The new ethics of environmental communication

We are learning more and more about good practice in the communication of environmental issues. This is evident from the numerous studies and reports that have been published in recent years, many of which are based on studies of audience behaviour. But as we gather this information, it is resulting in some interesting ethical issues which we need to confront in our own communications work. One such example involves how we appeal to intrinsic and extrinsic values.

Intrinsic and extrinsic values were identified as part of a body of work produced on issue framing, which is more fully explained in the report The Common Cause. Imagine, for example, you are producing a campaign encouraging a group of people to reduce the amount of carbon they use in their home. As part of that you might ask them to turn down the thermostat and change their old light bulbs for energy-efficient ones – there are various energy-saving measures you could ask them to carry out. In your communications with your audience you could try to motivate them with a host of reasons for acting in the way you want them to. You might suggest that they are doing something good for the environment or for society, or that it is simply a moral duty that they should behave in this way. Or, as in some campaigns, you might point out the cost-saving benefits of their actions, and how much money they’ll save through these simple actions.

The difference? Appealing to an audience’s intrinsic values means that you’ll talk in terms of benefits beyond ‘the self’. You’ll talk about benefits to society, community, other people, the earth and the environment. If you appeal to someone’s extrinsic values, you’ll communicate more in terms of money, wealth, social status and benefit to the self. The language you use, and motivations you appeal to, will promote one of these two sets of values.

And here is the ethical dilemma: appealing to extrinsic values might achieve immediate action in the short-term (i.e. a behaviour change that reduces carbon), but you won’t be fostering and reinforcing the kinds of selfless, community-orientated values and behaviours that it is argued society needs the most, if we are to change things for the better in the long-term. There may be some immediate behaviour changes that you wish to achieve and which you feel are worth this trade-off, and that is a decision to be made as part of your communications and wider organisational strategy. The authors of The Common Cause, and its series of reports, argue that organisations with green or environmental goals need to work together to create a united conversation based on intrinsic values.

One thing is for certain: we need to get used to these new and sometimes confusing conversations around ethical debates. It is not enough to be thinking only in terms of the organisation we work with. We now need to consider our organisation’s responsibilities through its communications, in relation to a wider set of societal issues.

This post was originally published on my previous blog on 6 June 2014.

Janine is a researcher and communications consultant, specialising in environmental and sustainability issues. If you would like to talk to her about how she can help with your sustainability communications, you can contact her on 015394 69034 / 07707 038 092 or email

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