Investigating Ethical Aspects of Corporate Environmental Communication: Use of Instrumental and Deliberative Online Communication Tools by Major Consumer Brands in the United Kingdom
Over the past two decades, the demand for large corporations to adopt environmentally responsible conduct has been rapidly increasing – on one hand legislation, regulation and independent environmental groups have set new standards for recycling and waste management, CO2 emissions reduction and energy usage; on the other hand, the changing role of businesses in the age of consumerism and new technology adopted by corporations for stakeholder communication has brought the need for transparent communication of the corporate social responsibility, which includes responsible resourcing, ethical treatment of employees, philanthropic activities and environmentally responsible conduct. Whether the firm follows these principles or not is often a crucial element in corporate image construction and establishment of moral legitimacy. Nowadays, consumers and stakeholders expect to find all the information they need on the Internet; While corporate websites and CSR microsites often serve as useful sources of information, the increasing demand for interaction, feedback and fact-checking saturates the need for such digital spaces which enable dialogic, two-way communication and direct interaction between the company and the stakeholders. Following this notion, the present study employs a theoretical framework developed by Seele and Lock (2015), who, drawing on Habermasian theory of deliberative discourse, establish new grounds for evaluating ethical CSR communication by dividing CSR communication tools to the following two categories: deliberative and instrumental. While deliberative tools enable dialogue and two-way communication, instrumental tools refer to the traditional, one-way, informative, ‘getting the message out there’ communication instruments. This typology was adopted for evaluating online communication tools of fifteen major, most profitable consumer brands in the United Kingdom in food, fashion and automotive sector. The selected companies were chosen because of their prominent position in the everyday life of the UK’s society, which is one of the biggest consumer societies in the world, as well as one of the largest e-shopping markets in the world, making this paper’s focus on the online communication tools even more relevant. Having established the typology of tools used by the companies, the research then evaluated if deliberative communication tools were utilized for dialogic communication with stakeholders. The findings show that while all the investigated companies employ at least two out of four deliberative communication tools, these are not well-utilized for two-way communication and majority of the consumer brands don’t engage in dialogues about corporate environmental responsibility. The instrumental tools provide different levels of quality, transparency and scope of information. No significant sector-sensitive patterns or trends emerged. These results support the findings of some of the previous studies (e.g. Illia et al. 2015), which suggest that corporations and stakeholders don’t usually engage in dialogic CSR communication, but point out that even when the appropriate spaces are provided, stakeholders don’t initiate the dialogue either. Such observation potentially opens a new line of inquiry into the relevancy of this approach to ethical CSR communication from the present-day stakeholder perspective.