What I’m Learning About Local Sustainability from Renowned Marketing Experts

What I’m Learning About Local Sustainability from Renowned Marketing Experts

The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

Sleeve of a knitted sweater with a heart on it.

Heart-on-my-sleeve: I’m stricken over climate change and wondering how I can help. What have I been doing about it lately? Listening to two remarkable women interview some outstanding experts on marketing and business sustainability.

Co-authors of the celebrated book Sustainable Marketing – How To Drive Profits with Purpose, Gemma Butler and Michelle Carvill have got something really special going on over on the Can Marketing Save the Planet? podcast. I’ve been glued to their broadcasts, and have been speaking with them while researching this piece. My vision of marketing as a catalyst for good is being refreshed and refined as I absorb why renowned creatives are defining sustainability as the critical skill now for their careers and lives. This is my chance to share what I’m learning with you.

We’ll be swimming mainly at the deep end of the big business pool, but I’ll also be doing some local laps with you on what we learn so that we can apply large sustainability takeaways to nearby small business marketing, strengthening what I believe is the best of all business narratives. Let’s dive in!

Infographic of trees summarizing the sustainable marketing process with the stated prize of hundreds of millions of people living their lives differently and more sustainably than now.

We always start with a goal

A soccer goal standing in a field in winter with bare trees around it.
Image credit: Tobias Abel

Every good SEO and marketer already knows that we base initiatives on client goals. At ninety years of age, Professor Philip Kotler has earned the honorific title of “Father of Modern Marketing”. He has the lived experience necessary to explain how marketing grew up in an era in which the industry believed that people have an infinite number of desires and that business has an infinite supply of resources, but now he’s telling the world that our job is to market “deconsumption or more sensible consumption”.

Given this, Ollie Deane and Guy Jones, founders of The Goodnet, made the clearest statement of goals for marketing sustainability that I heard in any episode:

“The prize is hundreds of millions of people living their lives differently and more sustainably than how we live now.”

Now we know what success will look like.

Owning up

Close-up view of the thoughtful face of the famous Rodin sculpture called "The Thinker"
Image credit: David Ellis

“We’ve got a long way to go in regaining trust in marketing. It’s time for marketing to become the conscience of a business, and it can only do that if it stands up and takes responsibility for having been part of the problem and having contributed to this overconsumption that is part of the big problem. We in marketing are responsible for helping companies sell a whole bunch of stuff that people probably don’t need…Marketing has done it through having the expertise and the skills and the art of persuasion. So, to take all those great qualities and realign them with ensuring that brands do the right thing, becoming proper brand custodians, protecting brand integrity, protecting brand reputation, and driving that through – that’s where I think marketing can make a real difference.” – Sarah Duncan, sustainability consultant and author of ‘The Ethical Business Book’

If Butler and Carvill could interview a landfill loaded with decades of undegraded hula hoops, styrofoam ice chests, and coffee pods, I’m sure it would groan agreement to this statement of accountability from creatives like Duncan. When marketing is based on transitory persuasion rather than sustainable human happiness, we write narratives that create trending desires for things that aren’t actually good for us or our planet in the long term.

To take the sustainability journey, marketers can first own the blame for our share of the landfills and their underlying fossil fuel ingredients. Only then, as Duncan suggests, can we rededicate our valuable talents to promoting what is authentically good for all of us, including our common home. In other words, if we were able to talk people into pollution and overconsumption, we can talk them back out of it, too.

The 3 C’s and the 3 P’s: Where marketing’s at right now

Diverse young people with mobile phones at a climate action rally represent the rising generation of shoppers and marketers.
Image credit: John Englart

If marketing doesn’t change behaviors, what’s that? It’s not marketing.” – Phil Korbel, Co-Founder, The Carbon Literacy Project

As a marketer, would you rather be a master of persuasion or a master of authenticity?” – author and Director of ServiceBrand Global, Alan Williams

No regular reader of the Moz blog needs to be told that the whole way in which we think and talk about search marketing and customers is significantly changing. It might be said that, despite its potential for connecting people, the Internet first threw up a barrier between folk and brands, with all of us acting weirdly on either side in terms of anonymity, low-quality ranking tactics, and other behaviors we’d likely never employ in the real world. I think Alan Williams best sums up an important shift that is happening now with the 3 Cs, which are:

1) Choice: Whereas customers formerly made choices primarily on the basis of what was the best deal for them, they are now increasingly prioritizing what their values are. Williams gives Fair Trade as an example in which people are willing to spend a 20% premium if they value how a product makes it onto a shelf.

