Sustainable Communication

Time for “sustainable” communication? A fairer world through words

As a child, I would observe people screaming at each other and always complaining about whatever detail their senses could perceive. It would make my stomach squeeze. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t able to understand each other. Why, instead of listening, putting oneself in the other person’s shoes, they would only try to prevail. I couldn’t get my head around it. And sometimes, my instinct still can’t. Yet, I’ve now managed to rationally understand the reasons behind such phenomena.
Great… Which doesn’t mean I accept it.
This is probably how the interest in communication was instilled in my neurons. An interest that goes however beyond the simple act of “choosing the right words when writing a report” or “crossing out useless keywords when managing an advertisement on social media platform X”.
I realised that when I approached intercultural communication during my bachelor’s degree. I then got interested in how public discourse is framed to fit not just the audience, but highly debatable agendas, and the aggressive repercussions this process may have on people’s lives. At the same time, I soon decided to switch my focus, change my words and the way I approach my and others’ imaginary.

Every now and then, I keep asking if this is the time for sustainable (public) communication. For practices that do lead to long-lasting benefits.

One of the many things the whole covid-narrative has taught me is that it is. Or rather, it should. Besides the virus itself, we were also hit by another disease – infodemic. According to the Collins Dictionary, it is “An excessive amount of information concerning a problem such that the solution is made more difficult”.

In addition to this, I consider infodemic more as the nth symptom of a conception of public communication that permeates our world and transcends the walls of professional communication departments and agencies.

This symptom is a friend of the people screaming because they don’t have the willingness to dialogue and understand each other; a friend of rambling words for profit’s sake; a friend of “it’s always been like this, so deal with it”. Gosh, I can’t imagine what would have happened if our ancestors had seriously stuck to the “it’s always been like this” narrative :D.

So, yes, I do believe it is time for sustainable public (and private, if you please) communication. A new approach that benefits both senders and receivers on multiple levels in the long term and promotes values that respect the humankind and the environment.

First and foremost, what is communication?

We know that communication is a process of “sharing with others”: transferring ideas, thoughts or feelings from a sender to a receiver via verbal or nonverbal means. As such, it takes different nuances depending on the context in which it occurs, its sender, its target audience, its goal.

Yup, its goal. When mentioning the goal of sustainable communication, I mean that we can use communication in such a way as to achieve more goals than the mere protection of the environment or the deployment of sustainable practices. Which ones? A different imaginary, an empathetic world of inclusiveness, where organisations and businesses act ethically starting from the way they communicate both internally and externally, where improvements for the whole planet can be achieved by means of sound communication practices as well.

In particular, we can consider four main goal areas:

1. Communicating to change the imaginary

Imaginary is key in any communication process. We create an imaginary to persuade people to buy our services or products. We create an imaginary when we open a blog about a given topic and wish for people to read us. We create an imaginary around ourselves if it’s us we want to promote.

Our imaginary permeates our life – it’s the filter through which we observe and scan reality.

It is also constantly influenced and challenged by the multitude of impulses we receive at any single moment. As such, it may correspond to reality, and it may not. For example, we were told that we were born in a very poor area or in a period of severe crisis where nothing could ever be achieved and our actions were meaningless. The voice of someone whose imaginary had been shaped by the same statements and wasn’t able to believe something else could actually be possible. And we thought and acted accordingly.

Then someone else’s imaginary’s voice changed the word pattern and made magic happen. We realised that what we do does matter. We may have opportunities no matter the time and the place.

Sometimes, a different message can provide us with the tools we need to scratch the surface and clean up the layers of dust it was encrusted with. Therefore, the act of changing the way we communicate to create a different imaginary can be the common thread between different communication approaches.

2. Communicating to promote empathy, understanding, inclusion

First and foremost, communication is listening. While it is an act of sharing and transferring information with the other, how would we do that without considering the other? There’s no successful communication without sound listening.

This should entail a series of capacities, too. First, empathy, namely the ability to share and feel someone else’s feelings, which is different from sympathy. It consists in putting yourself in the other person’s shoes without discarding their feelings. And no, it’s not that easy to be empathetic even though we easily think we are.

Empathy is also based on active listening, whose goal is making the other person feel heard and valued by making certain you understand what the other person is saying. You’re engaged with the speaker in a positive way, you paraphrase and reflect back on what’s being said, and withhold the need to judge and advice.

A sustainable, ethical communication should also be inclusive. Inclusive language values the impact words may have on individuals and is free from stereotypes, prejudices, limitations, and negative expectations. It does change the imaginary: it creates a world where people with diverse backgrounds and experiences can genuinely come together and feel a sense of belonging.

3. Communicating to foster business ethics

When it comes to business and corporations, communication is key for business success and is directed towards internal and external environments. Ideally, it has to motivate, inform and convince. If we look at the imaginary it creates, this is usually based on increasing profit, which may lead to not so transparent practices.

Conversely, for business communication to occur in ethical terms, it should translate into full transparency, honesty, absence of judgement and mutual understanding towards all stakeholders (customers, investors, staff). And it’s not just a matter of CSR (corporate social responsibility), a way of conveying the image of a responsible and/or civic-minded enterprise.

With regards to internal communication, this ultimately means creating a comfortable, efficient work environment where everyone is on the same page. As for external communication, it should entail a message that is accessible for the audience, truthful and consistent with the company’s value system. Also, if this eventually translates into a social and environmental benefit, the better.

Likewise, business communication can be also used to release accurate information on consumption practices to encourage responsible behaviour by consumers. While preferably avoiding greenwashing though, you know. This brings us to the next point.

4. Communicating (for) sustainability

The last dimension concerns sustainability issues and how they can be purposefully and correctly communicated. In this regard, the main goal of sustainability communication is to disseminate data to inform and educate individuals, achieve some level of social engagement, promote new forms of solidarity and responsibility.

For example, this can occur in relation to specific campaigns (e.g. reducing car emissions), social marketing and as part of a CSR strategy to inform the public about a company’s own sustainability measures.

The main challenge here is to inform, raise awareness, engage citizens, and influence perceptions and behaviour without falling prey to sustainability communication’s vultures. Which ones? Greenwashing, green cliché marketing, actions that don’t match words, instrumentalization.

So now, after flying through those paragraphs I’m asking you again: are we ready for this? Do you think it is time for sustainable communication?



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