Nirvana and marketing: using ancient wisdom to define the future of sustainability marketing

Posted in: Consumers, Marketing, Sustainability

MSc Student Suchit Bawa reflects on the culture of overconsumption driven by marketing, and lays out how we can apply the principles of Buddhism to sustainability marketing to affect real change in society.

In the film “7 Years in Tibet”, Brad Pitt’s character Heinrich Harrer stumbles upon the city of Lhasa while escaping a POW camp in Dehradun. During his time in Lhasa, an egotistic loner learns about the principles of Buddhism and in the process opens and accepts himself. This inspired me to investigate whether the same can happen to modern-day marketing.

What is buddhism?

Buddhism is a philosophy of life put forward by Siddhartha Gautam that aims to liberate humans from suffering and to attain Nirvana (or enlightenment), which ends the cycle of rebirth or reincarnation.

The Buddha's ‘Four Noble Truths’ are used as a guide for human existence. They are often described as:

  • Dukkha: As humans, suffering is part of our existence, and we are bound to suffer.
  • Samudaya: There is a cause of all suffering - it is due to our attachment to materialistic and emotional matters or the desire to control things
  • Nirodha: There is an end to suffering and attachment can be overcome. Suffering ends with the attainment of Nirvana. The mind experiences complete freedom, liberation, and non-attachment.
  • Magga: To end suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path, the path to Nirvana.

Marketing and Overconsumption: The Dukkha and Samudaya

Humans have come a long way, from hunter-gatherers to sedentary mammals who gather at Sainsbury’s and hunt in the virtual world. Our intellectual, scientific and industrial achievements are great. Along the way, we also developed ‘marketing’, a process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives.

Organisations realised that they could profit from convincing individuals that their needs aligned with those of business. After this things changed rapidly. Industries and organisations pumped millions of dollars into learning about the mind and how persuasive techniques could be used to coerce people into buying things.

They also convinced us that consuming materialistic things, i.e. goods and services, are the only way we can be happy. Marketing scholars extensively explored how emotions, attitudes, colours, placement, brand ambassadors, and preferences affect consumers' decision-making process. They even study how children can be manipulated through carefully placed advertisements.

Modern marketing has gotten pretty good at telling us to buy things we don’t need, and so a large percentage of the global north has been driven down a path of consumerism, pushing the planet to the brink of a climate catastrophe.

In recent years, the rest of the world has started to follow suit, as advertisements subtly create social norms of consumption. This is a fairly conscious tactic, with marketing efforts being tailored to different cultures and economies. In her book ‘Marketing in Developing Countries’, Joanna Kinsey outlines how marketing changes as economies develop. In developing or Industrial economies, marketing pushes to create demand for the surplus of production. In developed countries, marketing shifts to a personal, more emotional approach to get people to consume goods.

The Nirodha and Magga: Is sustainability marketing our path to enlightenment?

Sustainability marketing is a contemporary description of an economically, environmentally, socially, ethically, and technologically enlightened approach to marketing. The idea of Nirodha in Buddhism represents a state of liberation from ‘desire’ - a realisation of the interconnectedness of the world and that nothing is spared from the processes of nature. On the surface, these two concepts may seem disconnected, but I believe that both Nirvana and sustainability marketing are out to solve the same problem: our overdependence on industrial processes and our detachment from nature.

The eightfold path in Buddhism outlines the route to independence and happiness through a process of meditation, acceptance, and compassion - a stark contrast from our materialistic desires. Sustainability marketing aims to try and change the our trajectory (and that of the planet) by decentralising the pursuit of profit, by focusing on a variety of different stakeholders and priorities outside of the traditional financial ones. I believe, sustainability marketing can incorporate Buddhist principles of acceptance and mindfulness, techniques that can further help tackle the challenges of the future.

The steps to marketing nirvana

The first step is to accept ourselves and our flaws. As sustainability marketing is an enlightened approach to marketing, it must accept and address the mistakes of its previous iteration and try to do better. This means reimagining “consumers” as “people”, and accepting the responsibility that marketing has to society at large.

The second step is mindfulness. Mindfulness, like many sustainable actions, can seem to be viewed as difficult and unachievable. But Buddhist teachings tell us that bringing awareness to the thoughts and mind is the first step to mindfulness, which in turn helps us accept like as imperfect, temporary and egoless. Most management principles also require an aspect of introspection which allow it to follow a system of continuous improvement. Sustainability marketing could and should employ constant reflection to ensure that it still abides by the principles it represents, and consider its impact on social norms, the consumer mindset and the planet.

The third step is to exercise compassion. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama (the highest spiritual leader in Buddhism) mentions compassion as an essential technique to liberate people from suffering. The two characteristics of genuine compassion are wisdom and kindness. But compassion in marketing is complex. How can something that is designed to convince people to do things they may not need show true compassion?

That’s a difficult question that sustainability marketing can answer. Sustainability marketing, which has been designed with the human element at its centre, can bring a wisdom and kindness to the discipline, that breeds compassion. For example, one could consider anti-smoking advertisements as compassionate as they demonstrate care about the general well-being of society.

Is this the moment for sustainability marketing?

The question remains: can sustainability marketing really make a difference in society? is a paradox inherent in the concept, as it claims to have the community’s best interests at heart but still promotes capitalism. It must come to terms with that before it can bring about change. To do this it must accept its former self and be mindful of how it can do things differently. In summary, marketing manipulates the human mind, Buddhist teachings try to explain it, but together they can work to create a new path for the future.

Posted in: Consumers, Marketing, Sustainability


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