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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

What is Sustainable Marketing?

27 July 2023 - Charlie Thompson - Director, Commercial Reach & Influence at CISL - defines the scope, impact and opportunity of sustainable marketing and why it is critical to achieving a sustainable future.

There’s a common misunderstanding that sustainable marketing is simply the act of promoting, endorsing or selling sustainability-orientated products, services, experiences or information. While this is an important part of the role that marketing must play in moving business and society to create and exchange more sustainable value and solutions, it is not the whole picture.

                              It’s an easy conclusion to jump to in the context of the industry - sell better things; get better                                                outcomes - but the truth is that innovating what we sell  and buy is only one side of marketing’s                                          influence and only part of the answer.

Reducing the definition of sustainable marketing to one aspect of its work understates the transformation required by the sector and function. There are broader, more complex and interwoven challenges in the scope of this sector’s sustainability duty, and we cannot simply consume our way out of the sustainability crisis or through the economic transformation that is needed.


Defining the Scope of Sustainable Marketing

For marketers looking for guidance on sustainable marketing, Google search results fall into the trap above, failing to illustrate the scope of change needed. For an industry in a state of transition, partial or misinterpreted definitions of the transformation required can be counter-productive. Clear and proportionate ambition is needed to create a strategy fit for the existential crises we face.  

Transformation of the marketing sector will require a realignment of its purpose and role in a sustainable future. It will involve rewiring the way marketing is practiced, reclaiming the skills and competencies of marketers and creatives in service of sustainability, and reinvesting the industry’s creativity, innovation and technology in sustainable outcomes.

                                   Sustainable marketing is a purpose-driven practice that works to orientate businesses, brands and                                         society towards a sustainable future, influencing appropriate awareness, aspiration, adoption and                                        action across economic and sociocultural systems by taking necessary accountability for its impacts                                      and opportunities. In doing so, it acts in service of long-term wellbeing for all. 


Sustainable Marketing Impacts & Opportunities

Marketers must understand that current practices contribute to negative outcomes. The sustainable marketing practice we need will take accountability for its areas of impact and opportunity. We can think of these areas as follows:

  • Financial
  • Physical
  • Psychological, sociological and cultural; and
  • Ethical.


These areas are further explored below:

          1. Financial impact and opportunity

Marketing is a sibling of economics and an engine room of an economy that is currently organised in a way that has outgrown the limits of our natural world. The continued growth of an economic system that is only financially-focused will destroy its environment and the living things that depend on it. To transform the economy, we must transform the market and the marketing driving it.

With the urgent need for new economic thinking comes the urgent need for marketing professionals to advocate and demonstrate new leadership on profit and growth via a purpose-first approach to marketing and business activity. Purpose-first growth positions profit as a means rather than an end, in service of a purpose that is targeted at directly delivering a positive contribution to society.

Sustainable marketing takes responsibility for the influential role it can play in driving businesses and clients to rewire the economy. This involves:

  • Embracing and embedding new ways of thinking about profit and what we are growing
  • Influencing and achieving organisational purpose
  • Measuring what matters and setting the right targets for social and environmental progress
  • Driving innovation in offerings that will serve society, and
  • Mobilising stakeholders to support sustainable business practices.

          2. Physical impact and opportunity

The term ‘marketing footprint’ refers to the physical real-world impact that marketing strategies, decisions and operations have on our collective long-term wellbeing and the social and environmental systems that underpin it. Physical real-world impacts include the likes of emissions, waste, pollution, land degradation, loss of habitats and species, human health and equality.

Sustainable marketing uses its position of key influence, at the intersection of business and society, to drive positive change across production and consumption to protect and restore the health of social and environmental systems. It takes appropriate accountability for the impact and opportunity of its direct operational footprint (generated via campaigns, production, events, etc) and the indirect supply-side (production) and demand-side (consumption) footprints that it influences.  This involves:

  • Gaining and maintaining an understanding of systems health and marketing’s contribution to it
  • Building the achievement of sustainability into strategic thinking, planning and execution
  • Engaging in the methodology and technology available to account for marketing’s direct footprint
  • Supporting the innovation working to close gaps in industry-wide footprint accounting
  • Ensuring appropriate responsibility is taken for marketing’s indirect footprint; and
  • Accepting the leadership role that marketing has in creating positive change in production and consumption.

          3. Psychological, sociological and cultural impact and opportunity

Marketing shapes our perception of what is valuable and aspirational and influences our individual and collective values, worldviews, identities and lifestyles. Through this, marketing influences what is normal and desirable for individuals and groups in the cultures and societies where it is active.

This effect is known as ‘marketing’s brainprint’. It transcends the business system and enters society, through brands, and via the likes of advertising, entertainment, publishing, production, product design and what is and is not broadcast and reported. 

Every time marketing, media and creative professionals make a strategic or creative decision, they have the opportunity to re-enforce sustainable or unsustainable behaviours, norms and the values that underpin them. The marketing practice we need requires active acknowledgement of the psychological, sociological and cultural impacts of marketing and creative activity, and ensures this influence and opportunity is aligned with sustainable outcomes. This involves:

  • Developing and delivering narratives that are aligned with sustainable ends
  • Using the power of creativity in service of sustainability
  • Influencing attitudes, beliefs, norms and behaviours that are aligned with a sustainable future
  • Helping us individually and collectively align what we perceive to be valuable, aspirational and desirable with sustainable outcomes for all living things; and
  • Embedding sustainability in our culture and society.

          4. Ethical impact and opportunity

While often unintentional, the consequence of misinformation, greenwashing and purpose-washing can scale from being marginally to critically devastating depending on the associated footprint and brainprint.  Beyond increasing awareness, adoption and share-of-voice for unsuitable goods and services, it reduces the understanding, trust and action needed across society. Green or purpose-hushing can be equally damaging at a time when transparent, truthful and transformational brand advocacy and business-led change are needed.

Transparent, accurate and evidenced communication is needed through every available medium to guide and encourage movements across business and society to address the complex and interwoven challenges that undermine the collective wellbeing of people, nature and our climate.

The marketing transformation we need will see the sector both managing its moral duty and the potential of its work to create united movements of change that are directed towards the future we want, rather than the collective confusion and inaction that holds this back. This involves:

  • Aligning marketing objectives with the social moral landscape
  • Leading proactively for the behavioural change needed and healing the issues marketing has created in the past
  • Ensuring marketing claims adhere to the latest legislation, regulation and standards and are therefore truthful, meaningful, transparent, clear, substantiated and considerate of the full product lifecycle
  • Using the necessary, most relevant and credible standards, certifications and accreditations available to endorse, substantiate and support marketing and brandwork
  • Engaging with track and trace technology when and where appropriate
  • Maintaining marketing’s creativity while adhering to moral codes and frameworks; and
  • Collaborating to evolve these frameworks, learning from peers and experts.


Learn how to put the concepts above into practice via the Sustainable Marketing, Media and Creative Online Course from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

About the Author

Charlie is the Director of Commercial Reach and Influence at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and Co-Convenor of its Sustainable Marketing, Media and Creative course. Charlie leads CISL's work on the influence of the business ecosystem via the role of marketing, media and creative industries, and the opportunity this poses for sustainable change.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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