Marketing Sees Rise in Sustainability Research

Ingrid Martin
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Key Takeaways
  • Consumers and organizations are becoming increasingly concerned with sustainability initiatives, and recent research in management and consumer behavior is shedding light on sustainability issues from a marketing perspective.
  • Marketing’s role within the issue of sustainable consumption is to help consumers and businesses understand the problem, and drive policy initiatives at the governmental level.
  • Firms with a corporate culture that supports sustainability—either as a corporate citizenship initiative or as a value proposition—more effectively drive support for the issue companywide, research shows.


​​Selections from Journal of Public Policy & Marketing​

March 2015 | Exploring Consumption Behavior in Sustainability Research

Increasing attention is being focused on how consumers and organizations can become good corporate citizens and caretakers of our resources in order to avoid negatively impacting the lives of current and future generations. Research on sustainability has long been prevalent in disciplines such as economics and ecology. In the last five years, however, researchers in marketing management and consumer behavior have begun to consider sustainability issues from a marketing perspective. 

The most commonly used definition of sustainability and sustainable development comes from the 1987 Brundtland Commission report, “Our Common Future,” which defines it as “development that meets the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” The spirit of this philosophy has permeated the field of business through a marriage of the basic underlying paradigm that drives business—organizations must make a profit to survive in the long run—and the philosophy that we need to consider the impact of our consumption patterns on future generations. This blending of sustainability and business operations has been conceptualized as the “triple bottom line,” or the trade-offs that must be made between people, planet and profit from an intergenerational perspective. 

Despite all of the progress that has been made globally toward addressing issues of sustainability, the problem of unsustainable consumption is growing. This is a research problem that is ripe for investigation in our field, and an opportunity to make major contributions through intentional, comprehensive and systematic research.

Each article discussed below has been published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing​ and provides a unique perspective on the evolution of how we view sustainable consumption and how research in our field has begun to address this critical global question. The articles’ insights shed light on the role of marketing as a way to develop an in-depth understanding of consumers and organizations when developing and enacting policy initiatives at all levels of government. 

In “Principle-Based Stakeholder Marketing: Insights from Private Triple-Bottom-Line Firms,” Jenny Mish and Debra L. Scammon  report data from a study that explores the practices of private firms with an integrated commitment to achieving the triple bottom line. Their results show that firms with value propositions based on the inherent interconnectedness of all stakeholders will focus on how to influence the “weakest-link” stakeholders to enhance the legitimacy of their practices in the eyes of an extended set of stakeholders. This requires organization- and channel-wide intelligence-gathering, dissemination and responsiveness with the integration of unique marketing mix practices. The authors discuss the challenges that large public firms face in attempting to practice this model, and avenues by which such firms can address those challenges. Companies such as BMW and Stonyfield Farms go beyond the minimum environmental and societal standards set by regulators to demonstrate their collective commitment to sustainability. The authors suggest ways that public policy can encourage more firms to adopt principle-based stakeholder marketing. 

In line with the strategies discussed above, Steve Hoeffler, Paul N. Bloom and Kevin Lane Keller focus on corporate citizenship initiatives used to position firms as sustainable organizations in their article, “Understanding Stakeholder Responses to Corporate Citizenship Initiatives: Managerial Guidelines and Research Directions.” Effective corporate citizenship strategies based on a clear understanding of how to educate and persuade internal and external stakeholders will support these initiatives. This involves understanding the differences between certain corporate citizenship behaviors, such as donating money versus community service. A particular challenge that organizations face is identifying the most effective strategies that fit within their internal cultures and brand images. Examples of organizations that have successfully branded themselves as sustainable include Patagonia and Stonyfield Farm, while others, like Nespresso and Coca-Cola, are in the midst of developing their initiatives. The authors provide ideas for organizations to more effectively develop and communicate socially oriented programs that can address the triple bottom line through more sustainable consumption.

