, you know, all of us, if we say something with, with meaning and we believe it, and people knock us back, the natural reaction is to go quiet. Not necessarily to change our behaviors or to change our purpose or to try and work out why people didn't like what we said and natural reaction, I think as humans is to retreat into our shells.

Nigel Clark (10:54):
So I think there are quite a few companies and brands now that are very nervous about pushing their sustainability credentials, possibly underpinned by a sort of sense of doubt of, "Are we actually doing the right things?", and if marketers are not at the center of the organization, if they're not at the center of the conversation around this topic, then maybe they, as teams and individuals, or as departments are sort of a little bit nervous sort of thinking, "Well, maybe we're better off not talking about this because we can have a much more positive conversation about another aspect of our company or another feature or benefit of our brand."

Kiran Kapur (11:42):
Yes, there is something in the research that says that consumers hold ethical companies or companies that claim to be ethical to a higher standard than they perceive other companies. And so if a company comes out and says I'm ethical in this area", the reaction can be, "Well, you're not ethical about this", of something else as opposed to, "Well done. You've actually taken that stance."

Nigel Clark (12:02):
I think that's very correct, Kiran. If you come out and make strong claims on your environmental agenda, then people might ask, "Well, how are you doing on diversity and inclusion?" Or if you sort of say something that is particular to one aspect of the environmental agenda, people might sort of say, "You're doing all right on energy consumption, but you're not doing as well on water cleanliness." Or, "You're not doing very well on how you manage your waste and effluent." So there is an aspect that people will not give you a pat on the back from making the start of this journey. They'll jump on you and want to sort of know that you're looking at all of your impacts. Whereas if a company is not perceived to even starting the journey, then maybe they can hide in the shadows.

Thomas McAlinden (13:09):
And we also need to be mindful of these companies that obviously acquire other companies as well, because as we understand how companies try and grow acquisition can form part of that. And for some of these businesses that are part perhaps of a larger group, there may be kind of sustainable, and that may be embedded within the strategy and the business operations and whatnot, but other parts of the business may not be. And when we start talking about, or even if we refer back to that, sustainability initiative transparency matrix, as it well and understand these companies that may also lend itself to help explain why some of these companies, in essence, don't show about what they're doing, because it may be then starts raising alarm bells on other aspects of the business that perhaps that are not sustainable and whether, leading right back to what Nigel highlighted at the outset could potentially start then sparking accusations of green washing, et cetera.

Thomas McAlinden (14:14):
So it's all of that. Or I suppose what is highlighted is just the difficult nature of trying to not only be sustainable, embedding that as part of the business practice, but then ultimately making that decision about whether you're going to share about it from the rooftops, or indeed not say anything at all.

Kiran Kapur (14:32):
Yes. It's a fascinating area. The secret sustainability versus greenwashing. I find it absolutely amazing. Could we just have a couple of examples? I'll come to each of you in turn of a company that's doing sustainability well, and then we'll start talking about how marketers could look at shifting their own companies. So Thomas, is there a company you can think of that does sustainability well?

Thomas McAlinden (14:55):
Yeah, several. You've got BrewDog, Levi's Patagonia. Even Coca-Cola. BrewDog is one that is quite vocal about it. Hence why on probably perhaps more about that with regards to the sustainability initiatives and what they're doing, but for me, you talk about the kind of gold standard. There are people like Patagonia with regards to trying to make sure that the get you there, or does the consumer to maybe not consume as much, running these campaigns to say, don't buy this jacket and get you to reuse or repair.

Thomas McAlinden (15:34):
But also even other companies and how they're starting to adopt that. Like Levi's is a really interesting one where there are no one to buy back your old jeans and they'll look at it and then sell them on which again is starting to get us as marketers to start looking at this, even producing these products, because it's not then us, as a business producing them again, what buying by what sort of data in the marketplace and then selling them onto perhaps others. And this is about understanding and the type of consumer as well. And some start seeing about the growing importance of even sustainability and in the eyes of even gen Z and gen zed and whatnot. So those are some really good examples of companies and the sustainability and thoughts from my opinion.

Kiran Kapur (16:20):
Gen zed being basically, they're roughly 18 to 23 now, if I got that right, but they're sort of the youngest consumers coming into the marketplace. Nigel, Do you have any examples?

Nigel Clark (16:31):
Yeah. I mean, I'll quote two, one, which is a very well known and another one, which may be not, wouldn't come so much to mind. And I think is an example of a brand that is definitely moving in the right direction. So I think the one that everybody will be familiar with is Marks & Spencers, which has very successfully and, and very thoroughly. And I know from personal experience that they've really thought about this and, and put it right at the center of their brand and the right at the center of their business proposition. So I think what impresses me about them is, is it's not something that sort of sits alongside their normal business. This isn't something that they're doing on top of what their core business is. Its absolutely central to their brand proposition.

Nigel Clark (17:28):
And I think as marketers, that's a critical question for us, which is where does sustainability sit in your brand proposition? What's your company purpose, what's your promise to clients and how do you put sustainability right at the heart of that, rather than as a nice kind of shiny green add-on. So Marks & Spencers would be one. The other one, and they are just an example of a number of companies in the same, which I think has, which we've seen recently is Volvo. So Volvo, like a number of their car companies have made a commitment to being an all electric fleet within a relatively short period of time. And I think a number of those car companies will be in a position where there are brand proposition or what they offer to their clients will change almost completely in less than a generation from a place where you used to buy a vehicle, which purely ran on fossil fuels.

