Sustainability And The CMO

As Gardiner Morse wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “a marketing revolution is under way and nowhere is that more visible than in the CMO’s transforming role.” Morse was specifically referring to Unilever’s CMO, Keith Weed, who notably now oversees both marketing and communications and sustainable business. It is a shift from the model that exists at the majority of companies, namely that sustainability exists in a separate division. 

As Jonathan Atwood, Unilever’s VP for Sustainable Living and Corporate Communications, told me in an interview earlier this year, “In [Unilever’s] mission to make sustainable living commonplace, one of our goals is to impact consumer behavior.” 

Being both the head of marketing and sustainability is a big job, especially at a company such as Unilever, which has notably made very public commitments to sustainability and has integrated sustainability into the company’s business model. This new breed of CMO must be more strategic and must reconcile some key tensions that have long existed between marketers and sustainability experts, namely that reducing environmental impact is at odds with selling product and increasing demand. 

However, there are many opportunities that arise with adding sustainability responsibilities to a CMO’s portfolio. Unfortunately, at many companies, sustainability and marketing exist in silos, with little interaction (and a lot of conflict). Combining these roles ensures that there is greater integration of sustainability principles into a company’s business model. 

As Weed told Harvard Business Review, ““The real tension you have in companies is when marketing is in one silo, identifying what consumers need and driving demand, while sustainability is in another trying to reduce environmental impact, while Corporate Social Responsibility is in another working on the company’s social contribution while communications is telling its own, possibly different, story.”

Not only is this an opportunity for CMOs to embed sustainability into their company’s brand identity, by taking on sustainability responsibilities, the CMO now has increased opportunities to improve the core business. Increasing evidence indicates that reducing environmental impact is good for business – it reduces the inevitable risk that will accompany climate change, allows for innovation, and can be profitable. 

As the recently published “New Climate Economy Report” writes, “Countries at all levels of income have the opportunity to build lasting economic growth and reduce the immense risk of climate change.” 

Let me know here or at @Brigid_Milligan, do you think the CMO should have sustainability responsibilities? 

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