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Why marketing needs to take sustainability seriously

Sustainability in B2B marketing

In recent years, sustainability has transformed from a mere trend to a critical aspect of business operations and marketing strategies. To better understand this evolution and its implications for B2B marketing, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Randle, a senior marketing and sustainability consultant, co-founder of The Sustainable Compass and co-author of “Sustainable Marketing: The Industry’s Role in a Sustainable Future”. To learn more about ‘Building and Maintaining an Authentic Brand’ with one of our Propolis experts click here.

Shifts in perception of what sustainability is

Paul says the journey of sustainability in B2B marketing has been multifaceted. Initially, sustainability was often perceived as a novel trend—a checkbox to tick or a competitive edge to exploit. However, this approach led to what Paul describes as an ‘epidemic of greenwashing.’ Companies attempted to leverage sustainability solely to increase revenue without acknowledging its profound impact on both business operations and marketing functions:

“Obviously, there were new products and new things about it, but actually there were fundamental flaws in that, because we took traditional revenue lines and traditional go-to-market strategies and applied that to a sustainability solution as incremental revenue, and treated it in exactly the same way as anything else. Not acknowledging that actually sustainability fundamentally changes not only the business, but marketing as a function as well. So the consequence of that is the kind of epidemic of greenwashing we’ve seen in B2B as well as in B2C.”

Greenwashing vs ‘green hushing’ in marketing

Paul distinguishes between greenwashing and a newer phenomenon known as ‘green hushing’. Greenwashing involves making misleading or false sustainability claims, whether deliberately or inadvertently. On the other hand, green hushing occurs when organizations refrain from discussing their sustainability efforts due to fear of inaccuracies or regulatory backlash. This shift reflects a growing awareness of the complexities of sustainability and the risks associated with superficial engagement.

“We ended up with something like six or seven different ways to report on ESG and the legislation’s driving that reporting and today we’ve got biodiversity becoming relevant. You’ve had the ESG community growing and maturing whilst marketers have been muddling around a little bit with selling sustainability. Which brings us to a kind of an interesting place today where marketers are scared of sustainability and the ESG community has got really quite established. These newly created functions are a bit disconnected from the rest of the organization, especially the commercial operations. And that’s driving a bit of a disconnect at the moment.”

Successful sustainability integration

Despite the challenges, several B2B companies have successfully integrated sustainability principles into their marketing strategies. Paul highlights BrytEnergy, a renewable energy vendor, as a notable example. BrytEnergy’s approach involves aligning its marketing and sustainability functions seamlessly. This integration fosters a shared understanding of objectives and enables a more mature approach to engaging with customers:

“We’re seeing some really mature approaches coming out of the energy sector. BrytEnergy is a renewable energy vendor in the B2B space and they are fully committed to their sustainability agenda, and obviously their commercial agenda as well. But they’ve actually managed to weave the two together very successfully. First and foremost, the marketing function and sustainability function are one and the same thing. We’re beginning to see more and more of that happening. So there’s a genuine understanding of each other’s topics between the two disciplines and you get to a place of shared objectives.” 

Challenges and Solutions

One of the primary challenges in aligning sustainability with marketing goals is the perceived conflict between commercial strategies and societal/environmental objectives. Many organizations view sustainability as a cost or a barrier to growth:

“Commercial strategies are often seen as conflicting with environmental societal challenges. This is a big barrier that we face, lots of perceptions of sustainability as a cost: ‘is it going to increase costs? Is it going to increase prices? We have to pass that on to our consumers, if we’re trying to grow. What’s the impact on our sales and products?’ Then that’s going to be to the detriment of sustainability performance.”

However, Paul notices a shift towards prioritizing sustainability alongside profit and growth targets. Companies are increasingly recognizing the interconnectedness of commercial success and environmental/social performance, leading to more balanced strategies:

“I think mature organizations are coming to a place now where that prioritization on pure profit and growth is being balanced out by the societal environmental targets becoming more significant in the organization. Consequently there’s a better understanding of the connectivity between all those different targets. When you understand that connectivity, you can actually measure it and put strategies in place to optimize it. So you become better equipped to grow commercially but also perform on societal and environmental KPIs as well.”

Benefits of prioritizing sustainability

Paul identifies three main drivers for sustainability in B2B marketing: compliance, competitiveness, and behavioral change. Regulatory requirements compel companies to ensure compliance with sustainability standards or risk significant penalties. Moreover, sustainability has become a crucial component of competitiveness, as consumers and stakeholders demand transparency and ethical practices. Additionally, addressing sustainability issues can drive behavioral change among both businesses and consumers, contributing to broader environmental and social goals.

Effective communication strategies

It may be challenging to effectively communicate a commitment to sustainability. It requires sincerity, transparency, and consistency. Companies must ensure that their sustainability initiatives align with their values and are supported by tangible actions. Transparency involves openly sharing progress, both successes and challenges, along the sustainability journey: 

“It’s about compliance, you have to understand what your organization is doing and be very clear on what the legislation is telling you can and can’t do with your claims and things of that nature. So absolutely, get compliant. Transparency is also important, you can’t go from being unsustainable to sustainable in one day. It’s a journey and you have to share your progress. There’s a great guidance document that came out of the United Nations on how to make claims and disclosures. It talks about having that vision and communicating your progress along against that vision, both good and bad, something marketers are not good at.” 

However, marketers must navigate the issue of trust, acknowledging the industry’s lack of credibility and striving to build genuine partnerships with customers based on transparency and authenticity.

“Marketers are probably one of the least trusted professions out there. We’re below politicians in the latest report. The lack of trust in marketing means the sales funnel is now broken. So you have to acknowledge that you’re going to be dropping those communication messages into a world where people won’t believe you. And it’s only by being prepared that you can continue to communicate. Get to a place where you’ve got those genuine partnerships with the customers that matter to you.”

Measuring Success

Traditionally, marketing metrics have focused on commercial performance, but sustainability introduces new dimensions of measurement. Paul emphasizes the importance of identifying and tracking relevant sustainability KPIs, such as environmental footprint reduction or societal impact. While these metrics may differ from traditional marketing KPIs, they are essential for evaluating the success of sustainability initiatives and campaigns.

Certain industries, such as energy, food and healthcare, play a significant role in driving sustainability initiatives due to their environmental and social impacts. Marketers must educate themselves on sustainability issues and actively engage with sustainability professionals to integrate these principles into their strategies effectively. 

Embracing collaboration and education

Paul encourages marketers to embrace partnerships with NGOs and other stakeholders to tackle complex sustainability challenges collectively. The integration of sustainability into B2B marketing represents a fundamental shift in how companies engage with their customers, stakeholders, and the broader community. By prioritizing sustainability, B2B marketers can not only drive commercial success but also contribute to positive environmental and social outcomes. 

This transition requires sincere commitment, transparency, and collaboration across organizational functions. As sustainability continues to evolve as a core business imperative, B2B marketers must adapt and embrace this shift to thrive in an increasingly conscious marketplace.

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