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Marketing spent decades fuelling consumer demand, helping put profit before people and demand. Today, every brand is racing to prove they’ve changed. Sustainability is the new black. 

Service-based businesses have jumped on the bandwagon, and many have genuinely enacted positive change. But, when all that’s really involved is office work and ‘virtual’ services, what really needs to be done?

There are multiple crises unfolding in our world. Our planet is in peril, and profit comes before people far too often. 

Many enemies in the business world are easy to spot, from oil barons to ‘fat cat’ CEOs. 

 And then there’s us marketing folk…

“Advertising executives,” argues Pavan Sukhdev, a former banker turned WWF president, “are destroying the fabric of humanity and our society.” 

Indeed, our profession bears a significant weight of responsibility for the ills of today’s world. 

Uncontrolled advertising fuels overconsumption through its sophisticated manipulation of our impulses and actions. 

The field of marketing and advertising converted human insecurities into wants, wants into needs, needs into demand, demand into production and production to profit. 

Consumerism ran rampant, the effects of which are now plain to see.

A Counter-Force: Sustainability

The principles of sustainability have run counter to much of marketing’s core essence.

Sustainability, defined in 1987 by the United Nations Brundtland Commission, involves “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

Marketing, meanwhile, LOVES meeting the needs of the present. But when it comes to “without compromising the ability” …well, that’s never quite been our thing. 

This ‘marketing vs sustainability’ friction, however, has in recent times undergone a sea change.

In 2021, sustainability is marketing’s new black. Every brand is clamouring to be seen as sustainable. And whilst of course many can be accused of disingenious trend-chasing, there’s also truly good progress being made. 

…but isn’t marketing’s eleventh hour conversion a bit rich? 

Why should we, who manipulated societies into over-consumption, be allowed to deliver any kind of solution? Why not just… ‘stop’?

It’s a reasonable argument, and one many would side with. But John Grant, in his excellent book Greener Marketing (Wiley, 2020) – on which much of this article is inspired – believes marketing does have a key role to play. 

Marketing’s “track record is far from exemplary,” Grant acknowledges, “but even Extinction Rebellion think marketers might – just maybe, if we get our act together – stand a chance of doing some good.” 

If those same skillsets that were used for ill purpose – the communication, inspiration and ‘manipulation of demand’ – can be utilised in changing behaviours with sustainable goals in mind, perhaps we can help fix our own mess. 

Crucially, marketing has the power to bring sustainability to the top table. Businesses may once have ignored issues of environmental and societal impact (or, perhaps worse, paid it lip service only.) What cannot be ignored, though, is customer demand; something marketing can identify, foster and serve.   

Marketing can’t just shift goals, though. Tactics and techniques must change too. “Advertising has to be about information and communication,” cautions Sukhdev, “and less about persuasion and bullshit.”

Bogus, cynical communications – such as supporting CSR publicly whilst simultaneously trampling over its values – simply won’t be good enough. Neither will “greenwashing”, adding a veil of good-ness to brands without addressing issues within.

Marketing has to stop its damaging activities and aim for better outcomes, but also find better ways of achieving them.  

We can understand, then, that the ‘call to arms’ is urgent and that marketing has a role to play.

I’m keen to explore how this applies to my area of work, the marketing of services and non-physical products. 

First, though, let’s look how ‘greener marketing’ applies to businesses involved with “stuff” –  producing, moving, building, developing… generally having more ‘physical touch-points’ with the real world.

In industries like energy, transport, food and fashion, the problems are palpable and can be understood by even casual observers. 

Businesses have known for decades that they can’t go on polluting, wasting or otherwise damaging our world. 

Marketing teams in these industries have long been managing and, yes, driving changes in consumer demand into more sustainable products and services. They will have contributed substantially in funnelling investment into greener product development and operational practices.

Electric car batteries, local supply chains, meat-free products… these and countless more represent examples of marketing capitalising on demand for more sustainable services. 

Now, companies in all manner of industries can bring now us products and services that are “eco-friendly”, “sustainably sourced” and “carbon neutral.” These new offerings are meeting surging customer demand.   

“Stuff-based” businesses are moving from a model of rampant advertising-fuelled consumerism to increasingly responsible and sustainable offerings. 

Clearly, enormous strides still need to be made. But there is a huge swell of activity and, it seems, a widely acknowledged roadmap of what change should look like. 

But how about businesses that have minimal “real-world” touchpoints? 

Let’s now explore a greener future of how we market services.

Greener Marketing Of “Services” And Virtual Industries

Service-based and virtual businesses sell things that aren’t physical. What’s on offer are ideas, expertise, experiences, software, financial products… 

These businesses are generally located in offices, with little major ‘footprint’ by way of supply chains, factories, material resources or excessive emissions. 

In general, their staff tend to be paid reasonably well and treated with respect. 

Far less visibly ‘bad’, then. 

In fact, we might assume that attentions would be better focussed elsewhere.

