Franzisca Weder and Marte Eriksen

The lady…

Here she comes, on her bike; wearing a colourful dress, Birkenstocks in orange and blue. 4 kids, chicken in her backyard; no wonder that she’s talking about sustainability! She’s such a hippie!

Sustainability is a buzz word, a wicked term used and abused to label certain actions – riding on a bike for example. Or choosing a paper straw and walking around with your keep cup.

But sustainability is more than biking or drinking fair trade coffee. And it is more than a company fundraising for a charity or transitioning to renewable energy suppliers. Sustainability is a regulatory idea, a principle of action that has the potential to develop to a universal value. It stands for transformation, for organizations and individuals seeking for orientation in times of crises – climate and health related – and in related socio-economic and socio-ecological transformation processes.

From a terminological perspective, sustainability means upholding, and it’s born out of the desire of us as humans to continuously exist on this planet for a very long time. Good old Mrs. Brundtland and her colleagues stated in the 1980s that humanity has the ability to further develop “sustainable” – which means to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their very own needs (WCED/BR, 1987). As such, sustainable development is not a fixed state of harmony nor an ideal. It is rather a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, in which the orientation of technological development and institutional change are made future oriented (at least) and consistent with what the present and the future needs.

In the past four decades much happened in this space. Sustainable development is now deeply institutionalized and operationalized in a political, economic and social dimension, and looking at training for transformation managers in museums, the sustainability strategies of media corporations and the growing field of eco-art, also in a cultural dimension.

However, sustainability is still a human made construct and as such an idea and hope to sustain human existence which requires many things including a functioning economic, social and political system along with a supportive physical and biological environment. But hey, wait a minute. Along with a ‘supportive’ physical and biological environment? Does that mean, that sustainability always represents a human perspective on nature? A human perspective about how we treat or use nature (natural resources)? The bad news is indeed, that most of the sustainability concepts and related literature confirms this perspective and represents an imbalanced human-nature relationship (human superiority over nature, including protection, conservation etc.).

In this book, we will learn more about sustainability and the responsibility of individuals but much more of organizations to follow sustainability as guiding principle and to cultivate sustainable behavior within the organization and in relation to the organizational environment. A key for any cultivation of sustainability processes – on an individual, micro-level, on an organizational level and on a societal, macro-level is communication. Therefore, with the book at hand we will explore communication of sustainability and thus the shiny, pink and glittery new stories of corporations, the story of harmony, reduced CO2 emissions, community engagement and technological innovation. And we will also learn about communication about sustainability, represented in colorful and inspiring Instagram-stories, promoting Birkenstock or veganism and presenting eco-warriors and their stories and concerns. Lastly, we will talk about critical and emancipatory forms of communication and about the importance to negotiate the meaning of sustainability within the society and within communities and organizations of all kind and shape.

Thus, this book focuses on communication of and about CSR and on communication for sustainability because despite the journey of sustainability as term since the 1980s, today sustainability isa principle of action that comes into action with & by communication – that is not only communicatively constructed  but also communicatively cultivated in our society.

For Your Orientation

At the beginning of the book, we will also ask the lady mentioned above to stop, we will get her off her bike, we will listen to her, and her thoughts and we will start to put her thoughts into question. We will agonize and problematize, and by doing that we will learn about

  • sustainability communicators,
  • sustainability stories and best practices of sustainability communication,
  • sustainability related audiences,
  • cognitive dissonances and harmonization strategies on an individual level,
  • as well as the potential to cultivate sustainability as universal value in and through (social) media channels and conversational spaces where sustainability is communicated, debated, and negotiated.

Therefore, we will understand the evolution of the sustainability story as an alternative to the existing story of climate change and ecological destruction and we will be able to explore and learn skills and techniques to take authorship and communicate of, about and particularly for sustainability – and in a sustainable way.

The book

The book is organized in 3 main parts. After the introduction, the first part explores CSR, Sustainability and concepts like ESG and existing research in these areas. The second part brings in a communication perspective and explores the paradigms of communication, from an instrumental perspective on communication to emancipatory communication and a critical understanding of communication processes. The third part brings CSR, Sustainability and Communication together and discusses communication of, about and for sustainability, followed by an outlook with first thoughts on sustainable communication and future challenges for communication experts and researchers.

In detail: The first chapter of the book will look into the context of a current crisis narrative and talk about sustainability and why it matters (1.1.), before we offer a terminological clean up around CSR, Corporate Governance, Sustainable Development and ESG (1.2.). After that, we present current CSR research (1.3.) as well as Sustainability related research (1.4.), before we head into chapter 2.

The second chapter focuses on paradigms of communication and perspectives (2.1.), applications of the paradigms of communication in CSR and Sustainability Communication (2.2.) and discusses if Sustainability Communication is a specific research area (yet) (2.3.).

The third chapter will goe deeper into the three dimensions of sustainability communication, communication of sustainability (3.1.), communication about sustainability (3.2.) and communication for sustainability (3.3.), before we end this book with some guidance for taking authorship for writing the sustainability story and creating  a culture of sustainability – in a better and truly transformative way than it is done so far (Outlook).

In case you want to know more …

For further readings, check the following books and papers:

Weder, F., Krainer, L., & Karmasin, M. (Eds.). (2021). The sustainability communication reader: A reflective compendium. Springer Nature.

Diehl, S., Karmasin, M., Mueller, B., Terlutter, R., & Weder, F. (Eds.). (2017). Handbook of integrated CSR communication. Springer International Publishing.

Allen, M. (2016). Strategic communication for sustainable organizations. Theory and Practice. Fayetteville, USA: University of Arkansas.

Golob, U., Podnar, K., & Zabkar, V. (2022). Sustainability communication. International Journal of Advertising, 1-10.

Verk, N., Golob, U., & Podnar, K. (2021). A dynamic review of the emergence of corporate social responsibility communication. Journal of Business Ethics, 168(3), 491-515.

For our German readers: 

Weder, F. (2022). Nachhaltigkeit kultivieren. Öffentliche Kommunikation über Umwelt, Klima, nachhaltige Entwicklung und Transformation. Communicatio Socialis (ComSoc), 55(2), 146-159.



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

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