How can we “translate” Sustainability effectively?


At the close of my recent talk on “Organizing/Communicating Sustainably” at Central Michigan University, someone in the audience asked me, predictably enough, what hope there was for meaningful systemic change, given the preponderance of cultural, structural, and moral obstacles both in the U.S. and worldwide.

My response hinged around the very communicative concept of translation.

I don’t mean translation in the sense of “dumbing down” the complicated scientific facts of climate change, environmental degradation, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy for an undifferentiated, supposedly homogeneous “lay audience.”

Nor do I mean translation in terms of selectively divulging some information, but keeping other key issues and decisions away from the public sphere (for whatever reason), as several companies, think tanks, and even governments are wont to do at times.

Instead, I’m going back to basics. According to Merriam-Webster, the very first meaning under the term “to translate” reads: “to change words from one language into another language,” and that is precisely what I’m talking about here.

Translation involves not merely tailoring a message in a particular way, but re-invigorating and revising that message through linguistic conventions and tools that are relevant in different contexts. Translating environmental sustainability (or CSR, for that matter), then, is about understanding that we are dealing with different audiences, who are interconnected through various media tools, organizing practices, and policy impacts, but nevertheless utilize different interpretive repertoires to make sense of their world. As a colleague of mine puts it, everyone comes to the table with their own suitcase of “stuff” with which they understand reality; for me, their suitcase might well consist of a “voice-activated lock” that is articulated in a specific code, or language. Of course, I do not mean actual languages, like Hindi, Chinese, or Russian, but particular cultural, professional, and policy frames and procedures of understanding that stakeholders live by. Communicating sustainability effectively, to achieve meaningful organizing and engagement, depends on knowing what that language is, and translating sustainability in its terms.

Business Education

This perspective of translation surfaces repeatedly in my research with practitioners of environmental sustainability and CSR. Time and again, my research participants highlight the importance of “talking dolphin with dolphin, and sheep with sheep,” as one person noted. Interestingly, when I ask them to explain what they mean by this, most fall back on the commonplace cliches we know all too well (i.e., simplifying information, or selecting the right information to divulge). Yet, when they elaborate what it is they do in their everyday work with different stakeholders (e.g., employees, supervisors, top management, activists, government officials, mediapersons), they describe the complicated processes of decoding and encoding language that is translation. They are not merely “breaking down” information, but creating new possibilities of sustainable organizing through “new” languages.

In response to the audience member at Central Michigan University, I used the example of environmental evangelicalism (EE). While mainstream U.S. discourse on environmentalism and corporate responsibility is sharply polarized, with those avowing socially conservative and evangelical doctrine often aligned against these issues, EE proponents use the very “language” of cultural/religious doctrine to argue for sustainability. The website of the Evangelical Environmental Network, for instance, states: “We believe that creation care is truly a matter of life and that pollution harms the vulnerable, especially children and the unborn. We believe the body of Christ should be an example of what God’s people can do in the world to solve some of the great challenges of our time.” Although some recent scholarship has noted the interesting rhetorical features of “green evangelicalism,” as well as the correlation of evangelical attitudes with awareness of global warming, I propose that we should further probe the EE movement as a case of skillful translation at work.

One of my research participants, a sustainability consultant who is also a self-confessed environmental evangelical, says that he could never have accomplished much had he not realized early on the need to “speak the language” of the people he sought to influence. In his case, these people were religiously conservative, moneyed decision-makers in the oil-and-gas industry of the American Southwest. Speaking “their” language, however, does not mean either selling out his own commitment to environmental sustainability, nor being deceptive or “dumbing down” — strategies that would never have worked, because people are simply not stupid. Rather, he framed sustainable organizing in terms that could be interpreted (and subsequently, valued) by his target audience without causing major moral or cognitive dissonance. He shared two of his main frames with me: on the one hand, the “stewardship” frame that emphasized interconnections among God, man, and environment (see also the EEN website); and on the other hand, “mainstreaming” sustainability so that it becomes commonsense for the business’ continued growth and prosperity (e.g., reducing clean-up costs).

While these are but a few of the translating tools my research has identified, the main takeaways for on-the-ground sustainable organizing seem to be:

  1. Always think of the translating activities that must be going on, either behind the scenes or on-stage, for the different stakeholders you must engage.
  2. Realize that how you translate for/with one set of stakeholders is not necessarily how you would translate for/with the rest.
  3. Also realize that translation is not a one-way game, or an antagonistic process; in order to be effective, you must engage in dialogue with the concerned parties, so that you can figure out just what “voice code” unlocks that “suitcase.”
  4. And finally, understand that translation is not a goal in itself, but just a crucial “step” towards the greater objective. In other words, it is not enough to merely “get your message across;” you should then use the newly re-constructed meanings about sustainability and CSR in different contexts and ways, to further enhance the implementation of sustainable organizing.

A version of this post appeared in CSRWire Talkback.


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