Sustainability claims: In what sense are they performative?

By Lars Thøger Christensen

The number of products advertised as “green” or climate neutral has exploded in recent years, according to several newspaper articles. Should we be alarmed? To some extent, yes. In addition to cases of blatant fraud and manipulation, there is reason to be concerned when a plethora of green labels for products – ranging from milk over burgers to gasoline – competes for attention, especially when the variety confuses understandings of what it means to be sustainable.

Moreover, since carbon offset programs tend to obscure the fact that neither air travel nor fashion clothing is or can be CO2 neutral, the need to question and test green advertising claims is more pressing than ever. It is therefore commendable that politicians and NGOs in some countries call for more control with corporations that claim to market green or CO2 neutral products. 

The growth in green advertising claims attracts increased scrutiny, regulation and control.

At the same time, the expansion in green advertising claims illustrates the growing social, political and economic premium put on sustainability. Even if many such claims are superficial and hypocritical, their combined existence is performative beyond what individual corporations, NGOs and regulators can imagine and control. 

When all social actors express the significance of sustainability, something has changed.

Scholars of communication often emphasize that communication is constitutive of organizational and social reality. Communication, in their view, is performative because it does something more than simply describe a preexisting reality. Yet, in what sense does this logic apply to issues of climate change and the broader sustainability arena? 

To what extent has communication performative potential in the sustainability arena?

Critics of the performative view on communication view argue that green messages often fail to change anything, either because the senders are insincere or because larger social forces, such as profit motives or efficiency demands, override any talk about sustainability. The power of sustainability communication to shape organizational practices is therefore often described as naïve or overly optimistic. These are important objections to the performativity perspective. Yet, communication still plays a significant role in instigating better practices.

The articulation of sustainability ideals is often “the leading incident” in its performance (Austin, 1962, p. 8).

It is certainly true that sustainability communication is insufficient in and of itself to ensure more sustainable practices. Some sustainability claims may even prevent organizations from moving in the right direction. Nonetheless, communication about sustainability is an important dimension of sustainable action. Without a communicative engagement of major corporations with the values and ideals of sustainability, changes in that arena are likely to be significantly slower. 

Interestingly, critique and control of sustainability claims may help such claims to perform.

Talk about sustainability and green products tend to attract attention of critical stakeholders and increase internal and external pressure to walk the talk. Bold statements combined with public exposure and critique are important dimensions of what we might call the performativity “cocktail”. Green advertising claims and public statements about CO2 neutrality can be used to apply pressure on corporations and remind them of their promises. If major corporations, out of fear of attracting negative stakeholder attention, decide to remain silent on the sustainability issue, critics and regulators have less material to work with. In other words, a willingness on the part of corporations to expose themselves to critique is key.

Communicative performativity in the sustainability arena is a macro phenomenon.

Obviously, an organization does not become sustainable by simply “talking green”. In fact, it is a mistake to think of performativity – especially in complex areas such as sustainability – as a result of discrete and isolated organizational messages or claims. It doesn’t work that way. Even with the best intentions, green talk takes considerable time and effort to materialize into more sustainable practices. Moreover, it is rarely an organizational effect. Performativity is an outcome of multiple claims that are repeated and reformulated again and again over time and across multiple organizations, public as well as private. The sedimented effect of such dynamic interaction that lead to what Butler (2010) calls “socially binding consequences” (p. 147).

The performativity of sustainability claims should be understood as sedimented effects of multiple claims and understandings. 

The communicative performativity of sustainability claims involve reactions of stakeholders, competitors, legislators and consumers who are variously affected, inspired or provoked by the claims to expect and demand better practices. Still, there is no guarantee that the claims will stimulate significant changes. That, of course, is true for all types of messages. Messages and claims can be ignored, forgotten or outright contradicted by subsequent claims or other types of action. Without the claims, however, society and the physical environment is likely to be worse off. The trick is to use them actively to remind the senders of their social and environmental responsibilities. 


Further readings

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Butler, J. (2010). Performative agencyJournal of Cultural Economy, 3(2), 147-161.

Christensen, L. T., Morsing, M., & Thyssen, O. (2020). Talk-action dynamics: Modalities of aspirational talk. Organization Studies

Fleming, P., & Banerjee, S. B. (2016). When performativity fails: Implications for Critical Management StudiesHuman Relations, 69(2), 257-276.


About the Author

Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. 


Photo by Helena Hertz on Unsplash

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