The problems facing over production and consumption present challenging consequences on the natural environment which have led to vast amounts of waste, as well as the overexploitation of renewable resources and climate change. A main challenge to humanity today is how to bring a better quality of life, to over eight billion people, without damaging the environment entirely in the attempt. This stimulates questions such as, how can humanity sustain the current condition of the planet whilst actively over consuming materialistic products, a problem which is amplified by the continued growth of the global economy?
Marketing serves as an important function in the promotion of economic development and has enabled companies to expand their business and profits within a capitalist society. However, marketing has also been criticized, for example, when marketers have been complicit through their encouragement of unsustainable patterns of consumption, when shameful business decisions have been exposed. The debates surrounding marketing and sustainability have raised a fundamental question, how can marketing be used in order to achieve sustainability, whilst simultaneously promoting consumerism? A notion referred to as the marketing paradox.
Corporations are the dominant institutions on the planet, and so must address environmental and social problems. Businesses have three primary issues which need to be addressed: taking earth’s resources, making (products), and wasting (eco-costs). This can be achieved through various marketing strategies which, in turn, bring value to consumers and differentiate a firm from the competitive environment. The positive value that a firm can achieve is outlined by the value chain, which describes how positive value is created through marketing and creating a competitive advantage.
This highlights how value is created for the self-interest of a firm. The chain evaluates the various activities of a firm, to show how the primary focus is to bring value to the consumers, which enables a business to generate more profits. A firm may bring value to the target consumers but the activities involved in engendering this may be considered as environmentally destructive and unsustainable. As a firm creates more positive value, this may also lead to the over consumption by consumers.
In contrast, within stakeholder theory, the ‘harm chain’ suggests how a company’s activities may contribute to creating potential harm to the environment and also to develop public policy. An exploration of the consequences of business strategies and activities, in terms of overproduction and the advocation of consumerism, may help to assist organisations in minimising the damage to the environment and suggest where intervention may be needed. This approach involves the identification of three general groups: those who cause harm, those affected by harm, and those able to address harm, such as regulators. In this way, an organisation can be recognised for their contribution to overproduction and overconsumption, and the potential harm to the environment. This suggests the negative aspects of marketing in relation to sustainability, and shows how firms need to be aware of the balance between creating positive value to consumers and the negative harm towards the environment.
It is important to recognise the role of stakeholders in marketing and sustainability, which go beyond a firm’s management, and so stakeholder theory enables an evaluation of a whole industry in terms of their activities relating to sustainability. It is not ‘marketing’ in terms of a firm’s activities alone which can contribute to the harm chain, and suggests how there needs to be an exploration into the responsibility of stakeholders.
The role of the consumer is significant in marketing and sustainability as the customer can embody many stakeholder identities. Consumers can be understood through the concept of the service-dominant logic (S-D logic), whereby value is co-created with customers and is influenced by social forces and reproduced into social structures. Value is created during the consumption process, with the user, through the term ‘value-in-use’. Value is produced through positive consumption experiences which goes beyond the benefits of a product or service. This can demonstrate how over consumption and production does not necessarily rely solely on the product which is purchased but the overall experience of consuming. Consuming has become an experience which is advantageous to consumer well being, which suggests that the value of this exceeds the value of protecting the earth.
Although, value can be produced to those individuals who want to sustainably consume, such as ‘green consumers’ – whose behaviours reflect concern about the effects of overconsumption on the environment, such as reducing consumption. The awareness of environmental concerns and green behaviours displays how green consumers have activated altruistic values and deactivated egoistic values and demonstrates how consumers and firms participate in co-creating value in line with sustainability.
Other groups of individuals present awareness of green consuming and are willing to buy green products, but do not act on these perceptions. This represents an attitude-behaviour gap, suggesting how value remains embedded in the process of acquiring materialistic goods which are designed to improve customer welfare. As well as this, research shows how consumers perceive themselves to have sustainable consumption patterns, when this is not necessarily true.
Consumption has changed from fulfilling material needs to a method which enables consumers to create a personal identity. The current period of post-industrial modernisation maintains how culture itself has become commodified and so, consumption is a sociocultural marker. In this way, individuals are what they consume, rather than what they do for a living. As identities are being broadened and reinforced by consumerism, it is not necessarily changing behaviours and attitudes, but aiming to transform consumer identities which represents a challenge to marketing.
Instead of consumers evaluating a product in terms of how ‘green’ it is, consumers focus on how the product will benefit them. These characteristics of dominant behaviour can be understood and explained through the concept of the dominant social paradigm (DSP). The belief that consumerism benefits individual welfare lies within the DSP, and this human-centredness will be referred to as anthropocentrism, an ideology that proclaims the separateness, uniqueness and superiority of humans. The ideologies of dominant social groups in society, if changed from predominantly anthropocentric to a more ecocentric way of thinking, may encourage environmentally conscious consumption.
The socio-economic domain of the DSP comprises of three dimensions: the technological, the economic and the political, and those with a greater belief in these dimensions display less concern towards the environment. In the political, liberal democracy can be criticized for promoting individualism. Individualism can increase the likelihood of consumerism, although factors such as work ethic can reduce consumerism as it increases ethical behaviour within the marketplace. This suggests how if there were an increase in such ethics, then individuals may exert a greater concern for their consumption patterns. This may lead to the emergence of an increase in political consumerism, whereby consumers boycott certain consumption activities in order to promote particular political goals. However, green consumption is not political consumerism. The increase in ethical behaviour may not be specific to the environment as individuals may abstain from consumption activities for reasons other than the natural world.
