Let’s be honest: real sustainability does not make a lot of sense from a business perspective. Profit drives business, and if profit drives sustainability instead of questions like ‘will our grandkids still have a planet?’, it’ll be hard to ensure the latter. Because the real question is: can greed ever be green? Marketing might hold the answer you didn’t expect.

The word behind the hype

Sustainability. A term you hear just about as much as ‘Avocado’ and ‘Fortnite’ nowadays. But what exactly is it anyway? Isn’t it just another way to make more profit?

Being sustainable today for a business means acting on three major points: economic, social and ecological. Rethinking these three points is essential for guaranteeing the preservation of human life for a long period of time. The idea is great, but not that simple to implement. We, as human beings, like to think on the short-term. It’s in our nature. We simply haven’t evolved enough to care enough about a few generations from now. We might worry about it for a bit, but exhilarating thoughts of pursuing hedonic activities like driving expensive cars and buying the newest outfits quickly suppress those darker thoughts.

We also handle as such in business: profit, something good that seems very close, will always be more on our mind than climate change, something bad that seems quite far away. Although some are more extreme in this (denying climate change exists at all) than others, this is also reflected in the concept of sustainability in business. Marketers know sustainability is something people talk a lot about, so it’s used in the marketing of their products. Treating sustainability that way is much like treating nasty symptoms with expensive medicine instead of curing the disease: it’s more profitable in the short-term, but doesn’t solve anything in the long-run.

Contemplating Contradictions

Take IKEA for example, a company that is trying really hard to put sustainability everywhere in their products. They really want you to know that the wood in their furniture and the cotton in their pillows is sourced organically. The question however is: can a company that relies on a low-cost, high-volume business model that encourages mass-consumption ever be sustainable in the first place?

This example relates to a broader question: Are things really going to change in a corporate universe where €550 billion a year is spent convincing people to keep consuming? The root of the assumption is that consumption is bad for the environment. So can we run an expanding capitalist economy while keeping its impacts within safe ecological boundaries, or is the greed-driven system effectively a suicide machine that is doomed to destroy itself? The latter seems the case, as the rising middle classes of India and China are copying the unsustainable consumption habits of the west and the marketing industry seems to facilitate this completely.

Marketing to the rescue!

Well, it turns out that same marketing industry might also offer a solution.

It begins with redefining what brands mean to people. Can premium brands be made using as little material resource as possible? It should be, considering the differences between cheap and expensive clothing is often marginal. How often do you feel like you’re paying for 3 stripes or a swoosh on your shoes instead of the actual shoe?

Because of this, the real contribution of marketing would be to make us value ourselves even more without using up too many material resources. Then you would be paying for ‘more’ than the logo because you would be paying for ‘less’. Patagonia is a good example of a brand you probably know existed, but didn’t know was sustainable. They launched a campaign advising people to not buy more of their products. All these people in the library showing off their new Patagonia sweaters are bettering the environment! Hurray for them!

So yes, greed can be green. But the marketing chiefs have to take their prominent places at board meetings again. We need to move towards ‘meaning rich, resource poor’ lifestyle, and consumers need to embrace that. Because in the end, consumers drive profit and profit is what drives the actions of any business in this world.