To encourage these changes in our society, we need a continued effort to understand the consumer and the macro-institutions that create a motivational structure for society. In their study, “Sustainable Consumption: Opportunities for Consumer Research and Public Policy,” authors Andrea Prothero, Susan Dobscha, Jim Freund, William E. Kilbourne, Michael G. Luchs, Lucie K. Ozanne and John Thøgersen point to the inconsistency between what consumers say that they prefer and their actual behaviors when it comes to sustainable consumption. How can marketing be used to target a bottom-up approach to encourage consumers to be “stewards of the planet” through their actions? For example, when purchasing a home, consumers could consider the energy efficiency of the home and their home appliances. There also is a need to have a top-down focus through institutional policy initiatives (such as the Clean Air Act), educational programs (integrating sustainability into educational curricula, for example) and collaborative consumption (Zipcar, Airbnb, GirlMeetsDress, etc.).  

At the forefront of sustainability is the discussion (and its related geo-political controversies) over energy consumption. Melea Press and Eric J. Arnould  delve into the factors that constrain stakeholders’ ability to engage in sustainable energy consumption and move away from fossil fuel overconsumption in their study, “Constraints on Sustainable Energy  Consumption: Market System and Public Policy Challenges and Opportunities.” The authors point to the ongoing debates embedded in differing philosophical paradigms as pushing our society away from being solutions-oriented. Instead, they encourage a focus on a better understanding of market structures, incentives and regulations to motivate consumers and organizations to engage in responsible and sustainable energy consumption practices. For example, California’s Assembly Bill 32 mandates that organizations must reduce their carbon footprints to 80% of their 1990 levels by 2050. This type of regulatory framework impacts the behaviors and choices of organizations and consumers. 

Varying strategies that encourage sustainable behaviors are critical to influencing sustainable consumption. Marius C. Claudy and Mark Peterson, authors of “Understanding the Underutilization of Urban Bicycle Commuting: A Behavioral Reasoning Perspective,” focus on how to improve sustainable practices of urban transportation through bicycling. By looking at a large-scale study of commuters in Dublin, the authors demonstrate the importance of understanding the linkages between consumers’ values, attitudes and behaviors. The authors find that commuters value sustainable behaviors, but bicycling also is perceived as inconvenient and, at times, dangerous. Thus, institutional interventions such as informational campaigns and infrastructural changes can create a stronger link between consumers’ values, attitudes and behaviors toward sustainable transportation.  

Materialism represents a pervasive value in contemporary society and one that needs to be integrated into the paradigm of sustainable consumption. The reduction of waste in our society is an important initiative that marketers can influence through education and innovative marketing strategies. Nina Brosius, Karen V. Fernandez and Hélène Cherrier demonstrate how waste can be reduced through the simultaneous encouragement of sustainable consumption by reshaping the linear process of “acquire, consume and dispose” into a circular model, as discussed in their study, “Reacquiring Consumer Waste: Treasure in Our Trash?” Through a set of in-depth interviews and observations in Auckland, New Zealand, the authors explore the premise that someone’s trash could become someone else’s treasure through motivating collectors to collect for themselves and others, prolonging the useful life of objects. Consumers, with different motivational goals, collected discarded objects that they could use in their own daily lives or donate to organizations for the needy, such as The Salvation Army or Goodwill. The authors challenge researchers and marketers alike to think about how environmental degradation, human health and global poverty can be ameliorated in a less materialistic and consumption-driven world.
The articles highlighted above address multiple issues pertaining to sustainable consumption, which is an increasingly important research and public policy area in marketing. This stream of research identifies a set of important questions that, when addressed, can improve the health and welfare of individual consumers, organizations, the environment and society as a whole. Future research approaches that leverage an interdisciplinary paradigm to address sustainable consumption must be comprehensive and systematic. The discipline of marketing has much to offer such partnerships.

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Articles Featured in This Collection

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Brosius, Nina, Karen V. Fernandez, and Hélène Cherrier (2013), “Reacquiring Consumer Waste: Treasure in Our Trash?” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing​, 32 (Fall), 286–301.

Prothero, Andrea, Susan Dobscha, Jim Freund, William E. Kilbourne, Michael G. Luchs, Lucie K. Ozanne, et al. (2011), “Sustainable Consumption: Opportunities for Consumer Research and Public Policy,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing​, 30 (Spring), 31–38.

Author Bio:
Ingrid Martin
INGRID MARTIN is Professor of Marketing at California State University, Long Beach. Her areas of expertise include sustainability and public policy. She is a member of the editorial review board at the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.
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