And yet, sustainability and green-ness runs so much deeper that what’s visible on the surfact. If you’re only thinking of the office recycling policy, or a reduction in travel for meetings, you’re missing the bigger picture. 

Service-based businesses play a central role in the power structures of our world. It’s therefore unfathomable that they wouldn’t have a key role to play in changing its future.  

Take, for example, the clear ‘pinnacle’ of business power structures; financial services.

“The whole financial sector has a crucial role to play… Climate change is a global problem,” wrote former Bank of England Governer, Mark Carney in a 2019 letter on behalf of 34 global central banks and supervisors.

Changing the coffee machine at head office is a red herring. 

Utilising power and influence to enact major change is the real need.

Financial services clearly has a major role to play in achieving sustainability. 

And consider tech providers, whose power is shaping how our societies communicate (whilst also, by the way, probably contributing enormously to carbon emissions via its oh-so-tactfully-named ‘cloud’.)  

Or how about recruitment agencies, who act as gatekeepers to positions of influence.

Or of course, lawyers, who create the frameworks for our physical and social world.

In short, there’s an awful lot of impact going on within services. It’s just a little more complex (and easy to wriggle free of responsibility from) than our “stuff-related” industry cousins. 

How, then, can marketing teams within these businesses make a difference? What will “greener” service-related and virtual businesses look like, and how can we help get there?

Marketing’s Role In Greener Services 

Marketing departments may not hold all the power, but they can certainly drive towards important changes.

“How else to mobilise a system change,” encourages Grant “than with communicators, content creators and entrepreneurs?”

“The story of sustainability and marketing,” he suggests, “is a complex evolving dance. The two fields at times seem in direct conflict; yet at others to desperately need each other.” 

Marketing has not just the skillsets, but also a clear responsibility to drive sustainability in services.

Let’s be clear, the end goal here CANNOT be just about easy things like:

  • Creating “” as a microsite
  • Inventing upbeat strategic jargon to justify existing practices
  • Publishing photoshoots of employees standing next to some trees

(All fairly ubiquitous!)

 Instead, it MUST be about pursuing the harder aims of:

  • Understanding the direct and indirect impacts of our services
  • Imagining, then generating demand for, greener services
  • Inspiring others to pursue more sustainable activities 

Business leaders will always seek profit, but there’s genuine openness to the idea that profit is not the only bottom line. 

Marketing can help these leaders – many of whom are now bearing tough new targets related to ‘planet’ and ‘people’ – to achieve these goals, whilst maintaining profitability. (We’re good at complex challenges like that!)

We can help re-shape the services that businesses sell, and the way we deliver them, to achieve this need for change. At the moment it’s a choice, but soon it what will come to be expected of us. 

I’ll suggest some actions, but first let’s review some examples of how service-based businesses are approaching “greener marketing”. 

Examples: Green Marketing In Service Businesses 

Here’s what some of the major service-based and virtual businesses are saying about* the sustainability credentials and activities.

LINKEDIN – Tech – 

  • “Creating economic opportunity” for its professional members
  • Particular focus on helping people “find green work” 
  • “On a mission to protect the planet” and, as part of a ‘green spaces’ (offices) plan, “removing our carbon footprint” 
  • Involving staff worldwide with ‘sustainability day’ and similar events

SAGE – Accounting Software –

  • ‘Tech for good’, including data and technologies that help people run businesses, develop skills and thrive
  • Startup and business growth support, available fairly or freely for under-represented groups 
  • Extensive resources to inspire and support SME’s to protect the planet

KPMG – Management Consultancy & Finance –

  • Aiming for net-zero in own operations by 2030
  • Utilising renewable energy in offices and ‘greening travel strategy’
  • Seeking carbon reductions from suppliers
  • In 1990, the first professional services firm to publish an environmental policy


  • Already net-zero, with 100% renewable energy for our operations
  • Delivers carbon-neutral cloud software and a ‘sustainability cloud’
  • Founded, conserving, restoring and growing 1 trillion trees by 2030
  • Provides blueprint sustainability and green plans for other companies
  • Enquires about carbon use in supplier contracts

ADECCO – Recruitment Consultancy –

  • Prioritises employability and access to work, unlocking hidden potential
  • Advocates for social protection for all, seeking ‘decency’ and ‘security’ in new world of work
  • Follows aspiration to be employer of choice 

SAP – Business Software & Data –

  • Zero-waste, zero emissions, zero inequality
  • Offers full suite of products around sustainability:
    • Climate Action
    • Circular Economy
    • Social Responsibility
    • Holistic Steering & Reporting
  • Publicly available guides on how to make sustainability profitable, and profitability sustainable

* OK – first, a note of cynicism. 

Let’s not kid ourselves; there is undoubtedly a substantial amount of bullshit hidden in many of the above claims. 

‘Greenwashing’ is the unfettered over-use of media and communications that display wondrous responsible practices, disguising or distract from real damage being done.

