Exploring the ethics of marketing and the impact that eCommerce as an industry has on the world.

A quick note: This is a repost of one of the very first The Marketer's Playbook articles. Over time, many articles have been lost, but there are a few that have been found. I will continue to re-upload any I can find, sharing only the most valuable via the newsletter. For the rest, you can find them on the website. Enjoy!

The markets are hotter than ever, and so is the Earth. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we’ve seen explosive growth in eCommerce, and with that comes a corresponding growth in manufacturing and transportation. While this certainly isn’t anything new, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. With commerce playing such a large role in greenhouse gas production, I wonder if finding a balance is possible. As a marketer, I play a meaningful role in an industry that has an immense impact on the planet.

What can I do as an individual? As a marketer? Or both? The answer isn’t simple, but the important part is that we are thinking about it and talking about it.

The good news is that I’m not alone in wondering this either. In fact, it seems that purchase behaviour, on average, is becoming more conscious and less subconscious. A recent study found that “55% of consumers across 60 countries [were] willing to pay higher prices for goods from environmentally conscious companies… 71% of Americans at least consider the environment as a factor when shopping”. Of course, these numbers are probably high - humans are historically poor at self-reporting, often over-reporting on good behaviours and under-reporting on bad ones. That said, the bottom line here is that as the years pass, people are becoming more aware of the role they play as an individual in environmental sustainability.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve our issue entirely. There are critics of the individual’s role in climate change, and they aren’t entirely incorrect. The problem is that environmental sustainability is far, far bigger than any one person. It was recently discovered that over 86% of the ‘Great Atlantic Garbage Patch’ is from fishing nets — from industrialized fishing alone. Even worse, another recently conducted study found that only 100 companies are accountable for more than 70% of all greenhouse emissions. Among those 100, most of the top 20 worst offenders are fossil fuel related.

Keeping that in mind, the number one industry producing the demand for fossil fuel supply is transportation - an industry that we, as marketers, play a large role in. The more we sell, the more supply chains are engaged. The more that supply chains are engaged, the more fossil fuels are burned, creating more demand for fossil fuels. The cycle is vicious. If we do our jobs properly as marketers, supply chains remain engaged.

So, what does that mean for us? What is our role in this exactly, and how can we do better? An important consideration here is that to make a positive impact, we don’t need to only focus on environmental sustainability as our sole approach to marketing ethics.

As long as we support positive consumer behaviours, we can begin to shift towards a market that demands and expects this kind of offer from brands. Phil Kiel of Hello Earth, an ad agency that focuses on sustainability, has some thoughts on this:

“This is something that is super relevant for us at Hello Earth. We have a mandate that says that all of our brands should push for consumers to make better buying decisions – better quality products, longer lasting products, a more considered purchase (do I really need this?).”

Of course, slapping a ‘sustainably made’ badge on your product page doesn’t automatically make you successful. It’s important to note that customers who are after more sustainable products are also often more savvy shoppers, so there are still many considerations to make in terms of how you actually market your brand/product. Kiel provided some insight on this as well:

“From a marketing point of view, the biggest part is understanding at what point of the customer journey we highlight or focus on the eco-friendly USPs (unique selling proposition).“
“Depending on how your brand aligns with sustainability, it can be presented in a number of different stages of the sales funnel. It might be something that your brand is so strongly aligned with that all cold audiences need to be aware of it, or perhaps it’s just a message you use to help those in the consideration stage over that final hurdle. There are many ways to use and communicate sustainability. Paying close attention to your audience will help you discover how to execute on this properly.”

Thinking back on the sentiment that purchase behaviour is changing on average towards a more impact-positive place, there is another important consideration to make for all businesses – As more brands push for sustainability, it stops being a USP. The fundamentals of a good business are still essential, but the baseline is slowly changing. The sustainability angle is slowly moving away from a nice-to-have to a pillar of a strong business foundation. No longer can you rely on sustainability CTA to stand out from the crowd - Instead, it’s slowly becoming a necessity, and the lack of sustainability can be a quick way for the more ethics-conscious consumers to rule your product/brand out.

To this end, Kiel left us a nice thought to close on:

“From a consumer point of view, I think expecting that more brands have ethics behind their business and product models is the most important thing we can do. If sustainability is the benchmark all brands are built on, then we’re starting from a great point.”

This is true for all of us as both individual consumers AND marketers – As long as we are aware of the ethical implications of our behaviours, we will be in a much better place after some time. We can lead by example by forming the kinds of behaviours that support impact-positive products, brands, and markets. It won’t be an overnight change, but a shift in how we collectively treat our planet happening down the road is far better than never happening at all.

I’m sure at this point, you’re wondering what you can do to become a more ethical marketer. I spend quite some time thinking about this, and without being too disruptive to performance, a few easy changes would be:

  • If you’re on the business side, look at your operations and see how things can be refined for a lesser impact. Can you use less water in producing your shirts? Is there a ‘green’-forward logistics company you can work with? How can you reduce the plastics you use in your packaging?
  • If you’re on the agency/freelancer side, try to work with brands that have, at least in part, infrastructure that supports sustainability in some way. This doesn’t need to be dramatic - as long as they are trying to make improvements or are open to recommendations on how to improve, this is a great start.
  • Partner/engage with organizations/charities/communities that work for positive change. Of course, you want this to be mutually beneficial, so, for example, this can be running sweepstakes where proceeds go to a charity in exchange for boosting your Instagram presence.
  • Sustainability and ethical operations aren’t going to come overnight. Taking it step by step and being receptive to change for the positive is all you can ask.

Fundamentally, it just comes down to one thing: Make better decisions. We are beginning to exit the point where sustainability wasn’t a financially viable option, and green options are becoming increasingly cheaper. Take a look at your impact objectively, and work to see if there’s room for improvement. If not, great! Again, this doesn’t need to be a massive change for anyone. But slowly, step by step, small incremental changes will collectively lead to big changes.

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