Presidential Scholars Theses (1990 – 2006)


Open Access Presidential Scholars Thesis


Sustainable development;


A paradoxical dilemma currently faces the entire globe: industry is both the problem and the answer to the future of the earth's environmental health. Business is often blamed above all other forces as the primary cause of the planet's current environmental woes. At the same time, however, business is the only institution with the capital, technology and innovation necessary to develop solutions to the world's environmental problems. This senior thesis investigates the corporation's role in the environmental equation. Sustainable development is the buzzword of the decade. The concept means development or progress that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." A few businesses are already leading the way in sustainable development action, going far beyond regulatory compliance and cleaning up past mistakes. Other corporations need to develop similar proactive environmental policies and initiatives if they want to survive throughout the next decade. A proactive response is defined by Pieter Winsemius and Ulrich Guntram as one in which companies "internalize the environmental challenge as an element of quality management.. .. Companies and industry sectors will pool their resources with those of governments, scientific institutions, and often environmental organizations to find solutions to the increasingly complex environmental issues." The author considers seven reasons why corporations should adopt proactive environmental policies and initiatives. The first is to fulfill their social responsibilities to the communities in which they exist. No matter whether the minimal classical view of social responsibility or the more expanded stakeholder theory is upheld, the corporation has the duty to address environmental issues. Second, the corporation should become proactive because shareholders are demanding it. These demands take the form of social investing and shareholder resolutions. Consumers are also inisisting upon corporate proaction. Purchasing decisions are continually made with environmental factors in mind. Companies must respond to consumers' desires if they are to survive. A fourth motive for proaction is the threat of adverse publicity. Media reports on environmental accidents can ruin a reputation for years. Fifth, corporations must become proactive to avoid environmental liability. Both criminal and civil penalties for breaking environmental laws are high, and the government is stepping up prosecution. Two incentives for proaction are more positive in nature. First, proactive companies often enjoy the benefits of helping to create and design future environmental regulation. When industry has access to the regulatory ear, the result is often greater industry flexibility in deciding how to meet standards and the more efficient use of resources. The second incentive is the positive impact proaction can have on the corporate bottom line. Pollution is waste. Companies that prevent it at the source save money on materials, remediation and regulatory compliance. Having established the need for corporations to be environmentally proactive, the second part of this thesis investigates how business can ta1ce part in sustainable development. The key to business participation is building reciprocal relationships with various publics. Reciprocal relationships allow the business organization to satisfy the demands of shareholders, consumers, activists and government while maintaining profitability. Reciprocal relationships are built through a process of negotiation, facilitated by the corporate communication practitioners. This negotiation process is investigated in light of fundamental communication theories. The critical look at the negotiation process whereby companies become environmentally proactive provides a theoretical framework in which companies can operate. James Carey's cultural approach to communication provides a foundation for viewing the negotiation process from a ritual point of view. That is, in forming a sense of community with its publics, the company goes through many adjustment processes. These processes are further discussed in light of communication theories expounded by Wilbur Schramm, Theodore Newcomb, and Bruce Westley and Malcolm MacLean, Jr. Finally, the author proposes a revised view of the company negotiation process, integrating the relevant aspects of these scholars' theories. The proposed model highlights the public relations practitioner's role in helping the corporation and the relevant publics negotiate a satisfying system in which both are willing to co-exist. The practitioner acts as the gatekeeper for the company and the liaison through which the negotiation process takes place. Thus, the public relations practitioner actively restores and maintains the community for the corporation and its publics, a theory expounded by Dean Kruckeberg and Kenneth Starck. The significance of the proposed model lies in its contributions to understanding the interaction of the elements involved in ritual communication and its application of Carey's theoretical ritual communication to pragmatic practices. Two case studies are offered to demonstrate the proposed model in action. The first considers the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) Davenport Works Plant's efforts to initiate a dialogue with environmental activists. The ALCOA case highlights the critical role of the communication practitioner. The second case study exposes the evolutionary process whereby Dow Chemical Company moved from an unbalanced system to a symmetrical community. Every business entity must approach environmental issues in light of its primary business practice and particular circumstances. There is no formula for every business to follow in becoming proactive. There are, however, some general guidelines that have proven successful in many companies' journey to environmental proaction. These general guidelines are outlined in the third part of the thesis. They include: secure top management support; establish an environmental vision; write an environmental policy; restructure the organization; solicit outside input; pursue partnerships with industry, government and public-interest groups; train, reward and listen to employees; develop a crisis plan; communicate openly and honestly; implement a regular environmental audit; conduct life cycle analysis; and investigate true-cost accounting. The most fundamental guideline for corporations to follow is making a long-term commitment to environmental proaction. Today's environmental problems were not created overnight, nor can they be solved through quick fix approaches. Any corporation wanting to become a leader in sustainable development must understand and accept the magnitude of the task it is undertaking. As one former EPA administrator said, "Companies must be willing to make substantial, lasting modifications to their operations if they intend to survive even into the next decade. Environmentally aware consumers will demand it, and the planet's survival may well depend upon it"

Date of Award



Department of Communication Studies

Presidential Scholar Designation

A paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the designation Presidential Scholar


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1 PDF file (1, 78 pages)

Date Digital



©1993 Jennifer Halupnik





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