Time to retire ‘green marketing’
With Earth Day 2009 behind us, I have a suggestion: Let’s acknowledge “green marketing” has outlived its usefulness and put our energy into redefining marketing itself.
Green marketing had a good run. It has responded to the rising green demands of customers. And it’s helped raise the environmental conscience of many others. Unfortunately, marketing as it’s most widely practiced remains the fuel for unsustainable consumption. And green marketing doesn’t go nearly far enough to change that.
The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines green marketing three ways:
- (retailing definition) The marketing of products that are presumed to be environmentally safe.
- (social marketing definition) The development and marketing of products designed to minimize negative effects on the physical environment or to improve its quality.
- (environments definition) The efforts by organizations to produce, promote, package, and reclaim products in a manner that is sensitive or responsive to ecological concerns.
I added the emphasis to products to underscore the limitation of green marketing. Absolutely, we must develop and promote products that are ecologically sensitive and safe. And green marketing has encouraged more eco-friendly product consumption. However, it utterly fails to address two unsustainable conditions:
- Too much consumption by rich people and countries: According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the ecological footprint* of the United States in 2005 was 9.4 (global hectares per person); the world average was 2.7. For high-income countries it was 6.4; for low-income countries 1.0.
- Too little consumption by poor people and countries: Although progress has been made on reducing extreme poverty in recent decades, the World Bank estimates that 1.4 billion people still lived on less than US $1.25 a day in 2005.
Over consumption and inequitable consumption explain much of what troubles our world. If marketers really want to make a difference, they’ll look far beyond green products. And focus instead on how to curb the material cravings of the affluent and narrow the rich-poor gap.
We’re seeing signs of green marketing morphing into “sustainable marketing.” That’s an improvement. It situates marketing in a larger triple-bottom-line context: people, planet, profit. Sustainable marketing, however, implies there is something known as “unsustainable marketing” — which of course there is, most anywhere you look.
We need sustainability embedded in marketing. In other words, marketing — by definition — must be sustainable. There is no green marketing or sustainable marketing. There’s only marketing. And it’s sustainable. Or at least that’s the idea.
What does sustainability mean? I rely on the widely used definition from the Brundtland Commission**: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The AMA, meanwhile, defines marketing (inelegantly) as “an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating, and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders.”
So marketing newly defined could appear something like this:
Delivering value to customers and managing customer relationships in ways that meet the needs of the organization and its stakeholders without compromising the ability of all humans, present and future, to meet their own needs.
Still doesn’t roll of the tongue, I know. But this alternative concept of marketing is profoundly different. No longer will it be enough to satisfy our customers for their benefit and that of our organization and stakeholders (especially shareholders). This business-as-usual approach to marketing has created too few winners and too many losers.
The world could look very different if marketers accept responsibility for ensuring their organizations (or clients) are not jeopardizing the ability of others to meet their needs. In other words, doing our jobs can’t mean satisfying customers, shareholders or bosses at a cost to the health of individuals, communities and environments now and for generations to come. How we avoid that won’t always be obvious. The point is to acknowledge there can be broad social and ecological consequences to our actions and lines we don’t knowingly cross.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the AMA and academia to get behind a new vision of marketing. They’ll follow the real practices of real marketers. Let’s show them the way.
*According to the World Wildlife Federation, “A country’s footprint is the sum of all the cropland, grazing land, forest and fishing grounds required to produce the food, fibre and timber it consumes, to absorb the wastes emitted when it uses energy, and to provide space for its infrastructure.” WWF also says, “If our demands on the planet continue at the same rate, by the mid-2030s we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.”
** Friend Brian Setzler at TriLibrium informs me two key concepts are usually excluded or overlooked when referring to the Brundtland definition: “the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”