Sustainable Communication?

Franzisca Weder

From a broader perspective, sustainability has to be differentiated from sustainable development. Sustainable is used to describe something that is able to be sustained, that is capable of being continued at a certain level. Going back to the 1980s, sustainability is the principle to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (WCED, 1987; Mebratu, 1998). However, sustainability is now less interpreted as framework or principle, but much more as processes and actions through which the depletion of natural resources is avoided. This includes all activities that foster the ecological balance and follow the principle of restoration, meaning to keep ecosystems operating. However, the literature on sustainability as well as its application in strategies and practices shows that sustainable development is rather an economic principle and not yet looked at from an environmental or nature perspective. It is about the “needs” of future generations, it is about the way we “deal with” resources; it is about the stability and growth of systems – economic, environmental and social (Holmberg, 1992; Harris, 2003) – which represents a conflict to the existing economic system of growth. It gets even trickier if we look at this from a media and communication perspective. In public and mainly corporate communication, sustainability is used as buzzword or catchphrase often without any further explanation, definition or solutions (Krainer & Weder, 2011); without being embedded in a new narrative of balance, co-creation and ecocultural identity and inter-being (Milstein xx; xxx), replacing the old narrative of (economic) growth, ecological destruction and human mastery over nature.

We’ve learned that communication about and of sustainability is already an established research field at the intersections of Public Relations, Strategic Communication, Marketing and Business Studies. However, we’ve also learned about the limitations and that sustainability is always accompanied by imprecisions, contradictions and cognitive dissonances on an individual and interpersonal but also on an organisational and community level. Sustainability or discussions about sustainable development are always embedded in patterns of social practices, of cultural perception and related action. Sustainability research therefore stands for a paradigm shift within science. And here, communication as a discipline comes in – and complements existing approaches and perspectives. There is an increasing number of critical communications scholars, rolling up the field from behind (Weder, 2020; Davidson 2018; 2017; Hoffmann, 2018; Whelan, 2013; Roper, 2012; Banerjee, 2008; Pompper, 2015; L’Etang, 2008). They are trying to overcome the functionalist and instrumental perspective on communication that dominates most of the CSR literature as well as the first studies on Sustainability Communication. At the same time, these authors see the potential in thinking about sustainability in a critical way and focussing on sustainability as narrative that is co-created on interpersonal, organisational and even social levels. They deal with:

  • cognitive dissonances and conflicts as well as consumption practices on an individual level,
  • issues of diversity and inclusion on an organisational level,
  • and with sustainability as social and cultural transformation process.

With this literature at hand, this textbook introduces new pathways to understand the value and potential of sustainability for communication practitioners and academics; the potential for communication professionals and journalists to communicate about and for sustainability, the value of communicating sustainably, and the transformative potential of telling the sustainability story from an organisational perspective.

To recap the main ideas, check the videos:

Watch Sustainability communication (YouTube, 5m55s)

Watch Communication ethics (YouTube, 5m21s)

Thus, we conclude this chapter by pointing out that the paradigms of communication are needed as “toolbox” to differentiate between:

  • the functional, instrumental perspective on communication: which builds the groundwork for studies and established concepts of communication about & of CSR and sustainability and
  • the critical, constructivist perspective on communication, which leads us to a better understanding of communication for sustainability and sustainable communication.





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