Does Marketing Need Curtailment for the Sake of Sustainability?

Philip Kotler
9 min readJul 31, 2021

Marketing, a subject that I dearly love, needs to be reformulated in terms of its purpose and constraints. Otherwise, marketing will continue to work at cross-purposes with the growing societal need for achieving sustainability.

Marketing’s normal purpose is to help companies increase their sales. Coca Cola marketers work to convince customers to buy and consume more Coca Cola. Boeing marketers work to convince airlines to buy and fly more airplanes. These “growth marketers” will be judged and rewarded on how much sales growth they achieve.

The problem is that producing and selling more Coca Cola or more Boeing airplanes will generate more greenhouse gases that will warm up the earth and create climatic crises in the form of more floods, droughts, forest fires and other disasters.

We can’t order these companies or their marketers to curtail their planned economic growth. This would strike at the heart of Capitalism. Companies everywhere in the world are driven to compete and to win, not to slow down for the public good.

Are there some ways to achieve a reasonable slowdown in economic growth for the sake of saving the planet?

The ultimate solution must come from changes in the normal behavior of consumers, businesses and governments. Here are the needed changes:

1. Consumers must increasingly acknowledge their role in helping create climate disasters. Could they replace Coca Cola by drinking fresh tap water coming out of their faucet? Could they make a home drink as tasty as Coca Cola by mixing a powder with water, thereby removing the need for factories producing the drink, bottling it, and shipping bottles all over the world.

2. Businesses need to rethink the way they conduct their business. Could a business executive who might ordinarily fly to all of his accounts to meet and entertain them instead conduct his business by phone or zoom? Can we hope that new technologies will emerge to help businesses meet their needs in a more zero-greenhouse gas emissions way?

3. Governments need to pass laws and develop taxes that induce more decarbonized behavior on the part of consumers and businesses. As an example, governments could pass a law banning the use of plastic as a packaging material. In addition, government could subsidize R&D to find an efficient and safe material to replace plastic.

Although these three key institutions could do more to limit harmful greenhouse gas growth, they are likely to continue their normal behaviors unless (1) they develop a new mindset and (2) encounter skillful organized opposition.

A Revised Citizen Mindset

Businesses have done their best to push a consumer mindset on to citizens. Our television programs are interrupted every 15 minutes with 30-second commercial pitches to buy something. Our telephone rings several times a day with a robo-call to buy something. Our magazines carry flashy full page ads of beautiful models telling how some skin care product won them a handsome husband. No wonder citizens see themselves as mainly consumers.

Businesses needed citizens to see themselves primarily as consumers. With the growth of mass production, business needed citizens to see themselves as mass consumers. Marketers operated on the premise that “human wants are infinite.” Marketers primarily operated on human material wants. People would be motivated to accumulate material branded objects that reflected their status and power. A person owning a Cadillac would get much more attention than if he owned a Chevy. And even the Cadillac owner aspires to own a Mercedes. Persons establish their standing in the world by what they consumed. We can say that much of human behavior could be characterized as “consumer warfare.” The economist Thorstein Veblen captured much of this behavior in his writings on “conspicuous consumption.”[i]

How do we change the chokehold that consumerism has on contemporary American culture? Homer Warren and Linette Stratford make the case that Consumer Consciousness needs to be replaced by Producer Consciousness.[ii] Instead of a citizen staying in the passive state of a consumer waiting for new tempting goods to come into their purview, persons need to operate as active producers of the kind of life they want and to take the steps to create it.

There are many examples of citizens acting as producers. Consider the woman who decides to become a vegetarian or a vegan. Consider the young man who decides that he doesn’t need a car and that a bicycle will suffice. Consider the retired executive who decides to become active in the Sierra Club. People who face the question of “Who am I” often make fresh decisions.

Many citizens are changing as a result of the terrible coronavirus pandemic. This pandemic put citizens through a long period of deprivation and anxiety. I predict that the pandemic will usher in new consumer attitudes and behaviors that might even change the type of today’s Capitalism. Citizens will reexamine what they consume, how much they consume, and how all this is influenced by class issues and inequality. Citizens need to reexamine contemporary Capitalism and emerge with a new, more equitable form of Capitalism.

The Growing Number of Anti-Consumerists

There are signs today of a growing anti-consumerist movement. We can distinguish at least five types of anti-consumerists.

First, a number of consumers are becoming life simplifiers, persons who want to eat less and buy less. They are reacting to the clutter of “stuff”. They want to downsize their possessions, many of which lie around unused and unnecessary. Some life-simplifiers are less interested in owning goods such as cars or even homes; they prefer renting to buying and owning.

Second, there is an increase in the number of degrowth activists who feel that too much time and effort are going into consuming. This feeling is captured in William Wordworth’s poem,

“The world is too much with us…

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

Degrowth activists worry that consumption will outpace the carrying capacity of the earth. In 1970, the world population was 3.7 billion. By 2011, the world population grew to 7.0 billion. Today (2020) the world population stands at 7.7 billion. The U.N. expects the world population to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050. The nightmare would be that the earth cannot feed so many people. The amount of arable land is limited and the top soil is getting poorer. Several parts of our oceans are dead zones with no living marine life. Degrowth activists call for conservation and reducing our material needs. They worry about the people in the emerging poor nations aspiring to achieve the same standard of living found in advanced countries, something that is not possible. They see greedy producers doing their best to create “false and unsustainable needs.”

