James McGowan is a sustainability marketing leader who has taken on several of high profile roles in his career so far, working with charities, agencies, startups and multinational corporations, as well as studying for a master’s in sustainability. Currently, he leads marketing at Maeving, a British company that creates electric motorcycles.
Before Maeving, McGowan led marketing at Muddy Trowel, a company that makes gardening more accessible. Prior to that, he spent four years at Unilever — three of them as senior global marketing manager for its $3 billion Persil and Omo business.
I recently connected with McGowan to learn more about his career journey as a sustainability marketing expert. Here he draws from his wealth of experience to share advice on the need to see sustainability more holistically, how to leverage a knowledge of sustainability as a differentiator within marketing and the one piece of advice that helped him level up his career.
Shannon Houde: James, when did you spot the clear crossover between a career in marketing and sustainability?
James McGowan: It was in 2013 when I was working for an agency and I noticed a lot of organizations had a website that seemed to articulate sustainability beautifully, when the reality was that it was greenwashing. It dawned on me that nothing in the world is perfect so why give a false narrative when your sustainability journey could be your marketing campaign? That spurred me to do a master’s in sustainability. And at that point, I was at a crossroads — should I be switching my career into a sustainable lead role, or continue with marketing?
At the time, Unilever was only three years into its Sustainable Living Plan and the sustainability sector was still emerging. It was clear for me to stick with marketing because that’s where my strengths are, but to increasingly bring my understanding of sustainability into that role. Now, everything seems to be about sustainability. There’s no new innovation that can’t be launched from the marketing side that doesn’t meet certain sustainability criteria.
Houde: Is it fair to say that even as a marketer you can’t really do your day job without thinking about sustainability?
McGowan: I think there’s a more holistic side to sustainability. A lot of people jump into the environmental side but there’s a huge social impact to sustainability that people forget about. Some of the initiatives that we were driving while I was at Unilever were around stereotyping, for example. I worked for the laundry brand Persil and not that long ago it would be very common to find only a female in those advertisements. So, I take a fuller view on sustainability covering the social side and the environmental side. Ultimately, we need to serve people. Until we start serving people, we can’t really generate the profits, we need to then protect the planet so seeing sustainability through just an environmental lens is quite limiting.
Houde: Speaking of customers, is the demand push or pull on sustainability, do you think? Are companies pushing out the agenda or are they responding to consumer demand?
McGowan: There is a pull there. But take the example of laundry again. Eco is probably the most sustainable but technically it doesn’t clean as well and it’s slightly more expensive. So the technology is there, but it’s just not affordable, and we’ve got to create new markets for that. But there is certainly a lot of pull. From, say, 2025 to 2030, you’re going to see a huge change in the way that we consume these products, so I feel very confident about big businesses being able to solve these issues. But there’s some work on cost-benefit that needs to be done.
[It’s the same on] infrastructure. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of investment in waste collection and recycling around the world but there just isn’t that infrastructure. And the question is; who’s going to pay for that? These things unfortunately do take time. And I think that’s part of the role: resilience and patience.
A lot of it comes back to storytelling. I inherited a project that had been attempted five times. So, how do you get a research and development team back on board a project that’s had so many knocks?
Houde: How do you differentiate yourself as a marketer and leverage that sustainability element?
McGowan: I never trained in marketing, but I’ve got a marketing career with a sustainability master’s. So, I think one of the key parts of my role is to be able to speak to people with the science and the technical skills and then translate that back into the marketing piece.
Often there tends to be a bit of a disconnect. Particularly when marketers go and talk to the science teams they don’t feel listened to but, with my sustainability piece, I could actually access the science and bring that back into the role. Within big organizations, it’s the marketer’s job to connect the outside world to the individuals within that organization, and make sure that we are getting everyone’s perspective into key decisions.
I’ve had quite an atypical career. I set up my own business, worked with subject matter experts and been at an agency and a charity. And I think — when applying to Unilever, for example — that was quite unique.
Houde: What would be your one piece of advice to others looking to break into sustainability?
McGowan: I think it’s very easy to get completely caught up in the global issue of sustainability and climate change. I remember being with some friends at a restaurant a couple of years ago and we were talking about the plastic crisis. We asked the waiter to mention in their next team meeting the plastic straws they used and even through a discussion like that you can have a lot of impact without really having to do a lot. In the last few years, I’ve certainly tried to focus on what I can do personally as well as what I can do in my career.
But other than that, keep hustling. There are amazing jobs out there. Even if you start small. Your next move is about laying the foundations for the move after that. So don’t try and solve it all at once.
LinkedIn is just a fantastic tool too. I found every job through the platform and I built a network. It’s a different kind of nepotism. It’s not your parents or your uncle that will get you a job but it’s still the people who you know and that is what LinkedIn is for.
Houde: And similarly, what specific advice has really helped you personally in moving your career to the next level?
McGowan: One of the most valuable exercises I did was looking at my own values, looking at what makes me tick and then translating the skills and traits I have to identify what work I wanted to do. When you think of sustainability, it’s incredibly broad. There’s so much to do and having a very clear purpose about what you want to achieve is really important. You’ve got to find something that you care about, and that makes you tick, because work has to be fun.