Sustainable Marketing: Key Principles and Strategies for Small Business [+Examples]

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Recent consumer surveys will tell you that people care about how businesses affect society and the environment.

Almost 90% of consumers feel that businesses are responsible for their carbon footprint and should do more to reduce it. Over 80% of buyers believe companies should also take part in solving social problems. In a recent survey by IBM, 57% of respondents said they were willing to change their buying habits to reduce their environmental impact.

People want to help the environment in any way they can. The easiest way for them to do that is through their buying habits.

In response to this consumer trend, more businesses are adopting sustainable marketing.

This article will explore sustainable marketing and why it should be the cornerstone of your small business marketing strategy.

In addition, we’ll talk about how your company can promote a more sustainable mindset and learn from businesses that are doing sustainable marketing the right way.

That said, don’t confuse sustainable marketing with “green marketing.” Green marketing is about promoting environmental awareness and protecting the environment. Sustainable marketing, on the other hand, covers a broader scope that includes, but is not limited to, the following concepts:

  • Environmental awareness and education;
  • Transparency;
  • Recycling and waste reduction;
  • Mindful consumption;
  • Social activism;
  • Social responsibility;
  • Community empowerment;
  • Social equity;
  • Circular economy

Five core principles of sustainable marketing

1. Consumer-focused marketing

Your small business should approach its marketing strategy from a consumer’s perspective. That way, you can provide your customers and prospects with what they desire and need.

Your strategy must do more than just market your products. It must also understand and account for how and why people use your products.

Understanding what matters to your target customer and providing solutions can create long-lasting relationships with them instead of one-time transactions.

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2. Mission-driven marketing

This principle guides businesses to define a broad mission that speaks to society and the greater good rather than just the product alone.

Mission-driven businesses convey that they are interested in making a profit and giving back to the community.

3. Customer value marketing

The customer value marketing principle holds that companies should prioritize product and service improvement over other marketing facets like advertising and sales.

Sustainable marketing aims to build long-term consumer engagement, loyalty, and relationships by continually improving the value consumers receive from the company.

As the company creates value for the customer, the customer creates value for the company in return.

4. Societal marketing

This principle involves businesses balancing customer expectations with company requirements, as well as that of the customer and society’s long-term interests.

One example of this principle in use is when a small business is committed to reducing its carbon footprint from landfill gas emissions. It would make sense for the company to replace plastic bags with recyclable or biodegradable bags.

Societal marketing helps establish a brand as a solution provider instead of a money-maker.

5. Innovative marketing

Innovative marketing ensures that an organization never stops trying to develop better products, services, and marketing strategies.

This could include developing novel techniques that can reduce production costs or inventing new technologies to improve a product or the lives of the people who use it.

Why is sustainable marketing important?

1. Product sustainability is a priority for customers

Sustainable products deliver long-term values, benefits, or positive effects to customers and society.

Customers’ awareness of protecting the environment affects their decision-making and buying behavior. Research by Accenture found that 47% of consumers say they will leave brands that do not have a sustainability perspective, with 17% saying they’re never returning.

In addition, 8 out of 10 consumers say their concern about the sustainability of the products they buy affects their buying decision.

2. Increased brand awareness

Brands associated with sustainable marketing strategies are more likely to be noticed and accepted by communities that value sustainability principles and practices.

When they find a brand that coincides with their values and priorities, customers become more sympathetic and supportive of the brand.

By word-of-mouth, they will recommend the brand and give positive reviews, which can help increase your brand’s exposure to their network and even to new audiences.

3. It brings more positive change to communities

Sustainable marketing demands businesses to be responsible and accountable.

Practical, sustainable marketing campaigns must not only promote the brand but must also help customers gain a better understanding of social responsibility and environmental issues.

They can do this through messaging encouraging a sustainable lifestyle and inspiring meaningful change.

4. It opens businesses to new markets

Integrating sustainable marketing into one’s marketing strategy allows companies to reach new audiences — especially with the growing number of conscious consumers.

This means getting in front of prospects who may have been disengaged before a business’ shift to sustainable marketing but are now open to exploring a brand that supports their values and causes.

Expanding your customer base will increase your market share and, ultimately, your revenues.

How to do sustainable marketing correctly

Be authentic and consistent

For sustainable marketing to be effective, it must be authentic.

Suppose you discover that a business that claims to be sustainable has no sustainable practices in place. A brand like that would be shunned and distrusted by consumers. Consequently, it would be difficult for that brand to regain customer loyalty.

Make sure your brand is approaching sustainability with a holistic perspective. Check whether your brand reflects your mission by asking these questions:

  • Do you preach sustainability yet use unsustainable resources to build your product?
  • Do you associate and collaborate with individuals or other brands that conflict with your mission?
  • Does your team reflect your brand’s vision for the future?

