Sustainability and Ethics in Communication

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Over the course of this Skill, we will discuss both the individual- and collective-level behaviors that promote ecologically sustainable development (ESD). These actions are all supported by words, those words that help proponents of ESD to present arguments, positions, and programs advocating a change in the status quo. These words, which populate ESD discourse, create a living semantic web made up of contextualized elements that are used in political and societal debates about sustainability.

A picture shows an illustration of geometric abstract lines connected with dots in blue and pink.

Source: MR.Cole_Photographer/Moment/via Getty Images.

This type of speech relies on a shared understanding of what sustainability is and what the attributes of “greenness” are. Following Jean Aitchison’s lead, students of ethical and sustainable discourse may use the tools of lexicology, lexicometrics, textometrics, and psycholinguistics to discover the patterns of words and expressions used by engaged actors to make their arguments and bring home their points of view and action plans. We will explore a variety of examples of “green” speech in texts produced by governments (Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]), political parties (Green Party), political activists (Greta Thunberg), nongovernmental organizations (Eden), businesses (APEX), and even private citizens (Corsican farmer Jean-Charles Abbatucci).

Much of what has been or may be achieved depends on the ability of writers, communicators, and actors in the field to build on the shared meaning of ESD, for progress can only be made if all the stakeholders involved in green policies can arrive at a common understanding of what is possible. This is why good communication plays such an important role. By using the analytical approaches we have examined, we are better prepared to harness the expected moral impact of “green” communication and, thereby, to craft and implement the policies our world so needs at this time.


An ethical overlay is of equal importance in analyzing the discourse of sustainability. The described behaviors should be understood in a wide variety of organizational settings ranging from supranational organizations such as the United Nations to Texas farmers in the Bull Creek Watershed. Most organizations dealing with issues of sustainability present articulated vision and mission statements that lay out strategic orientations—some of which are magnanimous (Eden Reforestation Projects) and some of which are partly self-serving (APEX).

Moreover, individuals working within such organizations are acutely aware of their own moral or ethical positions in implementing these organizational strategies. Witness Peter Hughes’s commitment to sustainable development and Steven Fitch’s quasi-religious fervor in promoting socio-economic development and reforestation. These behaviors play themselves out in what Ruwen Ogien refers to as minimalist and maximalist frames: minimalist insofar as the individual actor’s own ethical or moral compass is at play and maximalist insofar as they are aware of the societal and environmental impact of both individual or collective behaviors.


In many instances, these behaviors are codified. This is to say that professionals working in organizations that espouse the ideals of ESD are bound by the duties of their professions. They act within the constraints of professional behavior, but also with a view to realizing acceptable societal goals. We will consider Thomas Mulcair’s overlapping behaviors of lawyer, civil servant, regulator, legislator, party leader, and environmental activist. Clearly, he has learned to live with himself while at the same time cultivated a proactive organizational relationship with others and even the environment itself as a “primary stakeholder” (Haigh & Griffiths, 2009) in the world’s future. What an eloquent illustration of the intertwined minimalist and maximalist approaches to ethical behavior!

In organizational settings, codes serve to guide the decision-making process in that they are reflections of collective values, visions, and missions. If these documents remain static, they most likely will have no value; however, if organizations treat them as dynamic, inclusive, evolving documents, they may have some effect. Yet, as Betsy Stevens (2008) has pointed out, “communication is a requirement for codes to be successful.” Clearly, individual engagement is a means to link minimalist and maximalist approaches to ethics in communication. Dynamic ethical codes that are formed through an open and inclusive process allow members of organizations to see the living link between their personal values and belief systems and those espoused by the organization of which they are a part.

The key obligations to be found in professional codes of ethics focus on (a) the public, (b) the clients, and (c) the profession. Consequently, the main principle to bring to bear is the care that one must devote to the public interest and to creating an atmosphere of trust. The public should be reassured that the practicing professional will bring no harm to the public in general, to society, or to the environment both moral and physical in which the public must live. The classical rule of noli nocere (Do no harm) must prevail in what Jack and Jack (1989) have called “the ethics of care.” It goes without saying that all stakeholders in ESD matters must be dealt with in an ethical manner and that civility in professional relations must prevail. Both have a direct impact on the trust one may put into the various actors in ESD.

A picture shows three blue sticky notes on a pink background. The note on the extreme left has a sad face, the one in the middle has a neutral face, and the note on the extreme right has a happy face.

Source: Javier Zayas Photography/Moment/via Getty Images.

All this sounds eminently rational, but as we have seen, emotions play a role in crafting good communications. Greta Thunberg played this chord at the United Nations, and Steven Fitch pulled the emotional heartstrings of potential sponsors in recruiting for Eden’s reforestation projects. In both cases, the recourse to emotions was nevertheless a rational decision.

At issue in crafting good communications is the ability to orchestrate three aspects of the question to get things done: the cognitive, the affective, and the actionable.

Shared Understanding

All interested parties must share a common understanding of ESD concepts. That understanding is not uniquely cognitive. Many react to these issues on a purely emotive level. Communicators must understand how to use emotive responses to their advantage. Subsequently, they must turn cognitive and emotional knowledge into action or proposed action. We saw how this works in party platforms.

Communicators can then guide their various audiences toward a shared understanding of ESD, the ideology behind it, and the language that allows us to talk about it in meaningful ways. We must regularly ask ourselves how we and other stakeholders feel about issues of sustainability, how comfortable all of us are in dealing with such issues, and the potential conflicts we are bound to encounter. Only if we can really understand others’ cognitive and emotional responses to these same issues can we expect to communicate effectively and to lay the groundwork for successful action. In this way, we should be better equipped to craft our responses to situations, policy orientations, and actionable communication. After all, the purpose of ESD is to get things done. That will be the true measure of our success.

Further Reading

Aitchison, J. (2011). Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon. Blackwell.
Corroyer, G. (2011). Les discordes idéologiques dans le débat politique. Communication, 28(2).
Haigh, N., & Griffiths, A. (2009, September). The natural environment as a primary stakeholder: The case of climate change. Business Strategy and the Environment, 18(6), 347359.
Hopkins, M. (2006). Corporate social responsibility and international development. Routledge.
Jack, R., & Jack, D. C. (1989). Moral vision and professional decisions. Cambridge University Press.
Ogien, R. (2007). L’éthique aujourd’hui. Gallimard.
Phillips, R. A., & Reichart, J. (2000, January). The environment as a stakeholder? A fairness-based approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 23(2), 185197.
Réthoré, C. (2020). Using lexico for quantitative discourse analysis: From lexicometrics to textometrics. Journal of Marketing Analytics, 8, 118124.
Stevens, B. (2008). Corporate ethical codes: Effective instruments for influencing behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 78, 601609.
United Nations Climate Change. The Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement | UNFCCC.
Walzer, M. (1996). Three paths in moral philosophy. Filospficky Casopis, 44(4), 641662.