The Marketing of Sustainability and Climate Change

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at Green Options provides some fodder for discussion around the issue of “marketing” the concept of global warming.

Please be aware this is a long post.

Now marketing can mean many different things to different people but basically it is all about communication and creating an environment of change hopefully leading to action. This could mean changing customer’s behaviour to buy a particular product or changing a employee’s habit to conserve energy.

This discussion can be about ‘global warming’ or sustainability or any of the issues facing in the greening area.

In my current job, our goal is to increase the awareness of the issue of global warming and sustainability and through that the idea of energy efficiency, decreasing consumption, saving water, recycling, green procurement etc.

It is not a easy job to do, especially for two people for an organization with 6,500 people and 300 office buildings all over the state of South Australia. However, lets look at some ideas in implementing this in a large organization.

Tom Peter’s asked the critical question of branding.

Why is an issue that is so grave and so real so poorly understood? Why has the issue of global warming been so poorly marketed? Why is the brand called “The Global Warming Catastrophe” such a weak brand? What can—and should—be done?

In Google searches for these issues I came across a challenge issued by Asi Sharabi on his blog.

He asks:

How to change hearts, minds & behaviours? How to communicate urgency? How to move people from positive attitude to positive behaviour? How to make people care enough and change their lifestyle? How to contribute to the formation of a much needed critical mass, or tipping point that will alter the potentially catastrophic course we’re heading to? How to best exploit the emerging opportunities of the social web to ring a warning bell that its echoes will reverberate throughout the UK or even the world?

These are important questions to answer but the challenge is that the communication needs to be simple for it be effective.

To understand the word, lets go to Seth Godin.

Jeff points to a 2006 post by Marketing guru Seth Godin on the word Global Warming.

1. the name.

Global is good.
Warm is good.
Even greenhouses are good places.

How can “global warming” be bad?

I’m not being facetious. If the problem were called “Atmosphere cancer” or “Pollution death” the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.

Because you don’t see your coal being burned (it accounts for more than 50% of US electricity) and because the stuff coming out of your car is invisible, and because you don’t live near a glacier, it’s all invisible.

I think Seth may have a point but the common people are now understanding “warming” can be bad. Global like ‘globalization’ can be bad for some people and good for others. I guess just by the brute force of information bombardment in the last year or so there has been more understanding of this issue. Personally, I prefer the word ‘climate change’.

As sharabi points out the challenges are the following:

1. The power of habit (and the laziness to change)
2. Lack of sense of urgency to act.
3. A sense of invisible/intangible contribution (can’t see my actions really make a difference…)

My goal in this exercise is to find some ways to make this happen at the organization level. How do you improve the environmental performance of an organization?

Before we go ahead with this issue, the problem still remains of definition and explanation.

I took more than a year to really understand the issue of climate change and sustainability. I still need to understand more, but that was enough to start me into action mode.

How then should I expect people to change without reading and understanding for more than a year? In a sense, it is inevitable that this issue will face a communication challenge whose only solution is time. In our case, it did take more than a year to gain momentum of the issue from employees and senior management.

Seth in the same posts suggests that:

Doesn’t matter what you market. Human beings want:

  • totems and icons
  • meters (put a real-time mpg or co2 meter in every car and watch what happens)
  • fashion
  • stories and
  • pictures

95% of the new ideas that don’t spread–even though their founders and fans believe they should–fail because of the list above.

These are some great guidelines to follow in the solution to this problem.

The first and foremost is about “measurement”, a single number, or concept which people can follow. The best single number which encompasses all these issues is the concept of “ecological footprint”.

The phrase “ecological footprint” is a metaphor used to depict the amount of land and water area a human population would hypothetically need to provide the resources required to support itself and to absorb its wastes, given prevailing technology. The term was first coined in 1992 by Canadian ecologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, William Rees.

Footprinting is now widely used around the globe as an indicator of environmental sustainability. It can be used to measure and manage the use of resources throughout the economy. It is commonly used to explore the sustainability of individual lifestyles, goods and services, organisations, industry sectors, neighborhoods, cities, regions and nations.