Third, another group consists of climate activists who worry about the harm and risk that high-volume buying consumers are doing to our planet through generating so much carbon footprints that pollute our air and water. Climate activists carry a strong respect for nature and science and have genuine concerns about the future of our planet.

Fourth, there are sane food choosers who have turned into vegetarians and vegans. They are upset with how we kill animals to get our food. Everyone could eat well and nutritiously on a plant, vegetable and fruit diet. Livestock managers fatten up their cows and chickens to grow fast, and then kill them to sell animal parts in the pursuit of profits. Meanwhile cows are a major emitter of methane that heats our earth and leads to higher temperatures, faster glacial melting, and flooding of cities. To produce one kilogram of beef, requires between 15,000 and 20,000 liters of water as well as so much roughage to feed the animals.

Fifth, we hear about conservation activists who plead not to destroy existing goods but to reuse, repair, redecorate them or give them to needy people. Conservationists want companies to develop better and fewer goods that last longer. They criticize a company such as Zara that every two weeks produces a new set of women’s clothing styles that would only be available for two weeks. Conservationists oppose any acts of planned obsolescence. They are hostile to the luxury goods industry. Many are environmentalists and anti-globalists.[iii]

Many persons are taking steps on their own to limit their consumption.

Organized Opposition to Consumerism and Endless Growth

There are a number of groups advocating a slowdown in growth to avoid a natural calamity. Continuous growth is going to cause us to run out of certain non-renewable resources and do terrible damage to our environment and the planet. In 1972, Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, and Jergen Randers published a famous study called The Limits to Growth.[iv]. It was commissioned by the Club of Rome and compiled by an international team of experts. It used a computer model called World3, based on system dynamics, to analyze 12 scenarios of different possible patterns of growth and environmental outcomes of world development over the two centuries 1900–2100. The scenarios used different rates of population growth and different natural resource requirements to show the possibility of not only running out of certain non-renewable resources and land and food shortages, but also severe environmental damage from air and water pollution and climate change.

The computer showed many “overshoots” of the carrying capacity of the earth to support the level of consumption and the planet’s sustainability. They showed that the earth could not supply the resources needed by humanity and absorb the dangerous carbon footprint emissions.

The Limits to Growth has been updated.[v] Each time the findings grow more dire about the carrying capacity of the earth to sustain the consumption growth taking place without doing great harm to the planet and to people’s expectations. Here is a small sample of environmental concerns cited:

  • “Sea level has risen 10–20 cm since 1900. Most non-polar glaciers are retreating, and the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice is decreasing in summer.”
  • “In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that 75 percent of the world’s oceanic fisheries were fished at or beyond capacity. The North Atlantic cod fishery, fished sustainably for hundreds of years, has collapsed, and the cod species may have been pushed to biological extinction.”
  • “The first global assessment of soil loss, based on studies of hundreds of experts, found that 38 percent, or nearly 1.4 billion acres, of currently used agricultural land has been degraded.”

Citizens would face a growing scarcity of water, dwindling oil supplies, deforestation, overfishing, global climate change, species extinction, pollution, urban congestion, and intensifying competition for remaining resources. It seems that the public prefers to keep its head in the sand than to favor taking actions to prevent a human and planetary crisis from occurring.

In response to Limits to Growth are thousands of nonprofit organizations pressing for conservation and restraint. Among them are Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, The Wildlife Society, Worldwatch Institute, and many others. In addition are government organizations such as United States Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and others. Hopefully, such organizations will grow in power and influence.

The Future: Two Types of Marketers

Earlier we said that marketing’s conventional task is to sell all the products of the society. This will be the largest group of marketers and they can be called “growth marketers.” We see the rise of another group of marketers who will compete with the growth marketers. This group can be called the “sustainability marketers. Their job is to use social marketing tools and demarketing tools to constrain economic growth. They will try to change the mindset of citizens to seeing themselves as producers and not consumers. They will try to influence companies to aim for zero emission of greenhouse gases. They will try to influence governments to pass laws and new taxes to drive more friendly earth policies.

Ironically, the marketing world will consists of two groups of marketers using the same tools of marketing to compete with each other. The growth marketers will face the sustainability marketers in the battle for growth vs. sustainability. Furthermore, every major company will have to hire at least one sustainability marketer to face and deal with the company’s growth marketers.

[i] See Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899.

[ii] Homer Warren and Linette Stratford, Producer Consciousness, 2016 (self-published).

[iii] The anti-consumerism movement has produced a growing literature. One major critic is Naomi Klein with her books No Logo, This Changes Everything, and The Shock Doctrine. Also see the documentary film The Corporation by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott.

[iv] Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, and Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth, op.cit.

[v] The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (published in 2004) reports the worsening of the environment since the influential book’s original publication in 1972



Philip Kotler

Philip Kotler is the S.C. Johnson and Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University (emeritus)