Marketing techniques could play a key role in tackling climate change and ecological destruction by persuading consumers to change their unsustainable habits, according to LSE research.
Using fewer raw materials and energy, and avoiding major conflicts for resources is vital to the survival of the planet. Although marketing has been responsible for encouraging over-consumption, Professor Saadi Lahlou of LSE's Social Psychology department argues that its techniques could now be put to good use in encouraging 'de-growth' and a simpler, more sustainable way of life, by using the esteem of others as a compensation for the loss of materialistic comfort.
In a keynote speech to hundreds of marketing executives at the annual conference of the European Marketing Academy in 2009, he argued:
'Too often in the past, marketing has been on the dark side of the force, mobilising considerable resources only to move the frontiers between brand territories, in a zero-sum game. In doing so, though, a considerable amount of knowledge and agency has been accumulated.
'We have collectively failed in creating a sustainable civilisation, and there is little time left to change it into a better system. I am not talking here specifically about carbon emissions, which is probably a minor issue to which we may eventually adapt, but more generally about the way we regulate the system and always seek growth.'
But what incentives can we use to make consumers use fewer goods? 'De-growth' may be somewhat unpleasant, he explains. More often than not, sustainable ways of living are less comfortable, require more effort, and the quality of the products may be lower.
So what will compensate for this loss of physical comfort? Professor Lahlou's idea comes from his experience as a member of the Sustainable Consumption Research Exchange.
Researchers have observed that people who engage, and stay, in sustainable behaviours do it because they do it in groups. Whether it is for sharing washing machines, setting up more sustainable houses, or create collective bicycle repair shops, the initiatives that work do so because people engage in communities.
'This should be no surprise. In the end, what humans look for is belong to a group where they are recognised, have status, and gain other's people's love. And for this they are ready to give, not only take.
'In fact, most consumption has this final use of building someone's position in groups. When people buy fancy cars, display brands on their clothes, and in general work or spend their money and time, it is usually for that purpose of gaining or keeping position in a group.'
Referring to the seminal works of the social psychologist Kurt Lewin, Professor Lahlou argues that, using group participation and commitment as incentives, we can make people change their habits and even make them do things they were initially considering as disgusting, such as eating glandular meats like guts, kidneys, or veal sweetbread.
He explains: 'Therefore, we have here, in other humans' attention and care, an almost endless source of value for humans. It is a sustainable source of value which consumes very little natural resources.
This is probably the way in which marketing should engage in this 21st century. After the markets of goods and services, it is the markets of sociability which will be the next frontier. Many of us have already recognised the social realm as a major source of value, and as said earlier, there are numerous attempts to use it, but until now it has been mostly mobilised so serve the old regime of brands. It should now serve society itself, or there will be no 22nd century for the civilisation we have built.'
He argues that it is the marketing industry's responsibility as humans to turn the forces of industry and commerce into creating a better world, instead of competing against one another for better financial results. It is not as naïve as it seems. Actual involvement in changing the world with the people is not only ethically advisable but it is also what consumers want as citizens. It is quite compatible with acceptable profit. Corporate Social Responsibility is too often considered as a PR strategy; having a real industrial and social approach to it can gain external goodwill to the corporation. It is also an exciting challenge that has positive impact within the company.
'Of course, this means a deep change in the way companies as productive entities think their position in the global system, and how we construct markets. But this change is inevitable, and it has begun to happen; those companies who will be the first to make the move will benefit most. It is now the role of those who are at the core of the system, marketers, to take the lead.
'The transition will not be easy, because we are all addicted to the current regime. My belief is that encouraging firms and organisations to co-produce social value with people and institutions is probably a viable path into this transition from markets of goods and services to an economic system which directly addresses, and uses as an incentive, what humans are most interested in: good relations with other humans.'
For more about the author:
Professor Saadi Lahlou
To read the speech:
Social Psychology, Marketing, and Re-installing the World
For details of Professor Lahlou's latest book: