“We need to build a bridge between the gloomy and the good.”

An interview with Professor Dr. Torsten Schäfer, Steinbeis entrepreneur and an expert in sustainability and climate communication

There is broad consensus among politicians, the business community, and society in general that sustainability is an important issue. But noble words should be followed by action and this, in turn, should be communicated to others in words. TRANSFER magazine spoke with Steinbeis expert Professor Dr. Torsten Schäfer about the importance of communication in achieving sustainability goals, about credibility, and about the fear of being dictated to. Professor Schäfer also told us what doughnuts have to do with sustainability.

Hello Professor Schäfer. One area of focus in your work lies in sustainability and climate communication. Could you tell our readers what that actually means?

As a professor of journalism and text production at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, my work with students involves conducting critical assessments of digitech, how it reflects on society and, above all, how it relates to environmentalism, i.e. sustainability. On the one hand, my work is about teaching others the tools of stylistics, storytelling, research, and language, but on the other hand I also teach climate communications and climate journalism. It’s a highly interdisciplinary role and I also write quite a lot of papers and publications. But of course, we’re a university of applied sciences so the skills of the trade are important: How do you write reports, features, or essays dealing with climate issues? We also discuss the practicalities of climate, climate protection, and climate communication, as well as sustainable development and its normative ethical function, within the underlying ethical context.

I’ve been blogging on environmental journalism for 13 years and have been watching how it’s evolved for some time now. It’s developed into a scene where there’s a lot happening right now in terms of climate communication. A really important thing about this is that we need to establish an ethos for communication and journalism, one that creates a framework of values for climate change, climate action, climate communication, and – underpinning that – sustainable development: universal values that should apply to everything we do. I deliberately say “should” because this is about normative motivations. This is about understanding that sustainability and climate protection, but above all the protection of species, are no longer isolated issues. They must be given genuine priority in every form of business, communication, and society.

What role does communication play in developing and implementing the strategies of a sustainable economy and society?

There’s an extremely broad spectrum of strategies when it comes to sustainable business and society. Environmental communication provides a basis for society to understand the current environmental situation it finds itself in: the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch, part of the sixth great period of species extinction in the history of the Earth. Politicians and the business community still haven’t internalized the implications of the situation we’re in right now, even if a number of things are now moving toward climate protection and sustainability. Sure, media and communication are an essential part of understanding this change, but they can’t instigate change. To do that, different things are needed to create impact, such as role models and incentives, but also much stricter legislation and significantly tighter restrictions. We need to choose different starting points and start much earlier – in education, at schools, in new curricula. That’s why communication is very important, but it’s not everything.

In your opinion, what constitutes successful communication, especially when it comes to sustainability topics?

It’s tremendously important for companies to approach things from a holistic angle; there mustn’t be any greenwashing in external communication. So that means entire processes within companies – from the production chain and resourcing to marketing and sales – should genuinely revolve around sustainability. The Supply Chain Act is already providing the right pointers for this, even if it doesn’t give much attention to the environment. There is also a strong social vein running through sustainability. It’s important where resources originate from and the conditions they’re procured under.

A really crucial aspect for business is that you no longer follow the now-outdated three pillars of sustainability. The never-ending triangle of business, the environment, and social issues led to so much greenwashing and it’s now been superseded in research. We should focus more on the concept of planetary boundaries, which was developed by environmental scientists in Sweden in 2009. Their model shows that the Earth has a framework in which we live and do business, and that there is a clear list of priorities: from the biosphere, to the sociosphere, and finally to the technosphere. In doing so, we should take guidance from the sustainability model developed by British scientist Kate Raworth. This is also known as the Doughnut Model, because it’s formed by rings. There’s a clearly defined development framework, which is determined by the Earth’s limited resources and comprises human needs, social aspects, and economic factors.

In my view, there’s so much angst in society – especially in Germany – that maybe we’re being patronized when it comes to sustainability issues. I believe it stems from a false understanding of liberalism, that communication shouldn’t in any way try to educate or parent people. Sure, communication can’t be too strict – like a know-it-all. But communication can and in fact should in some ways help us move forward and be educational. If people wag a finger, it shouldn’t be in isolation – we need communication to point more to the potential to succeed, we need role models and more constructive content. And then comes the big “however”: The danger with journalism, just like corporate communication and scientific communication, is that we only produce nice, quick, upbeat stories. We need to build a bridge between the gloomy and the good, and this should work in harmony. Between destruction and beauty. Between what we’re losing and what works.

Are there any things companies should be particularly wary about in their sustainability and climate communication?

The most important thing is credibility. You should only communicate what’s really happening behind the veil, and ideally there shouldn’t be much of a veil at all, you should be really transparent. Of course there are some things that need protecting, when you’re dealing with advantages in know-how or protected information. But despite this, transparency is something that’s strongly expected now by the general public and consumers. There are strong overlaps between authenticity and credibility on the one hand, and, on the other, how sustainably a company goes about its business. As I said, if a firm starts greenwashing, or only picks a few areas to be sustainable in, it’ll have problems communicating credibly because that gets noticed by members of the general public, who understand these things. A critical consumer base has developed over the last four or five years, especially when it comes to sustainability and procurement practices. Resources, production and supply chains, sustainable consumption – these are big issues, even if, for example, still less than 10% of all German food and drinks consumed are organic.

Companies can’t change all their processes in a couple of few years. So I think it’s important to remember the context. Look at electric vehicles: If it’s not obvious where the electricity you need actually comes from, you’re leaving out a really important piece of contextual information. Then there’s the credibility issue regarding how you’ll make cars in the future and use different materials. Rare-earth elements are a huge issue in this respect. We’ve reached a point in the current climate debate where it’s time to lay a course: We’re learning a great deal at the moment about ourselves as a society, but also about environmental interdependencies and how easy it is for a society to be thrown out of kilter. And to understand all of this, it’s also important that the debate regarding the climate, nature, and the environment doesn’t just come back to technology the whole time.


Prof. Dr. Torsten Schäfer (interviewee)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Consulting Center Sustainability Communication, Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences (Mühltal)