2) Communication: We’re all now becoming more comfortable with the Internet making it possible for customers and brands to communicate thoughts and feelings in both directions, instantaneously.

3) Control: This element is the one with which local business owners will already be abundantly familiar due to the rise of local reviews. Whereas brands in the past used to decide how they wanted to be seen and hire PR and marketing firms to promote that vision hoping to persuade a number of people to it, now, organizations are not what they say about themselves, but what others say about them. It’s a major shift in the dimension of control.

In sum, we now have values-driven customers who are readily telling brand stories to everyone who is communicating with them online. Again, local brands will be particularly aware of the need Williams highlights for authenticity and transparency and for owning up whenever mistakes occur. His redefinition of marketing strikes me as truly fit for this moment:

“Marketing is not about persuasion any more; it’s about making sure that everything that happens within the organization is informed by its values, because if it’s not, it will not be perceived as authentic and people will not want to have the connection and relationship with it.”

Brands large and small are experiencing this change and responding to it in a variety of ways, and here we return to Butler and Carvill’s remarkable interview with Sarah Duncan who referenced the triple bottom line concept originated by “sustainability Godfather” John Elkington, author of Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism. With the rising generations deeply interested in climate action and championing least consumption, upcycling, recycling and circularity, and with incoming marketing staff walking into organizations from the global school strike marches launched by Greta Thunberg, Elkington codified this economic approach:

1) People: No business has any future without its customers.

2) Planet: No business can thrive on an uninhabitable planet.

3) Profit: Business can become profitable from helping and healing people and planet, rather than harming them.

Some companies now set out extra unoccupied chairs at board meetings to represent people and planet, and many brands are doing outstanding work in sustainability, but the 3 Ps are also where we get into the dark places of greenwashing. How bad is it? So bad that John Elkington has spoken of revoking his triple bottom line due to corporate abuse of it.

Duncan Meisal, director of Clean Creatives speaks with absolute clarity on the fossil fuel industry being responsible for ¾ of pollution, of the seven million human beings who die untimely deaths every year from this pollution, and of the industry being the worst of all greenwashers. While we SEOs are busy right now trying to understand how to respond to frameworks like E-A-T and the Helpful Content Update with truth and authenticity, Meisal calls out oil and gas companies for mass deception:

We have invented all the technology we need to solve climate change. There is no fanciful future technology we need to begin this transition. We don’t need any new oil wells, gas, or coal, but the fossil fuel industry is spending over 99% of its capital expenditures on opening new oil wells and pipelines that we don’t need. There is not a scientific case for expanding the oil and gas industry. The fossil fuel industry is simply trying to keep its business alive, but it is doing so at a catastrophic cost to the rest of the planet…The companies causing this pollution are investing hugely in greenwashing by telling stories about ‘look at us inventing algae fuel’, or ‘we sent someone to Antarctica on biofuel.’ The majority of the ads they are creating are about clean energy investments which they aren’t actually undertaking at scale.

Because polluters wouldn’t be nearly so good at telling these tragically misleading stories without the skills of creatives, millions of marketers with a life-stake in a livable planet are now standing at a fork in the road.

Marketer’s choice: Stay, go, but speak up wherever you are

A forked path offers two ways to enter a springtime forest.
Image credit: Simon G

From listening to Butler and Carvill speak to multiple guests deeply embedded in big brand marketing, I’ve realized that creatives are facing two career choices in our era:

1. Go

You can take your marketing voice away from the worst polluters. You can become one of the many creatives who are signing Can Marketing Save the Planet’s Sustainable Marketer Manifesto, which acts as a hippocratic oath-like declaration to use your skills only for good, as well as pledges like the one from Clean Creatives which vow that your agency will refuse all contracts with the fossil fuel industry.

By withdrawing your incredible talents from the use of severe polluters, you’ll be standing in the company of climate scientists like those who canceled their speaking engagements at the Science Museum of London’s climate change exhibition sponsored by Shell Oil. You can decide that your marketing agency will only accept clients who are seriously committed to people and planet, not just profit. And it’s important to know that this is a two-way street. Meisal mentions that ethical brands are refusing to hire agencies that have polluters on their client rosters, saying,

Why would we do business with marketers who are helping other brands do harm?”

