II.4. Sustainability communication as research area?

Franzisca Weder

Until now, sustainability has increasingly debated from a CSR or CSR-communication lense and in related research. In this final chapter of part II, we will trace back sustainability as core principle for a balanced human-nature relationship, as principle of restoration and care which has – theoretically – the potential to become a new universal value (like democracy or freedom of speech) in environmental communication research.

The lady…

I had to get back to the lady. Meanwhile, she’d pushed her bike towards a book shop close by. I could see her bike leaning at the brick wall. As I got closer, I could see her colorful dress between the shelves. I approached her and felt terrible. I must be so annoying.

Taking a peek around the shelf, she looked at me, astonished, a smile curled her lips. In her hands she held a book, I could see the word ‘sustainability’. And something like ‘norm’, or ‘normal’. I asked her: “What is this book about?”. She said, “It is about cultural norms. The things we should be – and what we should do. And how what is ‘normal’ for us today developed over time.” “Can you give me an example?” I asked. “Well, one of our norms is to not harm other people. So if we read about domestic violence for example, we reflect on this behavior and evaluate it based on our norms and values. We will not like it. We will say: this should not happen.” We develop our understanding of what is ‘norm’-related or ‘normal’, and thus ethically valuable and desirable in our family, in our community, in our culture – and over time. It is interesting to think about sustainability as one of those norms. If – or if not sustainable development is such a normative concept, with sustainability being one of our ‘core values’.”

There is a research area that already deals with sustainability as principle – even without always explicitly mentioning it; and it is not CSR communication! A research field  that deals with human-nature relationships and it’s representations in communication. Let’s have a look at environmental communication as field that includes sustainability as principle of restoration and care, to then draw some conclusions around sustainability communication as potentially definable research field within or at least connected to environmental and science communication. 

Taking the existence of sections of the professional associations (like ICA or IAMCR) as a criterion for established research areas within media and communications studies, it becomes obvious that sustainability communication is not yet an independent research area, in comparison to media economics, public relations, journalism research, media ethics or science communication or environmental communication, which have a combined interest group in IAMCR, and their own professional associations with PCST or the IECA.

Even if the topics and issues of sustainability attract more and more attention, sustainability as a “master frame” of public communication and common-sense issue (Weder, 2017) is related to existing research and scholarly work rather assigned to other sections (mainly PR and organizational communication, and here mostly part of the so called ‘CSR-research’ (Rasche et al. 2017, Diehl et al. 2017; Pompper, 2015; Ihlen et al. 201; May et al. 2007).

However, in 2011, the ICA section for environmental communication at its initial meeting at the annual world conference of the International Communication Association (ICA) in Boston, formulated the following strategy:

“The Environmental Communication Interest Group (…) will help communication scholars improve the environmental performance of their universities, the media industries, and environmental organizations. The group will support members to integrate sustainability issues into their teaching and promote research in this area.” (ICA, 2018).

The International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR, 2018) has a working group entitled “Environment, Science & Risk Communication”, specializing “in research on media and public understanding of science and environment issues; science and health-related media panics; science and environmental journalism; media roles in global environmental controversy; the political uses or constructions of nature; and the roles of pressure groups, new media and activism with respect to science and environment issues” (IAMCR, 2020).

Beside these two organizations, the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA), has the strongest transdisciplinary focus, claiming that “environmental communication is communication about environmental affairs” (IECA). While they do not explicitly mention sustainability, they mention a balanced human-nature relationship as core principle that environmental communication research deals with:

Environmental communication “includes all of the diverse forms of interpersonal, group, public, organizational, and mediated communication that make up the social debate about environmental issues and problems, and our relationship to the rest of nature” (IECA, 2018).

So even though there is the early and clear demand to not forget about the principle of restoration, a balanced human-nature relationship and sustainability in environmental communication research (Peterson, 1997; Lindenfeld et al., 2012; Cox & Depoe, 2015), there seems to be the need to conceptualize the potential of a critical environmental communication perspective on sustainability and sustainable development communication.