Nigel Clark (18:50):
And I think within 10 years time, a lot of car companies will be leasing, renting, you will just effectively be borrowing a physical asset from them from a period of time, there'll be no fossil fuels involved and pretty much everything that is in that car that you'll be driving around in for two or three years time. When that car's life comes to an end after five, 10, 15 years, pretty much all of the materials in that car will be reused and recycled and go into the next generation of cars.

Kiran Kapur (19:35):
Excellent. So it's nice to have some positive examples. So I'll come to both of you and say, if I was sitting in a company, as in fact I am going, I really want to do more on this and I need to do more on this. Where would I start? What should I think about doing. So Thomas, let me start with you. Where would you think that I should start for that?

Thomas McAlinden (19:55):
Well, it needs to be pretty chill that actually it's embedded as part of the whole organization. It can't just be something that somebody just wants to try and do because like anything, the adoption of anything in particularly their sustainability efforts and initiatives really need to start from the top. As I say, if you don't want to have a chief exec and kind of top line senior management, having a focus on this, then nothing will get done. As a CEO, I'll draw your attention to what is known as the knowing-doing gap, because many organizations really understand that actually sustainability is important, but not many actually incorporate it into their business model. And as I say, that can range from the challenges of doing so, because there's a perception of regards to increase costs money. But really for me, I'm talking about the adoption of sustainability. It also needs to be really starting from the top to then permeate its way through then the kind of rest of the organization.

Kiran Kapur (21:00):
Nigel?

Nigel Clark (21:01):
If I may I'll answer the question as not just as a business, but if I was the head of marketing or the marketing director in a company, I think that the two things I'd want to do as a member of the leadership team of that business, I'd want to make sure that we really understood properly where our key impacts were. So going back to the sustainability goals, going back to industry benchmarks. Not assuming where your impacts are. I've seen some very interesting case studies, for example, of fizzy drinks manufacturers, where actually the sustainability impact or the biggest environmental impact is not in the production of the good or the production of the drink, but is actually in the supply chain, is all the people keeping, that you advertise that this product has to be kept really cold and that the environmental impact is not sitting in your organization.

Nigel Clark (22:10):
It's in your supply chain or with your consumers in terms of keeping that product cold. So the energy cost of doing that. So first of all, I would want to understand the impact. I think, as a marketer, I would particularly want to pay attention to how you communicate that and make sure people understand that you're being open and honest about that. And then the second thing I would do is once you've understood that, lead a really honest and open conversation with your stakeholders, with your customers, with your supply chain, with your employees, about what you want to achieve here and how much sustainability is central to your business case, as Thomas said, how central it is to your brand's purpose and make sure that it's not an adjunct.

Nigel Clark (23:09):
Make sure it's not something that is just attached onto the side of the business. But as Thomas said, right at the center of it, and I think marketers, because we are communicators, because we are listeners, we are perfectly placed to help organizations do that, particularly because we're there to listen and understand clients, but more so because we can lead that engagement with stakeholders right across the business.

Kiran Kapur (23:38):
My final question to both of you is going to be, how much do you think as a company we should be shouting about it? Is it something that we go, "Yes. We need to have a go and then talk about it and take the risk that we might be viewed as being greenwashed or do we actually go for the secret sustainability or are you going to tell me it depends." So Thomas, can I throw that one at you first?

Thomas McAlinden (24:01):
Yeah, well. As I say, I think you've kind of answered that yourself there with, it depends on the specific circumstance and situation, because when we start talking about first and foremost, the adoption of sustainability becoming much more of a requirement than optional choice now, because it's what consumers are expecting. And even though that's been the case over the past few years, that has grown in importance to obviously today in, obviously we talk about gen Z or gen zed, and then also being the consumers with much more disposable income, et cetera, in the future, but also being sustainable should be seen, not as a cost, but an investment and for businesses as we've kind of highlighted and spoken about, or over the duration of this kind of chat together, you really should try and benefit from it because it can be seen or indeed it can act as a competitive advantage.

Thomas McAlinden (24:56):
And as I say, if you truly do believe in sustainability and want to try and drive it as part of your organization, I don't see why you wouldn't share about it. But the only thing is when I say the challenges that you've got is trying to overcome this perception and cynicism by some, not all consumers, but by some which can then obviously lead to the, kind of the skeptics among these, about your initiative. So from our perspective, if you're doing it and you're living and breathing it, and again, it's not just something that you're trying to put on your website or communicate out to certain stakeholders, you should share about it because it's what consumers and indeed customers and even all of our stakeholders are looking for and organizations, I don't know what perhaps Nigel's point of view is.

Nigel Clark (25:48):
I would say that if you're successful in building this NCO brand proposition, then effectively you have to talk about it because you want to talk about your brand proposition. When people talk about tipping points and hopes for the future. But I think it will be within a relatively short period of time. If you look at the speed with which some leading companies are now moving, I think if you stay on the back foot and think we can stay in the shadows on this, I think you're going to get caught out quite soon. So be prepared, do your homework, don't rush out with something. But if you do this thoroughly, then I think it's actually going to be a huge benefit to brands and businesses. And I think it's going to be a clear differentiator that you will want to talk about, and you won't want to stay in the shadows.

Kiran Kapur (26:49):
That's fantastic. Thomas McAlinden and Nigel Clark. Thank you both very much for giving us your insights into marketing and sustainability. I think we started off with marketers being all over the place and ended up with quite a rallying cry. We will tweet up the and other social media, the various models that we've talked about. Follow the Cambridge Marketing college, to look for those. And thank you both very much.

Nigel Clark (27:13):
Thank you.




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