How can marketing departments help make us more sustainable?
Does marketing really have a place in a sustainable world?
Throughout my career I have struggled with ethics and ‘doing the right thing’. When I say struggled, for me, there was no struggle. You don’t bullshit. You are honest. You are open. You are reliable. And conscientious. All values that I live by personally and professionally. Not to say I get it right all the time but that's only human.
I went to university later than my peers. It was a convoluted path that started out with one of the biggest regrets of my life. At the age of 21, I already had some qualifications under my belt and so I only needed to do two years to obtain my Honours degree. One of the first of many theoretical subjects we were taught was “The 4 P’s of Marketing” – Product, Price, Place and Promotion, otherwise known as 'the marketing mix'. Extremely basic stuff. But I refer to it now as I think it provides a useful starting block for marketing departments and professionals to help drive sustainability within business. And more importantly, buying behaviour and sowing the sustainable seed far and wide.
This is the first article in a four part series looking at the role of marketing in a sustainable world. First up. I'm going to look at the first 'P' - 'Product'.
Traditionally, the 'product' part of the 4 P's relates to the goods or services offered by a business to satisfy the wants or needs of their target market or customers. From product development, design, quality, packaging, marketing has a part to play in varying degrees. However, when we look at ‘Product’ through the lens of sustainability, we have to also look at product longevity, user cycles, material choices, ownership of the product, final use and of course the language we use whenever we communicate the product.
We know that our world is filled with linear products. That is, products which feed the ‘take, make, waste’ culture we're drowning in. The Circularity Gap Report tells us that our world is only 8.6% circular. Which means that 91.4% of what business is producing is ending up in our environment, dumped in landfill or finding it’s way into our oceans.
Of course product design and designing for product circularity is not the responsibility of the marketing department. But marketing departments are responsible for driving forward the right messaging about those products. And with the right knowledge and information, could help to drive better business practices. And better habits and attitudes by customers. And it's much easier that you might think...
Marketing departments will be involved in the copy for packaging, labelling and online product descriptions. Let's start by being honest and transparent about ingredients and materials. Tell people what the ingredients or materials are, how they’re made, and what effect they're having on the environment. And of course, what the business is doing in order to phase out harmful chemicals.
Yes it's a tough one for marketing to be part of. But the beating of the sustainable drum must happen. And with people becoming more savvy shoppers, this could actually show real commitment whilst helping the business move towards better material and ingredient choices. After all, it's better to shout about moving towards something positive than to continually have to admit to or cover up doing something negative.
Website Product Pages
I have been drawn into the world of fast fashion to use as an example of how we can and could be better at providing the right information to customers.
I'll focus here on In The Style. A young brand with a young target market. The epitome of fast fashion. But a brand that, on the surface, appears to be trying to move in a more positive direction. I firmly believe that it's the younger audience that we have to be even more mindful to engage with and to offer up the right information to. If we can foster good habits and conscious thinking and doing in the customers of In The Style, then that is a huge win.
Before I get onto the Product specific pages, I have to first of all comment on In The Style's Sustainability page. Most fast fashion websites appear to have a page about sustainability (missguided has a ‘Corporate Social Responsibility page – can someone tell them it’s not 1980 please). In The Style's Sustainability page has all the right buzz words. They have teamed up with the Marine Conservation Society donating 1p from every item sold. And they have started to communicate what to do with clothing when their customers no longer want or need them. But there are improvements that could be made by the marketing department to be even clearer about their commitment to sustainability.
First and foremost, how about moving the ‘Sustainability’ navigation, currently buried in the footer, up to the top menu? Give it pride of place and show real commitment to spreading the most important message of our lifetime. This simple and easy to implement fix could potentially allow In The Style to reach more people – young people - who need to know about how their buying decisions affect the planet they live in for the rest of their lives.
But back to the Product Specific Pages...
Product pages can provide a wealth of information from materials, style, colour, care instructions, delivery and returns. But here is the page that could and should also have information about sustainability.
I'd like to see more information about supply chains, people who make the products, more detailed information about the materials they use in their clothing ranges and any sustainability credentials of the people who they collaborate with. And alongside, the Delivery/Returns section, I want to see a 'What to do when you no longer want it' box.
As we'll discuss in the next section, the responsibility for what happens to the clothes bought from In The Style is placed in the hands of their customers. It is a fantastic step forward that they're promoting the Regain App on their Sustainability page and offering a coupon for money off their next purchase. It's on the way to 'closing the loop'. But the gap is still quite wide. Whilst it's great that it's on the Sustainability page, I'd like to see this everywhere on the website.
I want marketing departments to ask their web designers to add this in to the Product Description on Product pages. It's such a simple and relatively quick way to put the sustainability message at the heart of the business. I want to see a ‘download the Regain app’ on the Product Page. I want to see it being promoted all over the website. And I hope they include this information on the checkout page, email confirmation and in the package they send to customers.
What I absolutely don’t want to see on Product pages? “You only regret what you DON’T buy!” No guys and gals, this is not the message from a brand that say they want to be kinder to our environment.
Product ‘end of use’
What do we do with a product when you no longer want or need it? I’m not talking about single use packaging. That’s a whole other issue. We're encouraged to take clothes to charity shops or to donate to socially driven initiatives that provide clothing for homeless people or women who are victims of domestic abuse. We take stuff to the 'dump' or recycling centres. Again, the onus very much placed on us to deal with it. As mentioned, In The Style ask customers to make use of the Regain App. But only on their Sustainability page. We have some businesses like H&M with drop off points for unwanted clothing, and IKEA now leading the way in bring back schemes. But is that being communicated clearly enough by the businesses that make the goods?
A quick look at H&M's website and it's good to see Sustainability at the top navigation. They claim to have introduced a 'bring back' scheme in 2013. But nowhere else do I see information about Closing the Loop, or what to do when you no longer want the clothes. I can't see the Recycle information on IKEA's product pages either, but perhaps that is offered at the checkout as there is a small non-profit fee which they charge when they take away an item of furniture.
I want marketing departments to ask their web designers to include 'End of Use' on Product Description pages, on Shopping Cart pages, on Checkout messages, confirmation emails and in delivery packages. It's such a simple and relatively quick way to put the sustainability message at the heart of the business.
A truly sustainable world needs everyone to contribute and we aren’t going to do that by engaging in snobbery as I have seen happen on social media. Brands (and the people behind them) being lambasted for not 'doing the right thing'. Which is understandable as it's frustrating but is it what we need? Do we need to focus on educating and informing? working together? Sharing ideas and collaborating?
Of course, sustainability, real, honest, true sustainability is placed at the heart of every person in a business or organisation. Whether marketing, finance, product development or human resources. Everyone must get on board and live and breathe it. Sustainability is not a trend. It’s about having a kick ass stylish approach to life. It's pure, unadulterated self care. Real planet care puts sustainability in the header navigation. When it’s in the footer, we're only playing at being sustainable. Being in the footer positions sustainability at the bottom of the landfill pile. Until businesses operate within a circular business model and put sustainability at the heart of the board room, marketing departments have to become more adept at prioritising sustainability everywhere. Inthesustainability is what we need.
Stay conscious, Jaxx