Organizational Communication and Sustainability

Various sub-fields of the communication discipline have studied intersections among social collectives and the environment. Organizational communication scholars, in particular, have used multiple methods to examine how different organizations make environmental decisions and policies, mobilize partnerships and broader networks to accomplish these goals, and engage with customers and impacted communities (e.g., Allen, 2016; Bullis & le, 2007;Jaworska, 2018; Mitra & Buzzanell, 2018; Norton, Sias, & Brown, 2011; O’Connor & Gronewold, 2012).

Sustainability, as defined by Brundtland (1987), fits within the “organization-society relationship” problematic, which—along with problematics of voice, rationality, and the nature of the organization itself (Mumby & Stohl, 1996)— helps articulate the nature of the organizational communication sub-field. Thus, organizing for sustainable development “underscores the recognition that organizational boundaries are permeable and in flux and the dividing line between organizations and society can easily be drawn ... [so that] society, culture, organizations, and communication are inextricably and reciprocally bound” (p. 65). This is evident when one considers the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of multi-stakeholder initiatives that organize around environmental management (Livesey, Hartman, Stafford, & Shearer, 2009; Mitra, 2018a), or the global supply chains that link disparate organizations with both competing and cooperative goals regarding the natural materials they use (Allen, Walker, & Brady, 2012; Ban, 2018). Moreover, even the organization problematic becomes pertinent with sustainable organizing, when we consider how it disrupts “the very notion of organization” (Mumby & Stohl, 1996, p. 62) and embodies the “shift from treating organizations as reified structures to a focus on communication practices and processes” (p. 64) with its centering of stakeholder inclusion.

Nevertheless, as I have observed elsewhere, “organizational communication research has rarely embraced the term ‘sustainability’ itself, even when studying the management of scarce resources for organizing systems” (Mitra, 2017, p. 2337). None of the exemplars cited by Mumby and Stohl (1996) to illustrate the field’s problematics pertain to environmental issues. The same is true for Broadfoot and Munshi’s (2007) rejoinder, which called for more diverse voices and alternative rationalities to theorize organizational communication. The only time the word “environment” appeared in Broadfoot and Munshi’s treatise was when they urged attention to social justice organizing by indigenous communities, such as the Chiapas of Mexico. Although this example could be probed further to highlight connections among indigenous organizing, neoliberal interests, and environmental exploitation, these were left unpacked.

The inclusion of “sustainability and sustainable development” as a chapter in the recent International Encyclopedia of Organizational Communication (Scott & Lewis, 2017) is thus a testament to how rapidly the topic has attracted attention in the field. This was influenced perhaps by the widespread impacts of climate change, increasingly experienced in everyday life (e.g., floods, wildfires) and documented in detail by urgent policy texts, such as the US Government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment (see https://www.globalchange. gov/nca4). To better align organizational communication research with these broader developments, Mitra and Buzzanell (2015) proposed a uniquely communicative definition of sustainability as “organizing practices—grounded in communicative action—that go beyond the preservation of the status quo to consider the contingencies and novel re-combinations possible, as social entities negotiate a complex-risk-laden world” (p. 133). They not only extended the Brundtland (1987) definition with a more nuanced understanding of entangled social-environmental-institutional risks but also emphasized stakeholder inclusion to unpack these risks and design new frameworks for both research and practice.

In the next section, I outline how organizational communication research can better address stakeholder inclusion for sustainable organizing.

Stakeholder Inclusion for Sustainable Organizing/ Communicating

In a previous review of organizational communication scholarship discussing sustainability, I traced four main traditions that adopt different yet intersecting meanings (Mitra, 2017). These include sustainability as long-term organizational viability given the existence of multiple operating tensions; sustainability as environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices; sustainability as corporations’ broader environmental impacts; and sustainability as resilience of complex adaptive systems. Here, I outline how stakeholder inclusion may be conceptualized in each of these scholarship traditions, arranging them along two parameters of stakeholder inclusion, as

Stakeholder inclusion for sustainable organizing traditions

Figure 10.2 Stakeholder inclusion for sustainable organizing traditions.

shown in Figure 10.2. Along the vertical axis, I consider the primary stakeholder interests being served, ranging from the interests of the organization itself to broader, more collective social and ecological interests. The second parameter is the locus of enactment, traced on the horizontal axis, which might range from the organization itself to a broader dispersal of stakeholders. For each tradition (or quadrant), I propose research questions to help guide scholars studying stakeholder inclusion toward sustainable organizing.

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