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Sustainability Literacy - Or, Why Today's Marketers Need To Know Everything About Everything.

The Golden Age of Marketing was like the Golden Age of Air Travel - a worry-free world of possibility, where confident captains whisked you away to exotic destinations with drinks served by beautiful people. No one made you take off your shoes at security. Heck, no one even asked you to butt out your Marlboro once the No Smoking sign was off.

These days, marketing is more like a round-the-world flight with 50 stopovers under terror threat twelve. Woe to those who don't know what is hiding in their corporate baggage.

Welcome to Sustainability Literacy 101. Once the lonely purview of university professors and public TV documentary hosts, this thick file of supply chain subterfuge, carbon calculation and global guilt gone wild has now landed squarely on the marketer’s desk.

So what do you need to know? As no two brands have the same sustainability context, it helps to understand the issues in your space. An electronics marketer should be familiar with the traditional vulnerabilities of offshore manufacturing, like factory working conditions, child labor, conflict minerals and hazardous material content. Companies that make anything that goes in us, on us, or around us (think food, cosmetics and cleaning products), may have to go even further up their supply chain to understand production of sub-ingredients, sourcing of raw materials and even post-consumer biodegradability.

But can't we just forward all those grumpy calls to the Customer Service line? Or better yet, to the freshly-minted Sustainability Coordinator in the repurposed janitorial closet office down the hall?

No, for two reasons.

Risk And Opportunity

As marketers, it is our job to tell the stories about our brands that engage people. As we filter through agency pitches, website content and social media mayhem, it is easy to approve an idea that could have unfortunate fall-out. (Like launching a North America-wide video contest for kids just as a story breaks about child-labor infractions in your supplier factory overseas) Even if your obscure B2B communications never see the public light of day, it is critical that you understand where you are most sustainably vulnerable.

Sustainability illiteracy could also cost you competitively. Many companies do more than what is required by regulation, and too often, the people and passion behind these efforts go unsung. These tales can be the stuff of viral media legend, putting you head and shoulders above competition that does not know or care enough to share them.

So how do you begin to tackle this world of science, faith and superstition?

Getting Started

One useful resource I have found is the website for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a widely accepted standard for sustainability reporting. Their G3.1 Guidelines put issues of social, environmental and economic sustainability into categories that can help you see which are most relevant.

Consider involving your sustainability department in a marketing brainstorming session, to create a stronger bond between what your company is saying and what it is actually delivering.

And don't forget to engage your stakeholders. Talk to your customers, sales team, and executive about which sustainability issues are most pressing. This can narrow your field of inquiry into what might otherwise be a very deep rabbit hole.

Above all, as you embark on your Sustainability Literacy voyage, remember the world of marketing should still reflect a glow of the golden age. The main objective of knowing what your baggage contains is to avoid the rubber glove at security, but you should always enjoy the view out the window once you take flight.

Preferably while sipping an organic, fair-trade-certified piña colada with an FSC-certified paper umbrella in it.


Lorne Craig is a Creative Director, blogger, writer and consultant who has worked on a wide variety of brands in an advertising career that spans a quarter-century. As co-founder and Creative Director of an independent Vancouver ad agency, he won… [Read more about Lorne Craig]


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