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Is sustainable marketing just an elitist fad

The pandemic played a role in how people started to think about consumption in general

By Jones Mathew

There’s a lot of conversation around sustainability and sustainable marketing. CEOs, brands, endorsers and academicians are offering heft to the idea. But does the Indian consumer really care? Does she feel that paying a higher price is justified for a sustainably produced and marketed product? Does she examine or enquire of the provenance or impact of a product or service she consumes on sustainability benchmarks?

According to a recent research of 2000 Generation Z consumers (those born between 1996 and early 2010s, a.k.a Zoomers, characterised by their digital native nature) by NEPA, a leading consumer research and analytics company, sustainability for young people in India means a combination of ‘green’ and ‘social basics’ (such as equality, wellbeing and inclusiveness). According to the findings, purchase decisions depend on the perceptions of companies that customers have of whether the companies or brands they buy from are socially conscious as well as environmentally responsible.

The pandemic played a role in how people started to think about consumption in general. “Less is good” became the guiding consumption principle for some. For others, “brands that do good” became the purchase preference builder for others. Marketers who were seen as “taking care” of customers, employees as well as partners (such as vendors) during the pandemic gained a soft spot in consumer hearts. Brands successfully used marketing communications to highlight their idea of sustainability as “survival” through the thick of Covid19.

Marketers are under pressure through consumer scrutiny to be sustainable. Apparel brands are keeping a line of sustainable products in their portfolio; FMCG companies have been attempting the same. However, awareness of sustainability has not yet automatically translated into a large number of customers migrating toward sustainable products. Only a few aware and conscious marketers and customers have followed this path. What should marketers do to accelerate this migration?

Indians used to be sustainability focused in the era of scarcity. It appears that as disposable incomes increased the trend toward use-and-throw behaviour accelerated. As consumerism increased, quicker upgrades of still-usable products gathered steam. Planned obsolescence and aspirational upgrades shattered the sustainability ethos. Fast fashion added fuel to the fire. The convenience of plastic has now resulted in mountains of panic. And surprisingly, increased levels of education and increased eco-concern do not seem to be directly correlated and marketers continue to entice consumers to embrace non-sustainable products and services.

Marketers who are now refocusing on sustainability as a unique value proposition will have to undo their own misdeeds of the past. This requires admitting the damage they have caused, realigning their brand purpose toward “doing good” profitably, reallocating resources and research toward better business practices, creating equitable and fair treatment practices for important stakeholders, encouraging consumers to consume more responsibly and building a system for motivating customers to participate actively in the sustainability imperative.

None of the routes to success will become reality overnight. Marketers cannot treat sustainability as an afterthought or “nice to have”; instead it needs to be embedded in strategy and become a “must have”.

Planning and implementation must be designed for the long term. Durability must come back into the mainstream and profitability should mean non-monetary aspects too.

A recent Havas report on Customer Experience observed that brands which are inclusive in nature are perceived as more sustainable. This view needs to broaden itself to include not only customers but also employees and other stakeholders such as the environment.

As with all momentous achievements, marketers too have to start with small steps in making sustainability the prime driver of managing the marketing mix. And instead of trying to do it all alone, marketers must devise ways to collaborate in a “sustainability consortium” with other like-minded brands. The power of many working together will have more impact, faster, in making a fringe movement into a mainstream consumer behavior.

The author is professor – marketing, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Gurgaon

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