Sustainable marketing is not easy. There’s a lot to learn, and missteps can easily be made. Lucky for you, a lot of those mistakes have already been made. Now, they are here for you to learn from and gather intel on the best practices in marketing your company as a sustainable brand.
For example, the backlash to Kourtney Kardashian Barker’s stepping into sustainable fashion with Boohoo (revisited in this season’s The Kardashians) provides a cheat sheet on the don’ts of green marketing. There was a litany of greenwashing red flags, like irrelevant claims, clickbait with zero proof, and red herring tactics to show sustainability with little action.
The background: Boohoo, a brand already under some fire for its business practices, partnered with Kardashian Barker on a line of so-called sustainable pieces launched at 2022 New York Fashion Week. Word of the new line set off a critical response supported by reports and data about poor labor and sustainability practices. Online critics of the brand partnership came with receipts and research.
This included a 2021 report from an international NGO showing Boohoo had failed to sufficiently upgrade supply chain practices after investigations found extremely low worker pay. It was obvious Boohoo was missing a couple of critical components of the triple bottom line of sustainability—profit, people, and planet.
With that in mind, what are some learnings from the Boohoo social media blowup relevant to ecommerce and marketing, and how can you do better to follow best practices?
In this article, I’ll provide six strategies and best practices in sustainable marketing to help you promote your business’s green efforts more effectively (and accurately).
What Is Sustainable Marketing?
Sustainable marketing is a way to position your company or its products as positively impacting the environment or social issues. Having products that are considered more ecologically sound is valuable. Companies can also take action to make a difference in these areas by donating proceeds or improving labor conditions and fair trade practices along their supply chain.
Green marketing focuses on the environmental aspects of improvement, whereas sustainability takes a broader scope to include people and the planet.
Sustainable marketing should use branding language that is consistent, clear, and transparent. Plans and strategies are directed towards longer-term goals (think: waste-free by 2030) rather than quick one-off campaigns.
6 Sustainable Marketing Strategies For Your Business
Building your company’s reputation in sustainability spaces takes an all-encompassing and multipronged approach.
“Holistic marketing is the best way to stay transparent, cohesive across all of your platforms, and true to your values,” said Aub Wallace, co-founder of sustainable marketing agency Dandelion Branding.
Here are six steps to help you get there.
1. Do the work and avoid greenwashing
Of course, you can’t even consider beginning any sustainable marketing campaign until expert-informed steps have been taken to create sustainable products. It’s easy to find multiple examples of companies that didn’t complete due diligence on sustainability efforts.
Kardashian Barker is a recognizable target of consumer concern, but greenwashing has been common. A 2021 study of about 500 websites by agencies from the UK and the Netherlands uncovered false sustainability claims in 4 out of every 10.
The biggest lesson: Avoid greenwashing, or trying to make consumers believe you are having a greater environmental-social impact or taking more drastic steps than you actually are.
Don’t make grandiose claims—such as ending plastic waste—if your company’s actions are limited to selling products with some recycled content. This is something sportswear apparel giant Adidas received scrutiny for doing. Nike also overpromised on its waste-free and water-reduction claims and had to do some backtracking.
Check your supply chain to ensure your claims are adding up regarding manufacturing and labor practices, product materials, and packaging. Avoid making assumptions about any materials marketed to you as sustainable or green.
2. Do your research and share your sustainable journey
As an ecommerce entrepreneur, as you aim to promote sustainability slogans or policies, doing in-depth research at the outset can help you avoid making overly broad promises. Build customer value and consumer loyalty by sharing your learning journey about greener products and standards.
You can start by learning exactly what sustainability means in your area. Get to know the jargon—and then avoid overusing it in marketing practices. For example, know the difference between net zero and carbon neutral, distinct efforts intended to mitigate climate change.
A super quick explainer: Net zero initiatives aim to reduce or even eliminate emissions from business practices, whereas carbon-neutral companies implement carbon offsetting. Offsetting might mean planting trees or practicing other forms of carbon sequestration to compensate for carbon emissions.
Secondly, provide accurate measures based on credible standards. Whether you commit to ESG (environmental, social, and governance) or CSR (corporate social responsibility) measures, having credible data to share to back up your claims is essential. And having your own receipts for sustainability statements is already law in the European Union.
