Groupe Durabilité|Communication

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What is the importance of communication in relation to sustainable development? What path did it follow? What are the basis and the ethical foundations of responsible communications ?  The SUSTAINABILITY|COMMUNICATION Group examined the issue by focusing on its progress in Quebec and Canada.



Following the publication of the first codes of ethics in public relations in the early 1950s and the international Code of Athens in 1965, ethical concerns have increasingly taken their place in the corporate world. In 1973, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) dedicated the first issue of its Gold Papers to ethics. Over the years, the topic of ethics has increasingly been discussed at professional forums and in publications.

On September 7, 1970, the Irving Whale barge sank in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, resulting in an oil spill that reached the shores of the Magdalen Islands. Until then without precedent in Canadian history, this environmental catastrophe quickly caught the attention of the local, regional, national, and international media. A series of subsequent disasters – Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Tchernobyl, Bhopal, and Saint-Basile-le-Grand –  further galvanized public opinion and the media. Many communication professionals learned about these new realities on site, directly in the crisis zone. And from then on, Canada and the rest of the world saw a surge of environmental communication, risk communication, and crisis communication. In the 1990s came  a proliferation of training sessions, workshops, symposia, conferences and publications on these questions.

In this context, risk prevention and issue management has become a key speciality in organizations. Communication models are evolving to give more room to listening, dialogue, and exchange with stakeholders on the basis of respect, trust, and mutual understanding.  A handful of specialists pushed their actions even further by introducing communication on social responsibility and sustainable development inside large corporations, guiding them in meeting their civic responsibilities following major campaigns denouncing problems with regard to child labour, sweatshops, and human rights violations.

By 1990, the ideas behind sustainable development have gained international credence. Earlier, books like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962) and Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome (1972) raised the alarm by declaring that the Earth’s resources are not infinite and that a strictly economic vision of development is not viable. In 1987, the Bruntland Report proposed a definition of sustainable development that gained international recognition. The 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio concluded with a global commitment to comply with sustainable development principles and underlined the important role of communication and education. In the same year, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) was created to promote sustainable development values in business. Ten years later, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg reaffirmed the importance of awareness-raising, information, and consultation on these issues throughout the world.

At the end of the millennium, the creation of the Sustainable Development Communications Network further served to focus efforts on integrating Internet communications into large-scale communication strategies.

Still in its infancy in organizations at the beginning of 2000, communication on sustainable development and social responsibility was not yet an integral component of the curriculum and research activities of Canadian and Quebec universities. Nevertheless, a turning point had been reached.


Solange Tremblay and Thérèse Drapeau

August 2011


Some milestones : Québec - Canada



• Creation of a research group on communication issues related to sustainable development, social responsibilities, and ethics in communication practices at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal). The Centre for Sustainable Development, Ethics and Communications was active in workshops, publications and training. When the Centre closed in the Fall 2010, the team created the SUSTAINABILITY|COMMUNICATION Group.



• Ethics questions in public relations emerged as a major concern within the professional environment in Quebec, Canada, and elsewhere in the world. Several initiatives reflect this growing interest:

    • - In 2003, Global Alliance, an international association of public relations societies around the globe, published a Global Protocol on Ethics in Public Relations, the acceptance of which is mandatory for all association members (over 60 partners representing 150,000 professionals).
    • - One year earlier, the Société des relationnistes du Québec created its Ethics Committee.
    • - In 2004, the Canadian Public Relations Society implemented its Ethics Network.

• A vast research study on public relations in Quebec is published in 2004. Conducted in three phases, the research presents an overall and specific portrait of professional practices in Quebec and analyzes their evolution over some dozen years. The study provides the first available information about sustainable development, social responsibility and ethics in communication practices.  Highlights



• A major communication project was undertaken throughout Quebec with a vast public consultations on the Québec’s Sustainable Development Plan. More than 3,500 people participated in the public hearings held in 21 towns of Québec. Some 582 briefs were submitted and more than 800 people expressed their opinions about the plan.



• Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously adopts the Sustainable Development Act.  This major piece of legislation - making sustainable development an intrinsic part of the Québec government’s activities - highlights the central role of communication in all stages of this endeavour.

• A conference on communications in sustainable development (Colloque Développement durable et Communications – Vers un nouvel engagement des communicateurs, UQAM), is acknowledged as the first contribution of communication professionals to the implementation of Québec’s sustainable development plan.

• The Declaration of the Communicators and Public Relations Professionals of Quebec on Sustainable Development is signed by all major associations of communication professionals.

• Creation of Novae, a Quebec information portal specialized in sustainable development.