2. Stay

Every business has some carbon footprint and as an ethical marketer, you need to know what that is so you can decide if you want to stay working for a problematic brand with the goal of radically changing it from the inside. From Korbel’s interview, I learned that 40% of marketers have now realized they need to become carbon literate for the sake of self-respect and career goals. Even if you are working for least-polluting local businesses, advocate for your org to send you for essential training to resources like carbonliteracy.org.

The BBC, which was an early adopter of this strategy, literally shut its staff in a room for a carbon literacy training day, a process described by one attendee as making them feel like a terrible human being by lunchtime, but knowing by day’s end what to do about it.

Sarah Duncan advises you to be ready to make people uncomfortable if you become trained to help brands transition to sustainable models. She says you must be prepared to prod and poke, no matter how junior you are in an organization, to be continually curious with your questions, and to learn to frame issues in third-party language, like “this is what our customers say they want,” as well as making the business case in commercial language. Deloitte finds that nearly half of youngest staffers are putting pressure on their employers to act on climate change. If you succeed in bringing about serious transformation as a result of workplace advocacy, it can be a major career and life accomplishment.

If, however, an agency or brand you’re staying with doesn’t act quickly enough to become sustainable and is stubborn in the face of essential change, you’re likely looking at an organization that is about to fail. The Paris Climate Agreement is real, and its regulations are about to be felt around the world. Korbel says that future is already here, noting,

If you’re in a supply chain to any large organization, if they’re not already, your clients are going to go, ‘What are your scope 3 emissions?’ and if you’re left going, ‘Huh?’, if you don’t understand what a science-based target is, you’re not in the game. There will be businesses that fail because they’re simply not going to get the work – their publics, their clients, their staff, their punters, will simply say, ‘No, not having it.’”

As I listen to Meisal watching Exxon, which he describes as having been “the richest company in the history of money just a decade ago”, being removed from the Dow Index in 2021 and generally crashing and burning after haunting my youth with images of oiled wildlife, it’s time to ask what is actually working now in the sustainable marketing world.

A narrative of gains, not losses

A woman holds up a scattering of twigs, leaves and wildflowers to see what she can make of them.
Image credit: Ffion Atkinson

Butler and Carvill’s guests have made me realize that marketers have three tasks ahead of us:

1) Win on messaging, and rethink competition

Capitalism is so tied up with competition that it can be hard to separate the one from the other. Supermarket A seeing Supermarket B as their fierce foe may be standard, but it no longer works as a use of essential creative energy in the PPP/CCC dynamic. We need to identify our real opponents.

Oil and gas lobbyists and their social trolls are spending their energy (and money) writing a stark narrative of our future without fossil fuels so that they can stall transition while squeezing out every last penny. SEOs likely already know that the minute they post a popular tweet about solar panels, or electric vehicles, or the obvious cause of climate disasters, all kinds of unknown accounts rush to the defense of polluters. They want very badly to paint a bleak picture of a society running on the gifts of wind, water and solar, and unfortunately, destructive marketing like this not only influences governmental policy making, but also fills humans with confusion and with dread of the future. Korbel wisely points out how to see clearly through this false narrative of losses.

“It’s quite the opposite. It’s about having more. It’s about having more connection with people, less obsession with useless stuff we can’t afford, and actually looking at things of tangible value – that sense of personal connection to the people, communities and things around us that actually make us happy.”

With saving the planet becoming core to business models, smart big brands will rethink who their real competition is and band together against polluters to create a living wall of messaging about a healthy and happy green future for all of us. In this scenario, Supermarkets A and B can stop scrapping over the lowest price of potatoes and start sharing with one another how they are overhauling their supply chains to meet carbon goals, and what gains in community mental and physical health they are fostering. By working together, brands can re-envision competitive advantage as making connections to share institutional knowledge with the goal of winning out over polluters.

2) Transformational and inclusive storytelling

Kotler reminds us that marketing is research and that it originated in finding out what people want and how to give it to them, not in persuading them to want things they don’t need. Meanwhile, Goodvertising founder Thomas Kolster says that what modern customers want to know most from brands is, “Who can you help me become?” Studies find that people want to become healthier, greener, smarter, and more connected, and according to Kolster, about ⅓ of them are willing to pay a premium price for the help. Thus, the first half of task #2 is for marketers to write the honest, hope-filled narrative of transformation and transition for all who can afford it.