One major issue with this analysis is the problem of gathering data and there are some criticisms of the idea but to my knowledge this is one concept which can make it easy to communicate. A set of calculators can be used to measure the footprint.

The next issue is about framing the problem.

The issues needs to be framed at two levels. One, at the level of senior management of organizations to convice them the benefits of greening. This is important for gaining funding, providing leadership and to gain credibility.

The best way to do is to provide a ‘business case for sustainability’.

Managers should look at environmental problems as business issues. They should make environmental investments for the same reason that they make other investments: because hey expect them to deliver positive returns or reduce risks. – Forest Reinhardt

Bob Willard in his book, The Sustainable Advantage, provides “seven bottom-line benefits” to sustainable development strategies for corporations.

  • Easier hiring of the best talent
  • Higher retention of top talent
  • Increased employee productivity
  • Reduced expenses for manufacturing
  • Reduced expenses for manufacturing
  • Increased revenue/marketshare
  • Reduced risk, easier financing

We started with “reduced expenses” and are making a case of “savings in greening initiatives”.

The next part of framing is related to change.

Alan Deutschman is a 2005 article in Fast Company, Change or Die, suggests that, “All leadership comes down to this: changing people’s behavior. Why is that so damn hard? Science offers some surprising new answers — and ways to do better.”

Alan went ahead with his research and came out in January 2007 with a book with the same title where he presents what he calls a “master theory of change”. An excerpt in FastCompany gives the gist.

Alan suggests first the maginitude of the problem.

Alan finds that for people facing with their own death, 9 out of 10 people do not change their lifestyle. Now how can we change their lifestyfle for a problem like global warming or sustainability which is too far down the track and which cannot be seen directly.

He gives examples where people have succedded in changing behaviour in heart patients, psychopaths and rogue employees in auto-manufacturing.

Alan suggests that the problem is “We like to think that the facts can convince people to change. We like to think that people are essentially “rational”–that is, they’ll act in their self- interest if they have accurate information.”

He says his mission with the book “is to replace those three misconceptions about change–our trust in facts, fear, and force (the three Fs)–with what I call “the three keys to change.”

So what are the three keys.



You form a new, emotional relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope.



The new relationship helps you learn, practice, and master the new habits and skills that you’ll need.



The new relationship helps you learn new ways of thinking about your situation and your life.

I think this is the place to start.

To relate, we need to act local. Even in a large organization or take a community different people prefer different ideas. It is important to relate this issue at multiple levels. For some it is saving the world, for others their children, for some business benefits, or operational efficiency or new green markets. Respect the diversity in opinions.

To repeat, it needs to come in many forms from many different people. Greening comes in many forms. In saving energy, better procurement, organic food, recycling waste, etc. Every single step in various ways will ensure that this idea is disseminated and repeated over a period of time. Another example is of a Greening Officer in every business unit who will provide the local support to the idea than people from the corporate office.
The need is to re-frame the issue. It is important to change the issue from one of gloom and doom to one of joy and opportunity. The opportunities in Greening is what I would go ahead with. This is the most important.

I am thinking more on this, but I guess this framework is a good start. By providing information, support in the way of people and infrastructure and re-framing the issue we can take change management program forward.

What do you all think?


3 thoughts on “The Marketing of Sustainability and Climate Change

  1. Pingback: World is Green : Business Strategy and Sustainability The News changes at News Corp «

  2. Pingback: World is Green : Business Strategy and Sustainability Marketing the ‘distance’ «

  3. I think Jeff has some good ideas related to marketing climate change. Two others I would add are: 1. Focus on people’s self-interest. People are too busy and focused on taking care of themselves and their loved ones to spend time on something that doesn’t personally impact them. There are many ways to do this, all starting with enabling individuals to explore what they most want for themselves and what stands in the way of their getting it. 2. Prochaska and DiClemente have done great work on what it takes to get an individual to make significant and difficult changes in their lives, e.g. quitting smoking or drugs, leaving abusive relationships. Their research explains the stages and actions necessary to make true change happen.

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