On the contrary, this framework does not examine the cosmological domain that van lead to questions of existence such as the organization (anthropocentric-ecocentric), structure (atomism-holism), relation (domination-submission), and the importance of nature itself. In this domain, the western DSP correlates to an anthropocentrism. By excluding the cosmological domain, the questions of the background assumptions against how such values, behaviours and beliefs have developed are not examined. As the consumer is the centre of the exchange system, the environment is a resource to facilitate the consumer satisfaction, which heightens anthropocentrism, and how humans view themselves at the top of a hierarchy and why the value of nature is reduced. Therefore, human-centredness emphasises how consumers are focused on well-being, rather than on the environment, reinforcing Beck’s term of a risk society.
Green marketing is a tool for sustainable development and advocates the consumption of green products, with a lighter environmental footprint. However, green marketing cannot create value to customers who do not share the same attitudes towards the environment. For this reason, green marketing must integrate transformative change in order to create value for individuals, society, and for the natural environment, rather than losing the trust of consumers. This suggests how transformative green marketing can be used by firms in order to give value to sustainable products, which simultaneously satisfy both the businesses and consumers. This may also encourage a new way of thinking towards nature and thus, help to strengthen ecocentric beliefs in western society.
From a green perspective, a materialist commodity suggests that progress can be made by implementing greener strategies, such as packaging and distribution. This ensures that the products being purchased are sustainable and increases a positive, green reputation for organisations. Although, this suggests how the responsibility of being green is the institutions rather than the consumer and does not necessarily motivate individuals. The green movement must create strategies which commodify the notion ‘less is more’ and convey that this is a valuable belief to be associated with. However, in order to be successful at promoting ‘less is more’, within consumer culture, contradicts the ideologies of the DSP. Ultimately, green communications remain within the DSP because the primary goal is to sell more products, a term called ‘myth of green marketing’.
Can the DSP and sustainable communication can be integrated in order to promote sustainability? The progress of a firm, within the DSP, is defined when the level of consumption is increasing. However, if sustainable communication created a new progression which did not result in an increase of consumption, then this would imply a no-growth society. Although, it is important to recognise that if the earth’s resources are used up, due to unsustainable practices, then this too may result in a no-growth society. This suggests how there is a need for growth in society which does not rely on using the earth’s limited resources and a shift towards a more ecocentric way of thinking. In this sense, sustainable communication efforts are argued to be inadequate in achieving sustainable consumption because this would require a transformation in both marketing and societal institutions. The act of making only subsistence purchases is still embedded in a specific economic, political, and social context. For sustainable communication to be successful would require challenging the current period of post-industrial modernisation.
An alternative to the DSP, is the sustainable degrowth paradigm (SDP). The main features of this paradigm discussed are the downscaling of production and consumption, the process of transformation, whereby sustainability is socially and environmentally beneficial, with the paradigmatic proposition being that human progression is possible without economic growth. Within the SDP, technology focuses on sustainable futures through innovations for consuming less. Degrowth will be presented as a social choice, not enforced as an environmental solution. Progression is not defined by economics, but by sustainability, highlighting how the SDP does not result in a negative growth. Furthermore, this suggests how it may be possible for the cosmological dimension in the DSP to be altered, as the human is decentered and equality is demonstrated between nature and humankind.
The SDP may be implemented into society political debates and implementing environmental policies. Neo-liberal capitalism appears as a post-political condition and environmental politics has transformed from being highly political to a depoliticised, post-political issue. Degrowth is an attempt to re-politicise the debate on the socio-ecological transformation. Through this process, society is encouraged to become aware of environmental issues and engaged in sustainable practices. The SDP aims to decentralise democratic institutions and repoliticise the economy, therefore, to form liaisons between governments, local governments and individuals within society. Policy can form from this foundation, with less focus on economic gains or human well being, and move away from a society centred on ‘growth-fetishism’. Such political opportunism may help increase political backing towards sustainability, if degrowth is communicated optimistically, in order to motivate support towards environmental policies and to transform anthropocentric perceptions. However, for humans to be liberated from economism may be hard to achieve since the dominant group’s interest is in maintaining the current, prevailing paradigm.
Overall, environmental decline has been recognised since before the Industrial Revolution, for example by Locke and Mill who referred to potential resource shortages and the limitations to economic growth. It is evident that many marketing strategies, including green marketing, are likely to be unsuccessful in administering effective tactics in order to prevent the continue of hyperconsumption and overproduction, as remain within the DSP.
Capitalism, should not just be recognized as a system of economic organization, but be acknowledged as a cultural ideology that defines and regulates social practice and social thought. Both capitalism and liberal democracy have been shown to be present within the DSP, with anthropocentrism as the underpinning belief, opposing ecocentric views. As a result, this study has argued the limitations of the current paradigm.
A transformation of the DSP is necessary to facilitate the change the of the perceptions towards the environment and to collapse hierarchies which have constructed humankind as the centre of existence and exchanges. Radical changes are necessary in order to challenge the anthropocentric ideologies, the globalisation and democratization of markets, which defines how western society remains in the stage of post-industrial modernisation. Therefore, the responsibilities are shown to be the individual micro level and macro and marketing systems level collectively.
An alternative paradigm to the DSP. The SDP aims to re-politicise the debate on the environment. Through political opportunism, degrowth can have objectives to engender political support and to influence society, encouraging individuals through a democratizing process, a decision which has been made through collective choice. There are limitations to a new paradigm, however, such as the necessity of restructuring society in order to change egotistic values. Such change towards sustainability should be focused on a beyond-materialism future. This outlook is fundamental in order for society to progress towards an ideal ecotopia.
This has been edited from an essay of mine