Sustainability Marketing: A Paradox?

Alex Boswell

We can’t greenwash our way into the future

Photo by The Humble Co. on Unsplash

It’s funny that when I tell people that I have a master's degree in marketing, they seem to suddenly picture me as “the man” — a corporate sellout, a suited, slick salesman. Spoiler alert: I absolutely suck at sales. I couldn’t even give away free money in a casino (well, vouchers for commission-free gaming sessions anyway).

The bigger picture here is that people treat marketing as a dirty word, people are afraid of it, and perhaps most importantly, they think that the ultimate aim of marketing is to sell, sell, sell — expand forever without a care in the world. Often marketing is seen as the chief driver or mastermind behind the level of consumerism we are seeing in society today. While I’ll admit that marketers sure had their fists in that pie — even helped to bake it — it’s not all about creating or capitalizing on temporary trends to boost revenue (I’m looking at you, fidget spinners). I’m hoping you’ll agree with me by the time I’m done here.

On the other hand, we have sustainability. The concept has hit the headlines in recent years, where the idea is to “enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life without compromising the quality of life of future generations,” be that combating the effects of climate change, re-jigging everyone’s attitudes towards consumption habits, or even changing social behavior.

So you can probably see that on the surface, as various researchers tend to conclude, the concepts of sustainability and marketing seem to be at odds with each other. It’s also pretty clear that those in the sustainability space have waged war on consumerism, with marketing as the primary target.

But what happens when sustainability and marketing combine, tag-teaming to create a world of sustainability marketing? You hit a few bumps in the road.

One Big Theoretical Issue

You may or may not have heard of it, but there is an eclipsing theoretical concept that casts a shadow on sustainability marketing, and that’s the rebound effect. It’s basically the idea that when you adopt behavior that’s deemed sustainable, there’s a reasonably high chance that you’ll offset that with a damaging behavior because you had the idea that you’ve been good elsewhere.

An example would be buying an electric car, but ending up driving more miles than you would have with diesel or gas, under the pretense that it does no environmental damage. Or spending the money that you save by using solar energy or other energy-efficient fuel on products or services that are unsustainable.

More Practical Issues

I don’t think I’m alone in that no matter how many times they apologize for their oil spills, or how much green color they put on their website and branding, I’m not fooled into thinking that BP has the planet’s best interest in mind.

That, fellow humans, is what we like to call greenwashing. Like the example above, a lot of companies want to use the concept of sustainability marketing to try to differentiate their position in their respective marketplaces. Though it can backfire when consumers see right through that as an attempt to manipulate them into thinking they care about broader issues.

There’s also the case of the reusable product market — I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone that has just one reusable coffee cup. Ironically, having one isn’t always the best option, especially if it’s made of plastic. So when you create a product idea with sustainability in mind or are thinking of buying a sustainable product, you also have to factor in the manufacturing process as well as the product’s end-life and how easy it is to responsibly dispose of in the future. It’s arguable here that, despite the good intentions, creating a sustainable market perpetuates the damaging consumeristic behavior.

But It’s Not All Doom and Gloom!

The beautiful, incredible thing about marketing is its power to spread a message. People buy ideas. We buy into what a brand or identity represents. In this line of thinking, marketing has the potential to be able to get more eyes and ears on the message of sustainability. It has the power to change our attitudes and behaviors as a collective society of world citizens (for the better).

It used to be that the idea of sustainability marketing was a paradox: the two could never be reconciled because of what each of them represented. That can be true, given what I’ve already written above. But used in a way to spread a message, as opposed to trying to grow fat-cat profits using greenwashing tactics, we can see the tremendous benefits that they can offer each other.

It’s already happening. More people are waking up to the vital message of sustainability, and at the moment, the focus is on the environment. However, social and economic sustainability will likely follow, I imagine. More people are starting to change their behaviors, and more companies are becoming genuinely concerned with sustainability and baking it into their core strategies, not just saying that they contribute to a charity on their CSR page.

For a business to consider growth in the future, it’s essential that sustainability forms a crucial part of the overall strategy, not just an offshoot of marketing communication. That way, marketers can present a true story, and the message is clear.

We can’t greenwash our way into the future.


1. Jones, P., Clarke-hill, C., Comfort, D. and Hillier, D. (2008). Marketing and sustainability. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 26(2), pp. 123–130.
2. HM Government. (2005). The UK Government sustainable development strategy.
3. Dangelico, R. M., and Vocalelli, D. (2017). “Green Marketing”: An analysis of definitions, strategy steps, and tools through a systematic review of the literature. Journal of Cleaner Production,165, pp.1263–1279.
4. Murray, C. K. (2013) What if consumers decided to all ‘go green’? Environmental rebound effects from consumption decisions. Energy Policy, 54, pp. 240–256

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Writing about human experiences and life lessons everyone should know about, but don't.

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