What’s Being Responsible? The Meaning of the Social Element in Sustainability.
Gordon Rands

Western Illinois University


Sustainability is fascinating from a rhetorical perspective; it is not commonly defined, yet carries importance and influence across a variety of sectors, locally and internationally. Its most commonly cited definition is based on the Brundtland Report, which defines something as sustainable when it allows us to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Yet as Palmer, Cooper, and van der Vorst note, “common vocabulary does not necessarily make for better communication” (1997, p. 87). While the concept increasingly leads organizations to join the discourse, it has not been without confusion and conflict.  For example, having made a commitment to sustainability for environmental/economic reasons, organizations find that they have committed to a triple-bottom-line performance. Sustainability lends itself well to ideological appropriation, and this is where much of the confusion and conflict arise. Related concepts, such as corporate social responsibility, are also imbued with the values and goals of the individual organizations that adopt them. Some believe that the social component of sustainability is the same as social responsibility (which may be perceived as encompassing, for example, responsibilities to consumers and employees, but not economic and social justice for the poor).  In this presentation, we will examine the social aspect of sustainability as communicated by different corporations, and consider the implications of this discourse. For example, annual non-economic reports are variously called environmental reports, social responsibility reports and sustainability reports; do the differing terminologies reveal fundamental differences in conceptions of their social stewardships? How does an organization’s choice or appropriation of a particular term both influence and result from their goals, values, and actions? How does the rhetoric they use to communicate sustainability influence the perceptions and actions of their employees and clients, especially in identifying actions that are simultaneously economically profitable, environmentally sound, and socially just?

Palmer, Jason, Ian Cooper, and Rita van der Vorst. “Mapping Out Fuzzy Buzzwords—Who Sites Where on Sustainability and Sustainable Development” Sustainable Development 5 (1997): 87-93.


All Submissions
8:00 AM-8:00 PM, Friday, June 15, 2007, Oral

The Ontario, Canada 2007 Meeting