Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Look Back in Puzzlement

Our 20 Years of Sustainability and Marketing

It is exactly twenty years ago that Ken first wrote something that tried to bring the world of marketing and the concept of sustainability together. In 1989 he submitted a paper 'Painting Marketing Education Green' for the Marketing Education Group Conference (which later became the UK Academy of Marketing Conference). Despite being relatively simplistic, descriptive and naïve it got a remarkable reception. This was partly we suspect because it was one of the earliest contributions to the post-Brundtland ‘Second Wave’ of sustainability marketing writing (the ‘First Wave’ having arrived in the mid-1970s in the wake of the publication of books like ‘The Limits to Growth’ and ‘The Population Bomb’).

The conference session at which it was delivered was packed out, and later on the paper was chosen for the special issue of Journal of Marketing Management dedicated to the conference and published in 1990. On the back of it Ken was offered his first book contract to write a (very basic) M&E Handbook on Green Marketing for Pitman, and it really looked like that would be the future colour of the world of marketing. Only a year later however, this optimism looked misplaced. When Ken came to deliver a (better) follow-up paper at the 1990 MEG conference, the audience largely made a rush for the exits. The initial curiosity about the sustainability agenda and what it meant for marketers seemed to have fizzled out. In the commercial marketing press the commentators had got to grips with sustainability and environmental concern, deciding it was just one of many facets of the modern world that the marketing strategist had to factor into their thinking. It was like globalization, market fragmentation, the evolution of e-commerce or the emergence of China. Just another fact of marketing life - nothing more, nothing less. The idea, that sustainability would require a different way of thinking about marketing simply didn’t seem to resonate. The colleagues who had humoured Ken by listening politely and patiently to his ideas about sustainability and marketing began asking when he was going to get back to some ‘proper research’. He persevered by publishing the teaching-orientated text ‘Environmental Marketing Management’ in 1995, but the courses about marketing and sustainability which the publishers had been expecting to have emerged by the mid 1990s simply didn’t exist. Old thinking and conventional teaching continued to dominate. At best a lecture on sustainability was tacked onto the syllabus of the more progressive marketing courses, resulting in many invitations to provide a guest lecture towards their end.

It is almost twenty years ago that Frank started his PhD thesis ‘Ecology and Competitiveness in the Food Industry’, particularly focusing on ecological innovations and ecological marketing. Later on, as assistant and associate professor at the University of St. Gallen he kept on doing research in this area – despite the rollback of eco-marketing in theory and practice (which is well documented in ‘Marketing and the Natural Environment’ by Andrew Crane). By the end of the 1990s shareholder thinking and the internet boom was predominant. The ‘virtual world’ of money and digital bits and bytes ignored the ‘real world’ behind products and services.

Fast forward another 10 years to 2009, and suddenly the world looks very different. Its leaders are about to wrestle with the urgent threat of disruptive climate change and how to respond to it at the summit in Copenhagen, but are hampered by global financial weakness and massive public sector debts produced by the unsustainable nature of the debt-fuelled growth of recent years. The search is suddenly on for alternative technologies, new business models and innovative management thinking to deliver new jobs and a ‘greener’ and more sustainable economy for the future.

This new challenging future has been reflected in the reception for ‘Sustainability Marketing’ where enquiries are coming in from all over the world about it, and where less than three months after its publication the first reprint was required. Some of those enquiries are from people establishing new types of courses linking sustainability to marketing, design or management more broadly. We are thrilled to be part of the change towards a more sustainable future and establishing a new sustainability oriented marketing mainstream! What do you think: Is the ‘Third Wave’ of sustainability marketing literature going to last or will it fade like the ‘First and Second Waves’? Please, send us your comments!

Photo by David Sifry. Reproduced under creative commons license.

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