Figure out strategies that align with your mission. You can start by adjusting how your business operates, how you source materials, and how you package your products.

Even if you struggle to commit to sustainable practices and principles, don’t quit. Find aspects of your sustainability methods that need correction and keep improving them.

While audiences don’t expect perfection, they do value transparency.

Pursue something beyond the bottom line

Revenue generated by a business is usually the most significant indicator of success.

In sustainable marketing, brands have decided to evaluate their success by measuring something other than profit.

To establish a strong brand, you must consider something beyond the products and services you sell:

  • Does your company have a clear social mission?
  • What matters most to your business?
  • Are you running a business purely for transactional purposes?
  • How is your business affecting your local community?

Take time to answer these questions and find what defines your brand’s existence.

Prioritize creating value over making a profit

There is a tendency for most brands to focus too much on immediate returns. However, a sustainable marketing strategy is all about building value over time.

A sustainable marketing strategy, therefore, should not only focus on getting sales and conversions. You should be concerned with retaining customers by offering them value throughout every touch point of their journey.

For example, you can set up your email marketing to trigger a message that educates customers on how to properly reuse or recycle your product packaging after a customer has made a purchase.

Or you can get ahead of seasonal wardrobe purging (that adds tons of used clothing to landfills) by offering to accept used items (of your brand) that your customers plan to dispose of in exchange for a small discount.

Educate your audience

An essential part of sustainable marketing is educating your customers.

You need to explain why your product or service is better, how it is sustainable, and why that matters to your customers and prospects.

Some potential customers might not know why one sustainable product is better than other alternatives. Your job is to use content to ensure they know and understand why.

Here are some ways your small business can implement sustainable marketing

2021 study by the U.S. Small Business Administration found that there are 32.5 million small businesses in the United States and that they employ 46.8% of the private workforce. Imagine if each small business integrated sustainable marketing practices into its marketing strategy.

Small businesses, including those with limited resources, can successfully adopt sustainable marketing through the following actionable ideas:

  • Encouraging or incentivizing employees to recycle at home and in the workplace;
  • Educating employees on the best way to recycle or dispose of commonly used materials;
  • Going paperless (printing less) and using PDFs or other digital formats whenever possible;
  • Promoting and supporting positive community initiatives;
  • Providing employees with reusable mugs or water bottles to reduce single-use consumption in the office;
  • Vetting vendors or business partners and selecting only those who align with their sustainability principles; and
  • Working with local communities to help educate the public about the benefits of sustainable practices;

Examples of sustainable marketing done right

You don’t have to run a large business or sell products to implement sustainable marketing. For example, crowdspring doesn’t sell physical products, but we’ve supported social causes since we started our company in 2008.

In 2008, we created our Give Back program, which was our way of helping worthy nonprofits and charitable causes when those nonprofit organizations need design help but cannot afford it. This global initiative has helped many worthy causes worldwide.

Here are several other brands with respected sustainable marketing programs:

1. Patagonia

Patagonia proves that you can make money and help the environment simultaneously.

Many marketers unofficially tout Patagonia’s sustainable marketing as a gold standard because it extends well beyond a typical commercial green initiative.

How they did it:

  • They offer free garment repairs and DIY repair workshops. Consumers who would typically throw something away (before determining if the damage is irreparable) are instead motivated to be more mindful about discarding the item. This is an effort by the company to reduce Patagonia gear ending up in landfills.
  • The company donates 1% of its profits to environmental charities as a self-imposed tax on the environment. Additionally, Patagonia provides grants to environmental charities and promotes stories of their activism.
  • Patagonia is transparent about its operations – from its owned facilities, suppliers, the source and quality of its materials, labor practices, and production process and chemicals they use.
  • Lastly, Patagonia offers free delivery on purchases over $75 to encourage customers to shop more consciously instead of ordering piecemeal. It’s a subtle way to cut carbon emissions without raising shipping fees.

2. Honest Tea

Honest Tea is an organic tea brand that is committed to the following:

  • promoting a healthy lifestyle,
  • reducing environmental footprint,
  • promoting fair trade and education for farmers, and
  • making healthy drinks more affordable.

How they did it:

  • Focusing on small wins, such as being able to sell unsweetened drinks in recyclable bottles;
  • Brand messaging that clearly states that ingredients are responsibly sourced through fair trade;
  • Educating customers on proper recycling;
  • Releasing regular reports on their sustainability efforts to keep them accountable;
  • Supporting requests for donations and sponsorships, and
  • Partnering with environmental organizations and foundations.

Being authentically sustainable as a business is challenging, especially for small businesses. But consumers are rewarding businesses that adopt sustainable marketing. You should not ignore this strategy.