Thus, to trace back the emergence of a research field of sustainability communication we need to explore  environmental communication research; we need to dig deeper into the literature and reflect on the question of where and how sustainability & communication are linked – and where to find new or alternative perspectives on sustainability as framework and practice in communication, and how sustainability as guiding principle or ‘norm’ it is realized through communication.

And here comes some theory…

Environmental communication and how sustainability communication is emerging as research area

Theory of science locates environmental communication at the intersection between science communication and environmental and sustainability studies (Michelsen, 2007, S. 25; Burgess et al., 1998; Agyeman, 2007; Killingsworth, 2007; Brulle, 2010; Tinnell, 2011). Lindenfeld et al. (2012) even say that environmental communication scholarship is critical to the success of sustainability science (p. 23). After Godemann & Michelsen (2011, 2013), just recently, Weder et al. (2021) define sustainability communication as inter- and transdisciplinary research area that can be demarcated not without acknowledging the connections, collaborations and conversations with environmental, climate and science communication. To offer an innovative perspective on sustainability from a particularly critical environmental communication perspective with the goal to overcome the dominance of the connotation of sustainability as economic principle, we have to better understand environmental communication as a field within the communication discipline, as well as a metafield that cuts across disciplines (Milstein, 2009, 344).

At the core of environmental communication as a discipline, there is the assumption that how we communicate affects our perspective on nature and the living world; and “these perceptions help shape how we define our relationship with and within nature and how we act toward nature” (Milstein, 2009, 345). The abovementioned thought shows that most of environmental communication researchers use existing theory to investigate their questions about human-nature relations. Three approaches to understand those relations are used: First, discourse theory, informed by poststructuralism, science studies and cultural studies, analysing how nature is represented in our communication (symbolic & material). Second, mediated environmental communication research, interested in narratives in the media, interpretations of the nature, strategic communication for the environment and engagement. However, as mentioned above, environmental communication’s ethical duty (Cox, 2007) lays not only in enhancing the ability of society to respond appropriately to environmental signals which are relevant to the well-being of both natural systems and humanity. Much more, environmental communication centers critical research, constructivist approaches and therefore problematization as core to sustainable development as transformation and sustainability as principle of restoration (Weder & Milstein, forthcoming). This third approach encompasses problematization on an individual level as stimulation for (here: eco-)identity building processes (Milstein & Castro-Sotomayor, 2020) as well as problematization in the public. Thus, as Lindenfeld et al. already lined out in 2012, environmental communication research and scholarship offers ways to overcome a linear, one-way transmission model of communication toward critical, re-constructivist, and engaged approaches (2012, p. 23). In other words, next to the two classic perspectives or theoretical lenses (objective vs. interpretive), mainly applied and activist theories see environmental communication research as siding in social-environmental change and transformation, including the ethical and transformative role of academics and scholars.

The character of environmental communication research as “crisis discipline” (Peterson et al., 2007), and therefore the strong link to science communication and the ethical duty of participatory research (Cox, 2007) can be pointed out here as well. Davis et al. (2018) also mentioned that environmental communication emerged in part as critique of science or, at least, of the science-technology-industry nexus, whereas science communication originally emerged by doing surveys of public scientific literacy and strategies of popularization intended to raise literacy levels (p. 432), again following a stronger linear idea of communication.

Environmental communication acquires attributes of a distinct field of not only academic but as well intellectual effort, and focuses on social and environmental impact of the discipline itself (Cox, 2013, Cox & Depoe, 2015). Environmental communication research therefore is different – and therefore the breeding ground for a critical conceptualization of sustainability communication. Thus, in the following section of the paper, we discuss this breeding ground further by mainly pointing out the need for alternatives to traditional, objective information-transmission models (Davis et al., 2018, 432; Trench & Bucchi, 2010). As well, it will be shown where new theories in environmental communication research are needed, realizing critically engaged and reflected scholarship with an impact on social and environmental change, with playing a role for sustainable development, for transformation.

