The Evolving Sustainability Paradigm:  How Practices and Trends Impact PR

Sustainability, the integration of social, environmental and economic factors for short and long-term performance, is an evolving business paradigm.  Business leaders are now being challenged to address issues beyond profitability.  From internal issues of worker health and safety, employee morale and engagement to societal issues—poverty, disease and resource depletion—more of these are becoming core business concerns, especially in our global economy. Environmental issues are increasingly seen as a threat to our world, eliciting a call for action from both business and society.
To understand these trends, from now through 2017, and where we’re headed, The Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, in collaboration with the American Management Association and the Human Resources Institute (i4cp) recently completed a global study on the state of sustainability practices by major corporations. Some key findings of the report, “Creating a Sustainable Future: A Global Study of Current Trends 2007-2017,” are highlighted here, along with implications for PR and communications professionals.

A Paradigm of Integration
Historically, sustainability has been associated with the environment.  Today, the term has broader definition, merging a range of factors—those associated with corporate social responsibility, those considered environmental, health and safety issues and those related to business/profit—forming an integrated concept of sustainability for corporations.

The essential aspect of the evolving sustainability business model is the integration of those three factors (e.g., the Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet, and Profits) and how they are simultaneously woven into a company’s mission, culture, business strategies and operations to maximize short and long-term performance.

While many companies embrace this challenge, utilizing communications strategies to build support and advantageous positioning, others wait to see what will happen to this trend before they take it seriously.  Moreover, while the media are replete with examples of corporations going green, the real question is: To what extent do companies culturally embrace all three factors of the sustainability paradigm?        

Clearly, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the most sustainable enterprises in the world and those moving ahead.  These lessons have significance for communications professionals who serve such companies, as well as those considering entering the fray.

Sustainability Practices – How Widespread?
One key lesson learned from the study is that we still have ways to go to achieve the broad implementation of sustainability strategies and practices. Only about one in 10 respondents indicated their organizations implement sustainability strategies to a very great extent, and another 25% indicated their organizations are implementing to an above average extent.

Companies implementing sustainability strategies are more likely to be high performers in terms of key marketplace and financial indicators. Also, most respondents personally cared more about sustainability issues than they think their companies do, especially when it comes to social and environmental issues.  So, when companies engage, employees likely support such initiatives and achieve greater job satisfaction and pride in their companies. 

Surprisingly, despite overwhelming media attention on the causes and dangers of global warming, this issue and the need to manage risks were not highly rated by respondents as key drivers of business decisions, neither today nor in 10 years. 

Clearly, more should be done to raise awareness about how this issue impacts the  sustainability of companies, commerce, communities and resources and the role businesses can play in offering solutions.  This provides an opportunity for those in Corporate and Internal Communications and IT to collaborate at companies where the management and culture support broader sustainability strategies. 

Drivers and Barriers
The survey looked at 25 sustainability-related business issues and to what extent  they are key drivers of business decisions today and in 10 years.  Among the top 10 factors (see Figure 1), several relate to the communications function and key stakeholders, including:
➢    Improving image with shareholders and the public (number 3 today and  number 1 in 10 years)
➢    Meeting expectations of investors and lenders (number 6 today and number 7 in 10 years)
➢     Attracting and retaining diverse top talent (number 7 today and number 3 in 10 years)
➢    Reducing and/or managing risks and impact of climate change (number 24 today and 23 in 10 years). 
The study also found the greatest factors inhibiting companies are the:
➢    Lack of demand from consumers and customers
➢    Lack of demand from managers and employees
➢     Lack of awareness and understanding
➢     Lack of specific ideas on what to do.
The green trend is growing.  When it reaches its tipping point, this should significantly affect all of these factors.  Proactive public relations professionals who track this trend could capitalize on this by working with companies and external stakeholders to develop and implement effective communications strategies and tactics to help reduce these barriers.

Most Common Practices
The study also examined the most common sustainability-related practices.  Among the top 12 (shown in Figure 2), most focused on employees, including:
➢    Ensuring employee health and safety
➢    Supporting employees in balancing work and life activities
➢    Encouraging employee volunteerism
➢    Involving employees in decisions that affect them
➢    Providing employee training and development related to sustainability
These could benefit from effective internal communications to increase employee awareness and involvement.

Best Practices
Higher performing organizations reported possessing the seven qualities, found from our previous research, associated with highly successful Sustainability Strategies (Wirtenberg, Harmon, Russell & Fairfield, 2007).  These include (see Figure 3):
1.    Top management support
2.    Deeply embedded values
3.    Centrality to business strategy
4.    Alignment of systems, processes and culture
5.    Rigorous sustainability metrics
6.    Holistic organizational integration across functions
7.    Engagement from internal and external stakeholders.
Companies that demonstrate some of these qualities benefit from publicizing plans to external audiences and promoting them internally to maximize employee participation.  They also raise the bar to inspire others as the paradigm evolves.       

Future Outlook
The study brought us to three future scenarios.  The first two scenarios – “Things Fall Apart” and “Muddling Toward Sustainability” are not encouraging.  The third one is a winner, addressing all three factors in the integrated sustainability paradigm. We call this “A Global Sustainability Culture.”  Communications and PR professionals can play a critical role in building stakeholder awareness and cooperation to influence positive changes in sustainability that can help make this most hopeful scenario a reality.  

This article was written by Jeana Wirtenberg Ph.D and director of external relations & services at the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and
Teri P. Cox, M.B.A, president of Cox Communications Partners, LLC. It is currently featured in the 2008 PR News Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility. To purchase a copy, log onto to


Wirtenberg, J., Harmon, J. Russell, W., & Fairfield, K. (2007). “HR’s Role in Building a Sustainable Enterprise:  Insights from Some of the World’s Best Companies,” Human Resource Planning, 30(1), 10-20.
American Management Association (2007), “Creating a Sustainable Future:  A Global Study of Current trends and Possibilities 2007-2017.” Vickers, J., Wirtenberg, J., Harmon, J., Lindberg., A. Lee, J., & Dennis, D.