Whenever someone mentions “the environment,” my mind immediately wanders to that moment in the Simpsons Movie, when the Simpson-version of Green Day state, after playing for three and a half hours, “Now we’d just like a minute of your time to say something about the environment?” After a second of silence, the crowd goes wild, boos them off stage while throwing garbage at them, and accuses them of being “preachy.”
The overall feeling towards the environment today is very different from the fictional Simpsons concert-goers. There is a lot more concern around the topic, both from businesses and individuals alike, and the general consensus is that, yes, we should be doing something to protect the world around us.
When it comes to certain industries and sectors — mass production of goods, air travel, fossil fuel exploration, among many others — we are quick to recognize their negative environmental impact. However, other more seemingly innocuous business practices end up taking their toll as well.
As you might have guessed from the title, yes, I’m talking about marketing practices.
Marketing’s Carbon Footprint
If you’re a marketing professional, you might be wondering, and worrying, about how your daily job can have a negative impact on the environment. I get it — it’s not something one thinks about when almost all one does is sit behind a computer and get one’s tasks done.
How can creating campaigns, writing copy, or sending out a newsletter possibly be a bad thing?
Marketing’s carbon footprint is not as straightforward as, say, fast fashion mass production, but it does exist. Let’s take a closer look at it.
Starting with what, now that you’re reading about it, might seem obvious — promotional materials.
Promotional materials include any object that you produce that either bears the name of your company, your logo, or any type of imagery that people can easily associate with your business. These can be flyers that you give out at conferences, themed t-shirts, branded pens, notebooks, tote bags, you name it. Anything that you gift to either your current or prospective customers, partners, and employees, can be considered a promotional item.
They’re not very costly in terms of production, and represent a good chance to promote and give internal and external visibility to your brand. Promotional materials seem pretty harmless. And, let’s face it, who doesn’t love a freebie?
Personally, my pyjamas are all t-shirts I got at previous jobs and my reusable water bottle is from Pipedrive, even though I’ve never worked there.
But even though I hang on to my freebies for dear life, that’s not how most people operate. On average, people get rid of the promotional products they receive within six months of getting them, even if they found them interesting at first. That means that all those cute free gifts you idealized and produced hoping they’d serve a purpose eventually end up in the dumpster.
Depending on what exactly those objects are, they might be easier to recycle (notebooks or calendars), or more difficult or not recyclable at all (certain plastics, fabrics dyed with specific types of paint.) And yet, to recycle or not to recycle is just the end of the road. Until they reach that point, all promotional materials must be produced and then packaged and distributed.
All steps of these items’ lifecycles have their own environmental impact, from the sourcing of the materials and the manufacturing to how they are packaged and distributed. Same as with each item’s recyclability, these steps’ impact will differ according to the object in question. The environmental impact of an organic cotton t-shirt dyed with water-based ink is very different from that of a non-recycled plastic pen. It’s also very different if you get your materials locally sourced and produced or if you have to order them from across the world and ship them to your location.
The variety of promotional materials available, as well as their product lifecycle, makes it so that it’s difficult to assess the environmental impact of the sector as a whole. Still, there’s no denying that a seemingly innocent part of a lot of marketers’ jobs has a wider impact than one might think.
Now, if you’re thinking, “I’m good, I just run advertising campaigns,” or “I’m just sitting here writing this blog article,” followed by “there’s no way my job is helping destroy the planet,” I’m sorry to break it for you, you are.
I’m being a bit dramatic and, of course, if you compare your daily marketing activities to other wayyyy more polluting industries, you are not the problem. But alas, the tools you need to get your work done can negatively affect the environment, too.
First, there’s the internet. If it weren’t for it, a lot of us wouldn’t have jobs, or they’d look completely different. The internet is the reason you’re reading this. I wrote it from the comfort of my home in Lisbon, and you’re reading it wherever you are in the world. The internet is awesome, and it has revolutionized how we work, live, communicate, access information, buy things, etcetera. But have you ever stopped to think about the energetic toll that all takes?
Networked broadband, servers, data centers, cellular towers, and more need to continuously run for us to be able to access information and communication whenever our hearts desire, which, at this point, has become nearly 24/7. All of this translates into huge levels of energy consumption globally, which in turn has its negative effects. It’s estimated that, by 2030, US data centers’ energy consumption will reach up to 974 terawatt-hours (TWh), opening up the possibility of data centers being responsible for 26 percent of all energetic consumption in the US alone.
But that’s not all.
Marketing-specific activities further increase this energy usage. For example, the carbon output of 65 sent emails is virtually the same as driving an average-sized car for just under one kilometer. That means your email marketing campaigns aren’t so harmless after all. Not just that, but if you think about it, for every calendar event you create an email gets sent out to all people invited to it; you are probably getting notifications from your productivity tools or your marketing automation software. Changed your company’s Twitter login credentials? Boom, one more email in your inbox.
I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s kind of scary to think about the environmental impact of something so simple as sending out an email. If in addition to that, you take into account that the average enterprise uses 120 martech tools, you might begin to have a clearer image of how marketing can impact the environment.
