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Wink: More on Sustainability in Marketing

For those of you who have read this column for the past few months, you will likely think of me as the pessimistic wretch of green marketing.  Perhaps you picture me in a suede-patched jacket grumbling about power paradigms, and quoting Foucault while over-contextualizing sustainability in a pathologically consumption driven culture.  I am, after all, the one who wondered if the concept of sustainability might have been implanted in our brains like the fake memories of Replicants in Blade Runner.  If you have been reading, you will likely think of me as an overly academic naysayer.

This column will not change your mind.

Last month, I argued that most of the images of sustainability in marketing are simulacra – copies that don’t have originals.  They are fictional depictions of a pastorally perfect past (that do/did not exist anywhere but in our mind) or a future state (that will never be realized).  And that the marketing implies that either are possible through the purchase of a particular product.   That is the promise we are asked to believe.

There are marketing arguments that consumers are unmotivated, perhaps even de-motivated, by negative images of environmental destruction caused by the industrial age.  The line of reasoning lets us think that we must show positive images – the simulacra of the single tree on the hills, girls blowing dandelions, the happy cow.

I suppose that they are right in the case of motivating consumption, but what about motivating sustainability itself?  Isn’t that what “green marketing” should be about?

Enter Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian cultural critic, Marxist and more academic and naysayerly than I could ever compete with.  Zizek, in his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (wonderfully recreated by RSA Animate here) reminds us of Oscar Wilde’s point that ‘it is easier to have sympathy with suffering than it is sympathy with thought.’

Zizek’s reference point is that if we continue to paint rosy pictures of a pristine environment (or social structure) as a way to promote consumption, we are guilty of perpetuating the condition we are claiming to be “solving.”  We are, as he says, “fixing with our right hand what we are breaking with our left.”  Pretty images don’t motivate change; instead, they serve as a reward for stasis.

Are we supposed to believe that only the non-profits are responsible for showing us the negative conditions so that we will donate to them?  Do brands have a similar responsibility?  Maybe not.

I have begun to think of most of what passes for “green marketing” as a giant wink.

Brands promote products as being sustainable and part of this or that solution to climate change.  It’s the kind of wink that lets us in on veiled sarcasm.  It is quick – a flicker of the lower lid – unobservable to others in the room (regulators, perhaps).

And consumers wink back.  We are happy to be in on it, like a shared secret.  I get to display my organic lotions in my bathroom, wear my Patagonia fleece and drive my FlexFuel Jeep Cherokee as long as I accept and return the wink that everything is okay and we are all in it together.

Overly cynical?  Guilty.

But think of this as a thought-exercise in hyper-progressive branding.  If the trend of “authenticity” in branding is to become a point of differentiation (as opposed to “me-too” marketing) then what does a new brand interface look like between a company and a consumer?  What type of dialogue needs to occur to enjoy a truly authentic relationship?  Do we need to openly share bad news with one another?  Can we have sympathy without suffering?  Most people agree that genuine dialogue happens when both parties are open and willing to admit to mistakes.  Is it reasonable to expect this interface between brands and consumers?

Brands today are making great improvements towards sustainability.  The question is ‘how much is it reasonable for us to expect of them?’.  After all 10% fair-trade, organic ingredients are better than nothing.

John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing.

John Rooks
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