The second half comes down to an embracing welcome of inclusion for all of us, regardless of income. It’s an unacceptable worldview that planetary stewardship is only for the privileged and I listened with great interest to Collective Stories Director, Helen Hepworth, explain how a major UK supermarket chain has intentionally installed its least-packaging options in one of the poorest neighborhoods in West Yorkshire. It made me think of how often I hear wise and thrifty elders in Ireland calling into talk radio shows to explain all the little, daily things they are doing to help save the Earth for their descendents. As a marketer, don’t exclude any fellow human being who is eager for a message of hope and a chance to contribute to healing.

3) Inventing frameworks for reporting

SEOs now have a long history and multiple tools and methodologies surrounding measuring and reporting movement and success. I’ve learned that sustainable marketers are just at the beginning of this journey, as Sarah Duncan describes,

“We have fairly internationally-understood frameworks for financial reporting, but we don’t have the same maturity when it comes to non-financial reporting…With the triple bottom line you can throw in a few initiatives and say you’ve got a triple bottom line without it having that kind of integrity. You’ve got to have clear action plans, you’ve got to have clear initiatives that you can measure with metrics so that you can report on them with the same authority that you would for your financial performance.”

Bringing sustainability to the core of the businesses you market may actually involve you inventing your own way of tracking outcomes. Deane and Jones are urging the industry to brainstorm ways to quantify how transformative marketing is affecting behavioral changes in society. This is a great moment of opportunity for truly creative marketers!

A special word with Michelle Carvill

Screenshot of the landing page of the book "Sustainable Marketing - How to Drive Profits with Purpose", co-authored by Michelle Carvill and Gemma Butler.

The sustainable mindset doesn’t just transform business, it transforms the lives of marketers, and I was truly honored that Michelle Carvill graciously offered me this summary of her own journey:

“When writing and researching our book, there were just so many lightbulb moments and life-changing realizations. Understanding the reality of how marketing has driven unprecedented levels of convenience and consumption – that more than 7 million people die of air pollution each year, that only 9% of plastic that’s been created to date ever gets recycled, that a third of all food production is wasted before it even gets to our homes, that we give little concern to precious resources such as water, learning from one of our podcast guests, Steve Haskew at Circular Computing, that every laptop made uses a whopping 190,000 liters of water from extraction to sitting on our desk.

The more we researched, the more we listened, the more we learned, the more we realized we just had to somehow, become part of the solution.

As we say often… ‘Once you see something, you simply can’t unsee it’.

At the outset, we were on a mission to write a book – by the end, we were on a mission, and still are, to champion sustainable marketing – driving education and awareness to support the approx 10.6 million marketers on the planet in using their skills, creativity and influence as a force for good.

And that’s why we started the podcast – and to date we’ve interviewed a range of people and organizations; academics, institutions, thought-leaders, founders, creatives, agencies, marketing professionals, sustainability experts, authors, economists – always posing the question; Can Marketing Save the Planet?

With every conversation, there’s learning, lessons, takeaways and importantly, hope – the realization that there are many brilliant minds focused on positive solutions. We truly are in this together – so the more we can share experience and solutions, educate and support one another the faster the positive outcomes. Urgent action is what’s required – and collective urgent action is the key to much needed planet and human civilization-saving change.”

My local lens

A pretty, hand-painted sign welcomes everyone to a community garden full of flowering plants.
Image credit: Becky Striepe

Can Marketing Save the Planet? tends to highlight big brands making big impacts, but my decades of working in local search have habituated me to taking marketing and SEO lessons from all directions and downsize them to fit independent local businesses and their marketers. Almost everything we’ve covered today is directly applicable to small businesses, but with a really significant modifier: I believe that in most sectors of commerce, economic localism is the very best path forward for achieving worldwide sustainability. And it turns out that podcast guest and Wherefrom founder Adam Williams agrees when asked what he hopes business will look like ten years from now:

“I hope we have an even more profound microbusiness revolution, where people can be making their own products at an even lower entry into the market than you get today, where you’re buying and selling products in quite a local sphere. Some things can scale quite nicely (but)…once a really ethical company starts scaling, and they can just scale to the ends of the Earth, we start questioning things again. I want to see more small businesses.”