Marketing’s Ultimate Goal
This is collateral damage, but marketing’s ultimate goal is to help your business thrive by generating brand awareness and, consequently, driving sales. This is true whether you’re in the B2C or B2B side of business.
The environmental impact of buying things is clearer to identify in B2C. If you’re driving sales for your product, you have more people buying so you need to produce more, so you’ll need to harness or transform more raw materials into your final product. But you need people to keep buying, so you want to encourage consumers to repurchase a similar product sometime in the future, so you kind of need that first product to go to waste sooner or later. This frenzied incentive for people to keep buying ends up generating a never-ending cycle of buying/tossing/buying again, which we are more or less aware is not that good for the environment.
Although not as visible, the same happens in B2B purchases. Let’s say you’re a SaaS company. The more customers you have, the bigger and better servers you’re likely to need to accommodate for users’ traffic and data storage, resulting in higher energy consumption.
But obviously, your business needs to survive, and you can’t just stop selling your product or service, so you need marketing to keep helping you get more customers. So what can you do to reduce your carbon footprint?
Fortunately, the general public is much more receptive to better environmental practices than the audience in the Simpsons movie, and protecting the planet has become a general concern.
So, if, after reading up until this point, you’re worried that you’re leaving a negative carbon footprint, never fear. There are ways to improve!
Same as environmental concerns, so have green marketing and other environmentally focused strategies come into the spotlight.
But what exactly is green marketing?
The concept can involve several different things, such as creating an eco-friendly product or using eco-friendly packaging, but also adopting sustainable business practices.
Inside the marketing scope, the latter is the one that matters most since, regardless of the product or service you sell, there are ways to incorporate sustainability into your business.
Starting with the more obvious, once again, you can turn to sustainable/recyclable materials to create your promotional items and thus reduce the negative impact of your marketing campaigns. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to remove plastic altogether from the process, but try as much as possible to use recycled/recyclable plastics. In addition to that, you can turn to organic cotton as a fabric for things like t-shirts or tote bags and opt for water-based ink instead of other chemical-filled options, or even other materials like hemp, jute or cotton.
When it comes to promotional materials, you should also think locally instead of globally. It isn’t just the raw products that have an environmental impact, it’s the way they are produced and distributed as well. Insofar as possible, you should aim to produce your materials locally, so that they don’t have to travel across the world to be delivered to you, further increasing its carbon footprint. And finally, try to produce as minimal a quantity of promotional materials as possible. You need to have enough for your event or campaign, sure, but try not to overproduce and end up with a stash of notebooks that won’t ever leave their cardboard box sitting in your supply closet. However, if you already have such a stash, do you really need to produce a new one, or can you resort to what you already have in hand?
This kind of recycle/reuse/reduce mentality is part of a broader mindset that you should implement across your business if you really want to adhere to green marketing.
As mentioned above, green marketing isn’t exclusively about marketing pratices but it includes adopting sustainability across your whole business. If there’s one thing you don’t want to do is green washing — conveying a false impression that your business is more environmentally sound. The most common examples of green washing are fast fashion brands that position themselves as going green by launching a line of sustainably produced clothing, when the rest of their lines remains the same.
So, true sustainability is a joint, cross-departmental effort, and you can and should incentivize it not just inside your marketing department.
I talked about how the simple act of sending an email can add up to a bigger carbon footprint than one would expect. If you’re mindful about your company-wide communications, for one, you can start sending less emails to inform people about more topics. The same goes for meetings; if you’re mindful of people’s time and aim to be more organized, you can schedule less meetings, hence triggering less email notifications. If you’re working in the office, and need to ask someone something or exchange a few quick ideas, just walk up to them and have a chat and if you need more time, book it there, in person.
Speaking of office, you can make it greener by switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, implementing a recycling program, and using sustainably produced office materials.
In what the carbon footprint of the tools and software you use is concerned, in addition to striving to send less emails, you can review what your teams are using and keep the ones you truely need. I’m sure that among your martech stack of 120 tools, you’ll find one that’s become redundant and replaced by another already in use, or one that is used just by one person and isn’t justifiable. By sticking to the absolute essential, you’ll be saving precious terawatt-hours.
Finally, be vocal about your sustainability practices and lead by example, both internally and externally. If you’re incorporating green marketing into your business practices, why not showcase that to your customers? That way, you’ll be raising awareness about it and, who knows, you might end up convincing other business to go green, too.
As you can see, reducing your marketing’s carbon footprint isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
However, I don’t want you to feel defeated even before you begin. So, start small and with something you know you’ll be able to see through to the end and stick to in the long run. It can be switching paper providers, producing less marketing materials, or something as simple as turning off your computer at the end of the day to save its battery and have to charge it less.
It may seem daunting, and with people becoming more and more environmentally conscious, you might feel like you’re not doing enough. But don’t worry; being aware of your impact on the environment is already a good place to start and, hopefully, this article will help you out.