To optimize data and reporting to gain consumer trust, you can also pursue credible certifications. B Corp is a rigorous standard showing companies have strongly considered and are taking actions toward social and environmental impacts. Other certifications recognized in the UK, for example, include Carbon Trust, Fairtrade, and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
3. Be accurate and use honest language
Accuracy and realism are critical when building your brand since research shows that greenwashing can harm your reputation and affect customer loyalty and satisfaction. Larger brands seen as innovative or trusted can avoid some of the blowback. Still, national and international legislation has been passed and is emerging to deter corporations from overpromising and underdelivering on sustainability claims.
If you need any more reason for honest and precise brand language around sustainability, it’s probably just good traditional marketing. Rule number one is to know your customer. Younger generations, in particular, are often hyper-aware of greenwashing and will fact-check what you say.
Force of Nature, a UK organization to mobilize and educate young people about climate issues, recently asked participants in training to name examples of greenwashing. The list posted on LinkedIn is comprehensive, mentioning Boohoo, paper straws, vaguely described tree planting and clothing recycling programs, and a major plastic producer’s rebrand as an ecological leader.
4. Communicate transparently to your customers
Perfection is not possible in sustainability. Climate change and natural conservation are wickedly complex problems. Companies can sometimes gain recognition for acknowledging that.
If you are contributing to a carbon offset program, you can be open about some of the drawbacks or uncertainties. Tree planting alone can’t solve climate change or entirely compensate for emissions.
There are questionable benefits to using materials deemed more sustainable, like recycled polyester and vegan leather, which feature prominently in the Boohoo/Kardashian Barker collab.
Recycled polyester does reduce emissions. But the material still causes microplastic pollution just as virgin polyester does. Vegan leather is composed of fossil fuel-based plastics (thermoplastic polymer and polyvinyl chloride) and is impossible to recycle. Regarding sustainable packaging, some compostable items may not be entirely biodegradable (we have a shortlist of the best sustainable packaging manufacturers).
Interestingly, research shows the millennial and boomer generations tend to define sustainability by the materials used to create a product. Gen Z cares about overall business practices such as manufacturing.
Speak to your customers like humans. Tell them about the challenges you are facing and the steps your company is taking to make a difference—even if it won’t solve all the problems.
Patagonia has been a stand-out example by continuously communicating transparently about environmental trade-offs. The company acknowledges consumption of any kind contributes to pollution.
By discouraging customers from buying another jacket they don’t need, Patagonia has earned its reputation for exceptionally refreshing honesty. At the same time, the company is taking concrete steps to reduce emissions, decrease pollution, and improve labor practices.
5. Take criticism seriously and act on your company’s values
One positive note of the Boohoo backlash is that Kardashian Barker responded to the criticism by acknowledging the enormous issue of fashion’s pollution problem. While she had met with experts to help design her line, she also admitted not having enough knowledge to avoid certain missteps.
As many pointed out on social media, a jet-setting celebrity with no experience advancing sustainability initiatives is likely not an effective champion.
The lesson for your company is to choose your ambassadors wisely when planning your sustainable marketing strategies. They should reflect the values you aim to achieve, and their actions should not misalign with ecological initiatives.
6. Do more, measure, then do more again
Kardashian Barker welcomed the attention brought to the issue of pollution in fashion, but that doesn’t further substantiate Boohoo’s claims of sustainability. An ultra-fast fashion company may not be able to achieve the status of a truly sustainable brand.
Starting from a sustainable business model is how to get to green marketing. There should always be room for improvement and adjusting to new information in sustainability campaigns and programs. Green marketing is not just one product line or social media ad campaign. Continue to share your learnings and aim for a business model that addresses the latest developments in sustainability. Think beyond the short-term.
“For sustainability marketing, it's always about more than just one campaign,” said Wallace. “It doesn't matter how old your story is. Share your story, and share it fully. Use your values throughout your communications, and don't step away from them.”
Pursue A Winning Strategy For Profit, People, And Planet
Gain a competitive advantage and stand out from the crowd while making a positive impact in improving the well-being of future generations. Transparent societal marketing—intended not only to improve brand image but also to address challenging issues of our time—can be a winning long-term strategy.
Sustainable marketing activities can also set up your company to be more forward-looking, advancing solutions for future generations.
Don’t be discouraged by the scope of environmental issues or social problems facing your industry. As the examples mentioned show, authenticity performs better than overpromising and misguided digital marketing tactics.
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More great ECM content:
- How To Conduct A Sustainability Storytelling Audit On Your Online Store
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