Interdisciplinary environmental communication and sustainability communication as transdisciplinary research field

As mentioned in the introduction, various disciplines deal with issues like environmental discourses in the media and specific issues like climate change, renewable energy or fracking (Schmidt et al., 2013; Neverla & Schäfer, 2012; Hou & Reber, 2011; Voisey & Church, 1999; Suhunen, 1993). Environmental communication is a well-established research area (Pezzullo & Cox, 2017; Hansen & Cox, 2015; Lester, 2010), dated back to the publication of a generic rhetorical study and announcement (Oravec, 1984) and followed by a wide range of environmental communication studies, including every type of communication, delivered by individuals, organizations, institutions or the media. Still today, the special character of environmental communication research is the centrality of critical approaches, and thus, its character to be an activist discipline itself. From the beginning, environmental communication research goes beyond the information or transfer of knowledge approach. The potential to shape environmental and societal development, to transform and change, is a constitutional element of environmental communication. Therefore, the field is described as ecological discourse as well (Brulle, 2010; Weder & Milstein, forthcoming), with the sustainability concept being the most recent communicative framework applied and put attention to. This is supported by Davis et al. (2018), saying that communicating sustainability and related problems at the intersection of society, ecology and the economy is the main challenge for both science communication and environmental communication. Sustainability challenges science communication and the three models of diffusion, dialogue, and participation (Suldovsky et al., 2017, 588), and sustainability challenges environmental communication at its social constructivist core with a particular concern for knowledge co-production (McGreavy & Hart, 2017).

“Sustainability communication” itself can be seen as a fairly young and interdisciplinary research area that stands at the beginning, even if it already appears as term in relevant journals like “Environmental Communication” (Burgess et al., 1998; Agyeman, 2007; Killingsworth, 2007; Plec, 2007; Brulle, 2010; Monani, 2011). However, the plurality of disciplines working on the topic of sustainability at the intersection of environmental, science and organizational communication (see Fig. 1) can be seen watching the authors of the “Handbook Sustainability Communication”, who come from natural sciences, technical sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences (Michelsen & Godemann, 2007, 927 f.); as well, the recently published Reader on “Sustainability Communication” (Weder et al., 2021) shows the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary character of sustainability communication.

Title - Sustainability Communication/Communication for, about sustainable development. Top level - science communication. Middle level - organizational communication, environmental communication, public communication (mass media). Bottom level - Psychology, political student, sociology, natural sciences, economics, management, marketing and PR.

Graphic: “Demarcation of the research areas environmental and sustainability communication” by Franzisca Weder

In this book, we disagree with Davis et al. (2018), saying that communicating about sustainability is treated as a sub-field of environmental communication research. However, we do not go as far as Michelsen (2007) in saying that sustainability communication substitutes environmental communication. Rather we say that the communication about, of and for sustainability complements current environmental communication research and stimulates the field at its transdisciplinary, critical core. In other words: environmental communication research is due to its critical core and obligation to and passion for transformation and a new understanding of sustainability as restoration, as process of problematization, disruption and change, and therefore of sustainable development as transformation, going beyond the common sense belief of sustainability being an economic principle. This is conceptualized and discussed in the following section looking at the dimensions of and perspectives on communication, communicators, media, messages, public and audiences and possible communication effects.

Watch Sustainability part 1 (YouTube, 28m34s) on sustainability communication as an emerging interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary field of research for a better understanding.

To summarize:

Similar to CSR communication, most of the literature that links sustainability and communication follows a rather functionalist, instrumental or at least structural perspective, seeking to understand how to communicate about sustainability mostly from an organisational or institutional perspective. This can be further explained by noting that the complexity of an issue like sustainable development is reduced step by step and by linking the “new knowledge” to an already existing groundwork of knowledge and practices.

There are only a few attempts to approach sustainability from a critical perspective. In environmental communication research as well in related disciplinary areas like science or climate change communication, a stronger conversational perspective is increasingly debated. Based on these attempts, we will explore communication of CSR, communication about CSR and communication for sustainability as well as sustainable communication in the third part of this book.


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CSR Communication and Cultures of Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Franzisca Weder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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