Five sustainable marketing examples every online brand can learn from

The last few years have seen increased media and public awareness and focus on the health of our planet, the introduction of more environmental government targets for businesses to meet and a rise in savvy consumers who want to spend their money with a brand who share their values. So, it’s no wonder that sustainability and green initiatives have become something that brands need to incorporate into every area of their business. A 2021 survey found that 52% of UK consumers factor a brand’s green credentials into their purchase decisions. As we look forward, environmental responsibility and sustainable values for businesses are not just a ‘nice to have’; they are essential.

What is sustainable marketing?

Essentially, sustainable marketing is how a business promotes and communicates about their environmentally responsible products, services and practices as part of their marketing strategy. Depending on what the business does, they may market about sustainability in relation to a specific product or range, a service they offer, a cause they are supporting or as brand values and general business practices.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a term to describe a situation where a company or organisation markets about their sustainable practices but are either exaggerating the environmental impact of their efforts, or they don’t have any evidence to back up their sustainability claims. An example of greenwashing could be when a clothing brand starts marketing themselves as sustainable fashion because one garment or line uses sustainable fabric, but the rest of their products are still environmentally damaging. Another example could be when a brand uses packaging or marketing creative that makes their product look more environmentally friendly than it is. For example, using lots of the colour green and imagery that makes something appear to be ‘green’, such as wind turbines or nature.

How to market sustainability

When looking at incorporating sustainable marketing into your wider strategy, it’s important to be transparent in the way that you communicate your efforts in this area. Making a business significantly more sustainable doesn’t happen overnight, and consumers will appreciate the efforts you are making in the right direction as long as you are honest about what you’re doing and the areas in which you still have to make some changes.

Five sustainable marketing examples

We’ve looked at some examples of good and bad sustainable marketing; the learnings about which can help your business to get things right with your own strategy.

McDonalds’ paper straw fiasco

In 2018, McDonalds famously axed their plastic straws in the UK (which were recyclable) in favour of paper straws in a ‘green initiative’ that was heavily marketed across multiple channels. They even changed the straws after customer feedback to be a bit more robust, while still being made from paper. However, it was soon discovered that the paper straws were not compatible with recycling processes available at the time, so customers were encouraged to put their paper straws in general waste bins after use. This essentially made them unrecyclable, despite them being brought in to replace an element that was already able to be recycled.

What can be learned from McDonalds?

This seems to be a lesson about looking before leaping. McDonalds were undeniably trying to make a change that was fundamentally positive for the environment by introducing paper straws to replace plastic ones. However, whether it was a lack of testing before launch (their first generation paper straws were known for disintegrating before customers could finish their drink), or simply a failure to properly research the recycling processes they had in place – there was clearly more work that should have been done before they started publicly marketing about the changes they were making.

Lush’s ‘Bring it Back’ product pot recycling scheme

Lush are a brand that have long been considered to have more environmentally responsible practices than many brands. They use mainly recycled packaging materials (90%) and say they are working on the rest, along with a variety of other measures in their product manufacturing processes. In 2021, they revamped their previous recycling scheme in the UK and Ireland to try and increase the number of customers returning empty product pots into stores by giving a 50p discount for each qualifying item they brought back, which could be spent in store that day. This was on top of their existing scheme that offers a free Lush face mask to customers returning five empty black pots in-store. They used a multi-channel marketing campaign to launch the scheme, including PR and social media, to communicate the details to their target audience.
Source: Lush Luton Facebook

What can be learned from Lush?

Lush were already doing more than many brands in terms of environmental policy, but wanted to ramp things up even more by offering customers a tangible incentive for helping them recycle more of their packaging. Their multi-channel marketing approach was key to getting the word out about the new scheme, with digital PR and social media content going out ahead of time, along with in-store promotion once the stores reopened after the COVID-19 lockdown that was in place when the launch was announced. Taking advantage of a slower news period probably helped give them more reach too, with coverage in lots of national titles such as the Metro, along with extensive retail trade coverage and featuring in ‘green’ trade titles too. That way, they got a chance to communicate about this sustainability strategy to the mass market, along with a more niche audience that were specifically interested in environmental news.

Valspar’s ‘cat pee smell’ paint disaster

Paint brand Valspar removed some of the chemicals from their interior paint line several years ago, in a bid to help make it a more environmentally friendly product and meet stringent guidelines on chemical additives from the EU. However, it turned out that removing these chemicals enables bacteria to grow once paint is on the walls, leaving households with rooms that may have looked gorgeous, but smelled quite the opposite. Much of the marketing creative that Valspar put out around this ‘green’ change on social media, in-store and through the media was based on a reduction in smell and breathing easily, which meant that when people’s homes started to reek just like cat pee, it really looks as though they shot themselves in the foot! Valspar (and B&Q, who stocked the brand) ended up having to compensate customers with smelly walls.

What can be learned from Valspar?

It’s likely that Valspar conducted lots of tests before launching their new product line, but it’s really unfortunate that this probably didn’t include bacteria growth over time and what that would smell like! The key messages that they ended up using in their marketing strategy totally backfired on them due to this. Another example of not enough looking before leaping!

Finisterre’s brand ethos and identity

Surf, beach and adventuring fashion brand Finisterre don’t just have the odd eco-friendly campaign as part of their wider marketing strategy, their environmental conscience runs through everything they do and sell. It is an intrinsic part of their brand identity, as can clearly be seen on their website and the amount of real estate that it gives to sustainability. With an understandable focus on the sea and the big issue of ocean plastics especially, Finisterre have looked at every aspect of what they do, from product design and manufacture, right through to the ‘leave no trace’ packaging their products are shipped in, to minimise the environmental impact. They also run a repairs service to help extend the life of their products and, in some cases, enable a second life that keeps them out of landfill too. Their marketing activity is always underpinned with their eco-focused values. From regular content such as podcasts featuring eco-projects and interviews that will interest their audience and posting environmental news on their social platforms, to ensuring that sustainability messages are front and centre across every owned channel. Finisterre’s eco-credentials are very much part of who they are and every customer will be aware of that.
Source: Finisterre Facebook

What can be learned from Finisterre?

Finisterre take sustainable marketing to a whole other level in comparison to most brands, as it’s simply at the heart of what they do and what they value, so comes across clearly in all of their marketing activity and doesn’t in any way feel like a token effort or marketing spin to make them look good. If you’re starting a new business, you can do worse than take Finisterre’s approach to ground-up sustainability as a target to aim for. Having your very identity as a brand so intrinsically linked to sustainability takes work, but if it’s always at the centre of your business then that will be a natural outworking of this. For existing businesses who are starting from a place of having legacy brand principles and public perception already in the wild, which might not be as eco-friendly, it’s more of a challenge to change this but can be done over time. It takes transparency and clear communications about what you’re doing, whilst also acknowledging (not hiding) the areas of the business that you’re still working on.

Develop your own sustainability communication strategy

If you want some assistance with your sustainability communication strategy or marketing activity, our team would love to hear from you. Get in touch using the form below.
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Laura Rudd

I’ve worked in digital and content marketing for over 20 years, specialising in SEO since its inception. My career has spanned both agency-side and in-house roles, working alongside brands like HomeServe, Taking Care, Checkatrade, and My expertise centres on SEO and content marketing, where I’m passionate about audience-first strategies that drive long-term organic performance.

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