After many purposeful hours of learning from Butler and Carvill’s brilliant guests, three local lessons emerged for me:

1) Help wanted: local guardians

The more we connect our loved ones’ health and safety with climate stability, the more intense public desire becomes for sustainability. Multiple interviewees referred to the middle folk in the supply chain (namely retailers) as essential gatekeepers, urging them to put in the work to source their inventory from suppliers with the lowest possible carbon footprint to make green choices readily accessible.

At a local level, this takes on truly meaningful proportions. If my neighborhood grocer, pharmacy, housewares shop, hardware store, and clothier want to protect me, my family, and my community, then it is becoming their very honorable job to transform their shops into showcases of what is available locally. These guardians of people, planet and ethical profit can help everyone in a community quit our too-costly habit of seeking remote big brand products and replace it with loyalty to whatever is nearest and best.

In a nutshell, I’d be delighted to buy bare bread from my neighborhood baker instead of a plastic-wrapped loaf made on the other side of my country or world if it will decrease my family’s chance of experiencing a climate disaster. I don’t derive any meaningful or lasting happiness from unsustainable consumption that outweighs my love of my family and community. If local shopkeepers prioritize stocking the nearest and greenest goods, I’m truly grateful to them for their good guardianship.

2) Marketing authentic community identity

This is where local business owners band together, not as competitors, but as a united body that shows up at town councils and mayors’ offices with a sustainable vision for the community. It’s how farming allotments get opened up so that local wheat can be grown for that local loaf of bread, and so that every family in town has access to fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. It’s how a city decides to ban the construction of any new gas stations and starts building EV charging hubs.

Local search marketers can offer a significant helping hand here in facilitating the surveys their clients should be conducting to identify what customers need most as well as key sources of local pride. I grew up in a region that was once famed for its local fruit production. Our fruit was the subject of annual fairs and celebrations, a source of living wage work, and a bulwark of community identity. Then, unfortunately, localism was pushed aside in favor of a new vision of the area as an alcohol-producing tourist hub. The beautiful orchards that once fed all the families in the area were bulldozed for monocropped wine grapes, and the community has become largely lost in an overpriced fantasy that has nothing to do with residents. Teachers, firefighters, and librarians can’t afford to live here anymore and our apples now come from Argentina.

The rise of sustainability presents a remarkable opportunity for independent business owners and the creatives who work with them to discover and promote unique, diverse, inclusive new community visions. It’s time to fix the brokenness of local homelessness, hunger and other forms of suffering that have been engineered by unsustainable economics.

3) Our own two hands for good

I’ve only been listening to Can Marketing Save the Planet? for a short time, and I can’t say enough good things about its outstanding quality and timeliness, but for most of my adult life, I have been attending to the messaging emanating from Indigenous authors and speakers nearest me – leaders like Bill Tripp, Corrina Gould, and Ron Goode. In tuning into the marketing world’s shift to circular economics and regenerative least-consumption, I feel I am hearing a differently-worded echo of the fully-realized and truly time-tested wisdom that sustained abundant life on this continent for millenia.

Whereas marketers are now taking the time to ask themselves, “What am I really using my creativity for?”, and business owners who opened their doors to serve others are querying, “Am I being true to my original vision of helping people?”, my Indigenous neighbors have helped me to ask, “What was I given these two useful hands for?”

There is an Indigenous philosophy I’ve been lucky enough to encounter up and down the place called Northern California that, as best as I am able to understand it, envisions human beings as being the ones with the hands capable of helping nature continuously regenerate itself. With that in mind, my most local vision for sustainability is based in honoring and assisting the great gifts that are all around us.

I understand that some few people will spend their lives on Earth intentionally creating climate change, but that most of us don’t want wars for oil, or pipelines in our drinking water, or desolation. When we turn down the high-consumption messaging and spend a minute reflecting on the happiest moments of our lives, there is a very good chance our warmest memories stem from simply being with our loved ones, perhaps sharing a home-cooked meal, perhaps taking a walk together in some beautiful place. Most of us don’t really need anything more than that for happiness. At a local level, then, this may well be the vision of stability we are setting out today to make reality for the many generations ahead.