Demarketing: How marketers avoid becoming a sustainability problem

Sustainability and growing concerns has raised a key question: How does marketing itself avoid being the key cause of the environmental degradation so many brands are now working against?

Amid the recent flurry of brands promoting carbon offsets, recycling programs and other sustainability initiatives, there is another, much more fundamental issue hiding in plain sight.

If the purpose of marketing is to influence people to consume a product or service, then isn’t marketing itself one of the key causes of the environmental degradation so many brands are now working against?

The issue is complex, but in its simplest form the argument suggests the easiest damage to repair is the damage that is never made – that is, you don’t need to offset carbon that isn’t generated. Therefore, if marketers are not encouraging people to buy products, they don’t need to encourage them to pay more to remediate their actions through offsets, recycling or other programs.

It is a question that has been occupying the thoughts of Vicki Little, a senior lecturer in marketing at RMIT’s campus in Vietnam.

“We are in a classroom espousing growth logic, yet we know damn well that same growth logic is going to kill us all,” Little tells CMO.

The rise of demarketing

Little’s thinking was inspired in part by the writing of Jem Bendell, a Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria in the UK, and his 2018 paper, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. In this, Prof Bendell suggested there would be a near term collapse in society and explored reasons why this was not being discussed in academic literature or broader conversations.

His writing galvanised Little to examine how people engaged with sustainability from a marketing perspective. One of the solutions she has examined is ‘demarketing’. This describes the use of advertising to decrease demand for a product in short supply.

However, she also acknowledges this runs contrary to the capitalist agendas of many of the organisations that marketers work for. Another challenge lies in the need to overcome consumer psychology in relation to loss and gain.

“Trying to understand why people think one way and behave in another is very hard,” Little says. “The theory behind it is also very complicated. You are looking at complex systems and wicked problems and well-intentioned people who do the wrong thing. It’s a real Gordian knot, and it is hard to know if the thing can be unwound, and if so, how.”

That marketers are aware of this core conundrum is clearly reflected by a massive rise in campaigns and announcements promoting brands’ environmental credentials. The desire of many to balance capitalist instincts against sustainable agendas is also shown by the growth in demand for B Corp Certification, which rose 23 per cent globally last year.

However, a recent report from marketing and research consultancy, The Navigators, suggests many agencies have some way to go to secure their own sustainability credentials. The report, Fuelling Fantasies: How the ad world is hindering climate action and protecting our biggest polluters, was published by Comms Declare and surveyed 200 agencies.

It found none of the agencies surveyed know the carbon exposure level of their high polluting clients. More than six in 10 (61 per cent) were unaware of their own carbon footprint, and only 43 per cent had formal emissions reduction policies. However, 73 per cent wanted to acheive net zero emissions in their operations.

The need for change is also reflected in a rise in interest in sustainability among consumers. The February 2021 study, The Power and the Passion from The Bravery, Republic of Everyone and Mobium Group found global warming the number one thing people called out as their biggest social or environmental concern, ahead of Covid-19. The report also showed 36 per cent of respondents were extremely concerned about our oceans, while 33 per cent were extremely concerned about climate change. It was the same result for plastic waste.

These consumer sentiments have led to greater interest in cooperation and comarketing campaigns with sustainability organisations such as Planet Ark. Co-CEO, Rebecca Gilling, is engaging in a growing volume of conversations to explore how brands can bring a more sustainable focus to production and consumption.

“The way we would look at responsible marketing at Planet Ark is to drive more responsible consumption, and that may in some cases be about not consuming at all,” Gilling says. “What we are trying to do really is influence consumer choices that are more favourable to the environment. On a finite planet, endless use of materials in the environment is not sustainable.”

Planet Ark follows a waste reduction hierarchy of avoid, reduce, reuse. It has engaged with multiple organisations to drive these changes into their processes, including Coca-Cola Australia, where the two organisations worked to reduce the amount of virgin plastic in its bottles.

While Gilling acknowledges a more environmentally sustainable option might be to eliminate single use plastic altogether, her organisation takes a pragmatic view based on consumer behaviour.

“We recognise people are going to make choices that we as individuals working for an environmental organisation would not choose for ourselves,” she says. “What we want to do is encourage and inspire people to make better choices.

“For people who are producing goods for consumption, if they want to keep producing those goods, you could argue there is a way to do it that involves reducing the amount of material throughput. That is really what we are trying to encourage people to think about: Whether they are at the production end or the consumption end.”

Read more: How these 4 CMOs are helping drive the sustainability agenda

Why sustainability and marketing are a match made in heaven

Up next: How brands play a part in the circular economy, plus what else marketers can do to help sustainability

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