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?

The circular economy

One concept Planet Ark is seeking to bring greater awareness to is that of the circular economy, which aims to reuse materials for as long as possible.

“It is driven more and more by consumer demand for more environmentally responsible products,” Gilling says. “Also, whereas reuse and second-hand used to be a second choice, now there is a whole movement around choosing preloved items.”

One example is Keep Cup, an Australian company that manufactures reusable coffee cups, and which Gilling says has worked consistently to extend the life of its products while also striving to entrench behaviours with customers.

“It comes down to the consumer being aware enough to remember to take their Keep Cup, not to buy another Keep Cup because they left theirs at home,” she says.

Gilling also praises the efforts of global recycling pioneers, TerraCycle, which has signed an agreement to introduce its Loop circular economy service into Australia in partnership with Woolworths in 2022. Loop uses a packaging system that enables consumers to purchase popular brands in reusable containers, which are returned to Woolworths for cleaning and refilling.

Jean Bailliard has been running the operations for TerraCycle in Australia & New Zealand for the past six years. Over this period, he has witnessed a continual rise in interest from brands, governments, and consumers in his company’s sustainability initiatives.

“When I started TerraCycle here we were the outcasts, and companies were thinking we were weird,” Bailliard says. “We are technically a waste management company on a mission to eliminate waste. We think everything can do circular.”

TerraCycle has deployed more than 50,000 collection bins around Australia and partnered with more than 3000 schools. Bailliard estimates the company is now reaching one million consumers.

“What sets us apart versus other waste management companies is that we go after products that are typically not accepted in your normal recycling bin,” he says. “One of our first partners was Nespresso, which invested a lot of resources in it. The other big industry for us has been cosmetics, and now we have 10 programs there.”

However, he also believes recycling is not solving the root cause of the waste problem. Hence he says he is most excited about the launch of Loop.

“It is a platform where you can buy your day-to-day products, but instead of buying them in single use format, they come in a reusable format,” Bailliard says. “You pay a small deposit on your packaging, enjoy your product as usual, and once you are done you return them to stores or get your packaging picked up and get your deposit back.

“The intention of Loop is moving to being completely circular. Because when you do recycling, you are using energy, and when it comes to plastic, the quality gets lower over time. There is a finite number of resources, and recycling is not addressing that.”

Bailliard says the changes in consumer attitudes can be seen in responses to a recent survey of 1877 households conducted by TerraCycle. This found 55 per cent of respondents said they would avoid products made by companies that are not eco-friendly, and 90 per cent would pay more for products that could be recycled.

Bailliard also believes Loop will overcome one of the key challenges standing in the way of greater update of recycling – how easy it is.

“What we have learned working on the Loop platform is consumers are only willing to change it is convenient for them,” Bailliard says.

Shifting attitudes

While Loop does not fully achieve the demarketing ideal of reducing consumption, it does reduce the consumption of packaging. Bailliard is hopeful it will further shift consumer attitudes, and in turn, the sustainability and circular economy initiatives of marketers.

It is services such as TerraCycle’s Loop Gilling says give her hope that as a society we might avoid some of the more calamitous outcomes of climate change.

“You need to have hope,” she says. “Hope implies action, and if you work in the environmental field, you have to get up every morning and say, ‘I am going to act in the interests of environmental presentation’, because otherwise you might as well throw in the towel.”

Gilling says circular economy initiatives will be a key focus for Planet Ark in 2022, with the organisation placing Australia’s transition to a carbon neutral and circular economy at the centre of its strategy. She is also looking to run a conference on the circular economy later in 2022 in conjunction with Planet Ark’s Australian Circular Economy Hub.

“What the circular economy is about is keeping materials circulating at their highest value possible for as long as possible,” Gilling says. “So for us, responsible marketing would be working with those companies that are trying to do that.”

Whether Prof Bendell’s predictions of societal or economic collapse in the short term hold true will only be known in time. However, in his writing, he recognises his own lose-lose situation of having limited career prospects whether he should be proven either right or wrong.

As for Little, she says marketers need to reflect on the role they play in contributing to sustainability issues. But they should also remember their skillsets are well aligned to solving these same issues.

“We know how to persuade people to do things - it is as simple as that,” Little says. “We have all the tools. We know an awful lot about the way people’s brains work. What we haven’t done is connect the dots around how bad it is for humanity collectively.

“Marketing is all about demand management, and we need to use those tools for good.”

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