It can be hard to unpick. Examples of deception include: vague long-term aspirations; exaggerated sideshow successes; verbose but insubstantial declarations of intent.

Oil companies are particularly ingenious in this area, providing a playbook for those who wish to do things the quick-and-dirty way. Using “discourses of delay” they noisily support sustainable initiatives while dragging heels on the changes that would really make a difference. 

For many big polluters, the PR strategy is no longer denial, but rather “overstating the industry’s progress toward addressing climate change” (Guardian.)

To unpick some of the examples above…

Is LinkedIn really that committed to helping people “find green work”? Or have they just highlighted one green part of their existing offer? Don’t they also help hire oil rig workers? 

And KPMG – whose influence in global industry is truly immense – seems clear on reducing its ‘direct’ impacts (offices, employee footprint, etc), but leaves itself significant wiggle-room when it comes to the far-greater picture of its clients’ activities.

Undoubtedly, marketing departments are still prone to the old habits of hyperbole and gloss.

We can, however, give credit where it’s due. There’s certainly a lot here to praise, and take inspiration from for our own activities.  

Key Themes: Where To Start

Sustainability is a huge field. Starting can be daunting. 

From the examples above, we can draw out three key themes that provide something of a blueprint for successful sustainable marketing in services:

  1. First, fix your direct environmental impact. Essentially, this involves greener offices and travel reduction or decarbonisation. But – crucially – don’t stop there! Because this alone is far from enough.
  2. Champion greener and more sustainable practice within the broader economy. Use your business’ influence with suppliers and clients to inspire and encourage change. 
  3. Empower people – and specifically people from the broadest possible range of backgrounds – to contribute to the changes that are needed.

How these themes are interpreted and enacted will vary greatly depending on the size, scope and services offered by different businesses.

Excitingly for us, there’s enormous scope for creativity when it comes to the delivery. 

There are, however, also some very important fundamentals that are also required for truly effective outcomes. 

Essential Management Frameworks

Embedding sustainable practices into business often involves making ‘root and branch’ changes. These are likely to require full leadership buy-in. 

Marketing alone cannot make this happen but can play a key role as advocates and facilitators. 

In practical terms, marketing should be looking to business leaders for:

  • Purpose-Alignment
    The most ‘value-creating’ sustainable businesses do so by aligning sustainable goals with their core purpose (as studied by McKinsey.) This is a culture thing, best achieved by truly involving staff and stakeholders. And ideally, the CEO should speak often and eloquently on why sustainable issues matter.
  • Effective Reporting
    Solid reporting on ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) is fundamental when it comes to sustainability. Put simply “we need to track our impact on the climate and nature with the same discipline we track our profit and loss.” Regarding carbon, for example, progressive businesses are adopting ‘science-based targets’ that transparently detail emissions that are ‘scope 1 (direct), scope 2 (indirect via energy) and scope 3 (other indirect.) [Full explainer here by the Carbon Trust.]
  • Profit-Parallel Goals
    In 2021, we can no longer afford to keep up the ‘profit vs planet + people’ fight, where profit always wins. Businesses can – and should – adopt practices like “triple bottom line” (people, planet, profit) or pursue B-Corp status to ensure sustainability is never sidelined. 45% of FTSE 100 executives are already bonused on ESG targets; this has already become a reality in the corporate world.

Around the world, many businesses are truly embracing changes such as these. 

Change can, however, be tough to deliver. These needs are likely to take many leaders well outside of their usual (financially-centered) comfort zones. Embedding sustainability properly into organisations won’t always be easy.

We can take heart that the motivation is surely there. Belief in the need for change is widespread in society, and therefore well represented within organisations. 64% of people globally, for example, hold the personal belief that climate change is a “global emergency.”

Creating a framework for change towards sustainability, in language that business understands (a “bottom line”; finding shared “purpose”; reporting on “key metrics”), is likely to be critical.

Marketing must push for this important work to take place. 

We do not aspire to be creators of flimsy greenwashed facades. 

Instead, we want to help make real change. And, with our focus on customer demand and our grasp of critical communications, we surely can. 

The Future Of Services Marketing 

We know that practically every part of our world has to be greener, fast. 

It’s now impossible to escape from increasingly clear and urgent responsibilities regarding the climate, and also in how our society works for people.

The marketing profession played its part in creating many of the major problems of today’s world. Rampant over-consumption is our unfortunate legacy. There is, however, already substantial effort being applied to re-write this story; marketing has begun to be part of the solution. 

Within service-based businesses, there is ample scope for marketing to drive truly important change. Compared with “stuff-related” business, however, the required actions are usually far less instinctive. 

The path ahead in services marketing may be less clear, but it is arguably even more important. 

Service-based businesses, after all, hold immense power and influence in the global economy. They control the financial structures, network systems and the all-important ‘narrative’ that others act within. 

Marketing has an opportunity to drive towards more sustainable practices within services. It’s vital that we do so. 

Will Sawney, Sideways Marketing – October 2021