[Interview] “Reducing consumerism is almost against nature for marketers”

The “marketer’s blues”, according to Nicolas Lambert: marketers work with passion but, at the same time, they can only sadly see how much consumption weighs on the planet. How can marketing have a positive impact on society?

Copernican Revolution

“You cannot ban consumers from eating meat overnight. But marketers have the skills to win them over with empathy and create new social norms. In this sense, marketing should undergo a Copernican revolution: moderating consumerism is almost against nature for many marketers. But it is necessary, for the good of the planet”, affirms Nicolas Lambert, who has just released the book ” Can marketing save the world? “.

So the central question remains: how to reconcile marketing with the future of the planet? “Greenwashing” is gaining ground, and a populist position could advocate stopping marketing altogether. Wrongly: marketing can indeed play a key role in making society more sustainable, according to the author. “Marketing is about organizing the relationship between supply and demand. Can we redefine our economic models in such a way that consumers accept it and even appreciate it? »

“Sustainable development is a science”

The traditional marketing approach does not work, says the experienced marketer who led Fairtrade Belgium from 2016 to 2022, after a career at multinationals such as Unilever, AB InBev and Heineken. “You can’t ask consumers what they think is sustainable and develop an offer accordingly. Sustainability is a science. What is objectively better for the planet? Consumers are not subject matter experts. This gap between what to do to promote sustainability as much as possible on the one hand, and what consumers think and want on the other, is the big challenge facing marketers today.

Mainly because consumers want it but don’t. It is the famous intention-behavior gap » : actions do not follow words. “At Fairtrade Belgium, we asked consumers if they buy fair trade chocolate. Based on the answers, the market share of fair trade should have been twice as large… Sometimes consumers think they are consuming in a sustainable way when this is not the case. We have to put them on the path. »

Three approaches

Nicolas Lambert distinguishes three approaches which are not mutually exclusive. “The first is that of theamelioration, as I call it: not changing your business model but improving it. You continue to sell chocolate, but you make organic or fair trade chocolate, such as Galler. Or you continue to sell T-shirts, but in organic cotton, like Decathlon. This is not a bad thing in itself, it is useful, but in some sectors it will not be enough. »

“The next step then is to reinvent its business model to move towards a circular economy. Decathlon now also sells second-hand items, for example. We discussed it: the approach is sincere, it is not a publicity stunt. It requires a complete update of your business model, your processes, your philosophy, your financial model… It’s difficult. »

“The final stage, and also the most difficult, is sometimes having to tell consumers that it is better to consume less. We will end up having fewer resources and materials, and so we need to move to a model of ‘consuming better but less’. It is very difficult for companies. You know the famous campaign of Patagonia : “ Don’t buy this jacket “. This seems anecdotal, but it is actually fundamental. I also think of Back Market, the market place that gives a second life to smartphones and computers: buy from us rather than new, such is its appeal to consumers. But also: think twice, do you really need this smartphone? »

What is durable is not always more expensive

It is a difficult exercise for companies, which are always focused on growth. ” There decay in terms of materials and raw materials does not necessarily mean a slowdown in all economic activity. Some businesses will be able to grow: if you make solar panels or grow vegetables using the principles of regenerative agriculture, for example… New business models can bring another kind of prosperity. Investing in recoverability creates a new ecosystem of entrepreneurs. »

In the current context of inflation, we see that consumer priorities are changing. During the pandemic, health was the priority; today, financial concerns are again in the foreground. “It can get in the way of sustainability, at least on a perception level. However, that should not be the case: if you travel more often by bike than by car, you will save money. If you eat less beef, you will save money. What is durable is not always more expensive. »

Systems thinking

But can consumers be expected to make more sustainable choices? “When it comes to sustainability, you have to adopt a systems way of thinking: consumption is a system in which consumers, companies and governments all have a role to play. If we want to change this system, it is not only consumers who must realize that things must change… Companies must also modify their offers and put all the means into action to make this change a reality. And the government must make it easier for them, for example by means of tax interventions, but also by binding measures. »

It refers to the future European directive on the duty of care of companies: it is the government which stipulates that companies must assume their responsibilities throughout their supply chain. In France, new legislation has been in place since last year, requiring car manufacturers to use the hashtag #SeDéplacerMoinsPolluer in their advertisements, in order to encourage people to use their cars more consciously and to opt more often for cycling or public transport.

Encourage green choices

“Sustainability is synonymous with radical change and Man does not like change. We are creatures of habit. Businesses don’t like change either. The first reaction is denial. Everyone passes the buck: something has to change, but not with us. We know the argument of retailers: consumers don’t want it, so we can’t do anything. This is why we must adopt a systemic approach, encouraging all actors to take their responsibilities. »

“Awareness is only one aspect among many others: availability, the social norm, the right pricing policy, the choice editing, which consists of making certain alternatives unavailable. Let’s take the example of the Eco-Score: it is a very good thing that Colruyt took the lead. It remains to be seen whether the group will take this into account in its pricing and promotion policy. To steer consumers more actively towards ecological choices? »

brave choice

Inspiring examples in the world of retail and consumer goods according to Nicolas Lambert? Galler, which only produces fair trade chocolate, or lidl, which only sells pork bearing the Beter Leven label. Two interesting examples of amelioration. “It’s from choice editing. It’s brave, because it costs money. »

“I was recently surprised by SEB, which relies on repairability. The company is aware that resources will become scarce and that it must move towards models requiring fewer resources. Ikea also does so to a lesser extent. » Companies that are adapting their business model in a more fundamental way are Back Market, Patagonia or Hellmann’s, with actions against food waste. »

The marketing blues

Lambert therefore remains optimistic. “Within the BAM (Belgian Association of Marketing, editor’s note), the think tank on marketing and sustainable development that I coordinate is very dynamic. We published a green paper in which we call on the marketing community to commit to sustainability more than ever. We need to radically rethink the economy. I understand it’s not easy, if you’re a marketer and your costs are skyrocketing while consumers are thrifty… Marketers are dealing with some cognitive dissonance. They work with passion, but what is the impact? It’s the blues of marketers. They would like to have a positive impact on society. They recognize this problem in this book. »

Can marketing save the world? by Nicolas Lambert was published by Éditions Racine.

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