Powerful marketing can drive a sustainable transformation

By Gemma Butler
Gemma Butler from the CIM details the advantages of a good marketing strategy in achieving sustainable transformation as all stakeholders demand change

Op-ed: Gemma Butler, Marketing Director of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM)


One of the immediate priorities for both business and society at large is the need for sustainable transformation. With climate change, overconsumption and the need to build back better - it is clear that organisations who do not have a solid sustainable development plan now risk consumers disengaging, employees leaving and investors refusing to invest. 

How can marketing help deliver a sustainable future?

Marketers have a great opportunity to champion getting back to the ‘core of what marketing is’ - exploring, uncovering, and sharing what their organisations do, and how they can make a difference while showcasing what needs to be done and supporting it with a strong business case. 

The past 24 months have certainly been a challenge for everyone, but as the pandemic recedes, I believe we have a real opportunity to build back better. That isn’t to say the road ahead won’t be challenging, and our research highlights some of the barriers marketers are facing. 

For a start, whilst the pandemic may have highlighted the fragility of the planet, 37 per cent of marketers report it’s slowed the progress of their sustainability agenda. It also finds a critical tension between business objectives and ethical drivers, with six in ten marketers (60%) claiming their company or clients find it tricky to achieve their sustainability commitments without compromising on commercial needs. 

One of the most pertinent takeouts from COP26 was that future economies will be reliant on sustainable business practices - doing well for business and doing good for the planet are intertwined, and successful strategies will include both.

Sitting at the centre of brand, communications, stakeholders and product development, I believe that marketers have a significant role to play at this critical juncture - both at organisational and consumer level, but also on a global scale. 

However, if the marketing profession is to deliver meaningful and tangible change then we must address the current sustainability skills gap and equip marketers with the skills they need to encourage positive behavioural changes amongst consumers.

Why marketing should be part of the solution 

Marketers within their organisations also need to recognise that we are a part of the problem itself. The products and services we market inevitably require energy or create waste, which is why we also need to be forces for good within our own business and drive positive organisational change from the top down. 

We live in an age of growing authenticity and our research shows consumer demands for more transparency on sustainability practices has never been more important. Ignoring the climate crisis is no longer an option, and this report clearly shows that marketers who chose to risk adding to the issue and even falling behind in their own careers.

The role of marketing and the value it can deliver to an organisation if truly understood, is one that I continue to spend much of my time discussing and debating. Marketing’s remit is far more diverse than businesses realise and whilst it goes beyond just advertising and selling ‘stuff’, we also need to pause for a second, put our hands up and take responsibility for shaping the behaviours that have led to unsustainable levels of consumption and unmanageable level of waste.

However, the pandemic and the environmental crisis have helped to put marketing in a position where it can start to change how it is perceived and deliver value it is truly capable of. Data published in early 2021 from the inaugural edition of ‘The CMO Survey UK’ showed that 73% of UK marketing leaders believe the role of marketing in their companies has increased in importance. Businesses called on their marketing teams for insight, agility and adaptation of propositions and services, and to gain an understanding of how to communicate and retain engagement. And, perhaps most importantly, to be seen as a brand people could turn to, when trust was at an all-time low and uncertainty at an all-time high. Sustainability is no different; it also needs this level of input from marketing. However, the thinking needs to be longer-term and the problem is far more complex.

CIM’s recent Sustainability Summit showed the need for businesses to lead the way to a more sustainable future. Carbon Literacy is being seen as a core skill moving forward, and a passport to work. The circular economy is about disruptive innovation and looking at more than just the products you sell, it’s everything that goes with it. The B-Corp movement is setting the standard for how business needs to operate, putting people and the planet alongside profit. Collaboration, as we all work towards one common goal, is critical, but even more important is how we talk about it, effective communication drives understanding and progress and ultimately determines if we are able to change the course we are on.  


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