Based on the scale of green marketing we see across all media today, you’d think the practice of sustainability is spreading like wildfire throughout business. And you’d be wrong.
I was reminded of the green vs. sustainability disparity as I was preparing a talk I gave last week to the Communicators Conference in Portland, Ore. In the talk I outlined a vision for what I called the “Sustainable Communicator.” If this vision came to pass today, I believe we’d see an immediate ratcheting back on the practice of green marketing and a spike in the practice of sustainability.
Let me explain.
First, consider these two studies from 2009:
- In its study entitled “The Road Not Yet Taken,” the Sustainable Enterprise Institute reviewed the public information disclosed by companies in the Russell 1000 Index and concluded: “evidence of any broad spectrum adoption of sustainable business practices is not to be found.”
- The Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan Management Review surveyed 2,000 business leaders worldwide as part of their study called “The Business of Sustainability.” The authors reported “a material gap between intent and action at most companies” they examined.
Which begs the question, if business is so slow to embrace sustainability, how can there be so much green marketing? I believe the explanation is this: Sustainability and green are two different concepts. They are not interchangeable. As The Natural Step Network tells us in their workshops, green is focused on details, tactics, environment and “less bad.” Sustainability is focused on whole systems, strategy, triple bottom line (not just the environment) and aligning with nature’s cyclical processes.
Retire green marketing
If I had my way, I’d retire green marketing, as I argued in a previous post. Green marketing in business is first and foremost product marketing. And as we know, you don’t have to be a sustainable business to produce a “green” product.
As the studies above indicate, businesses that adhere to the principles of sustainability and operate from a triple-bottom-line (people, planet, profit) philosophy are uncommon. That means the majority of “green” products are produced, marketed and/or sold by companies that fall far short of the sustainability ideal.
I’m not opposed to green products. We need more of them. But relying on otherwise brown companies to produce green products is at best a “less bad” situation (and clearly the primary reason for greenwashing). If we are to solve the pressing social and environmental issues of our time — clean water, peak oil, over-consumption, income inequity, population growth, climate change — we need businesses fully on board with sustainability.
Fusing brand, culture, sustainability
And here’s where the Sustainable Communicator comes in. This mythical professional fuses the practices of branding, culture change and sustainability into something completely new.
The Sustainable Communicator is a result of a fundamental shift in focus and responsibility:
- from marketing green products to building sustainable businesses
- from creating brand image to living your brand
- from specialist in communications to leader in sustainability, organizational development and branding
Yes, the Sustainable Communicator remains an expert in communications. That goes without saying. She is also a leader in sustainability, triple-bottom-line management, culture change and collaboration.
I admit this is a tall order and unrealistic in the short term. But if business is going to be truly sustainable, it needs new leaders to emerge in all disciplines, including communications. Because we know there’s a significant gap between what business intends to do and what it’s actually doing in the areas of social and environmental responsibility.
The need to close this gap is the impetus behind my firm’s recent formation of the Sustainable Branding Collaborative and 4D Branding process.
Closing the intent vs. action gap
Communications professionals have a major role to play here. We can’t continue green marketing and pretend the gap doesn’t exist. The buck stops with us, as storytellers, to only share what we know to be true and to accurately reflect where our companies are along the path of sustainability.
But storytelling alone is too passive, too removed from the ultimate need of businesses to move farther and faster toward become truly sustainable. The Sustainable Communicator is more than a storyteller. She’s a hands-on leader in transforming business. And it’s in that experience she recognizes green marketing is a thing of the past.