• Publication of the first research on sustainable development and social responsibility in Canadian corporate communications : Développement durable et responsabilités sociales dans la communication d’entreprise : tendances canadiennes et québécoises.

December - Presentation of the Declaration of the Public Communicators and Public Relations Professionals of Quebec on Sustainable Development to Pierre Dansereau, father of modern ecology and pioneer of sustainable development in Québec.

Photo : Caroline Gélineault

Photo: Caroline Gélineault



• Publication of the book Développement durable et Communications – Au-delà des mots pour un véritable engagement.

• The Declaration of the Communicators and Public Relations Professionals of Quebec on Sustainable Development is cited internationally as a model for communication professionals around the world. Info

United Nations Headquarters New York


• The Centre for Sustainable Development, Ethics and Communications hosted several workshops with a group of communication professionals from Quebec on the topic of sustainable development.

• Creation of Vision durable, a Quebec information portal focussing on responsible business.

• To conteract the rise of greenwashing, an article by S. Tremblay points out the key elements of responsible communications.


• In 2007, the International Public Relations Association adopted a new code, the Code of Conduct of Public Affairs Worldwide;  this specifies the conditions of ethical practices in public affairs.

• In 2008, publication of a research highlighting the importance of codes of conduct, adapted to the evolution of communications practices, by the Centre for Sustainable Development, Ethics and Communications :  Proposal for a New Framework for the Ethical and Professional Conduct of Public Relations Professionals.

• In 2009, a web site on ethics and deontology in communication practices is created by researchers with the Centre for Sustainable Development, Ethics and Communications to guide communications professionals in their increasingly complex responsibilities.



• The Quebec’s Government Sustainable Development Strategy 2008-2013 comes into force. The strategy comprises a vast plan for awareness-raising, education, and training, and underlines the central role of communicators in the implementation of Québec’s Sustainable Development Act.

• Adoption in Canada of the Federal Sustainable Development Act which foresees the development and implementation of a global Canadian strategy.


• UQAM initiates the first graduate-level program in Canada, focusing on communication and management sciences applied to corporate social responsibility. The program was jointly developed by members of the Faculty of Communication (Solange Tremblay, Danielle Maisonneuve, Gilles Coutlée) and the School of Management (Alain Lapointe, Jean-Pierre Revéret).

• Creation of Public Relations Without Borders. This organization is committed to sustainable development values and works with populations struggling with development challenges by building their competencies in the use of public relations as a lever of social and economic progress. PRWB Annual Report (French)

• The results of a survey conducted across Canada reveals citizens' concerns about SD and the lack of communication in businesses with respect to sustainability issues. Coauthored by Solange Tremblay and Guy Lachapelle, the study is published in The Disloyal Company.



• Publication of the ISO 26000 guidance standard: Guidelines on social responsibility encouraging all types of organizations to apply best practice in social responsibility worldwide. The standard helps organizations to identify and engage in dialogue with their stakeholders and to emphasize the importance of communicating their involvement and performances in matters of social responsibility.

• The Conseil québécois des événements écoresponsables and the Bureau de normalisation du Québec adopt a standard for responsible event management.


• Publication of the Guide BNQ 21000 aiming to encourage and facilitate the recognition and application of the principles of Québec’s Sustainable Development Act in all types of organizations. The guide views communication with stakeholders as being a foundation of all sustainable development approaches.

• Publication of the conclusion drawn from the Global Survey for Sustainable Lifestyles (GSSL), sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). More than 8,000 young adults from 20 countries responded to this survey, one of the first in-depth research projects to be carried out worldwide on this subject. It reveals that young adults have very specific ideas about what it takes to build a more sustainable world and the need for effective communication, a conclusion substantially underlined by young adults from Canada and the United States.

• Publication of a study on Web-based communication about sustainable development in large Canadian businesses. Realized over a 5 years period, the study is also the first to examine on a large scale the long-term evolution of web-based communication on these issues, by some one hundred major Canadian corporations. Highlights


Publication of Développement durable - Une communication qui se démarque at Presses de l'Université du Québec. The book, edited by Solange Tremblay, Nicole D’Almeida and Thierry Libaert, is the second to be published in Quebec and Canada on this very sensitive subject, 10 years after Développement durable et Communications Au-delà des mots pour un véritable engagement, published in 2007.

• Renewal of the commitment of communicators to actively exercise their role in promoting the values of sustainable development. On Wednesday, March 21 in Montreal, twelve years after the Declaration of the Communicators and Public Relations Professionals of Quebec on Sustainable Development, the professional associations reiterate their commitment during the launch of the second book on the issue.

• Creation on November 22, 2018 of the first international Francophone research network on environmental and sustainability communication by the Société française des sciences de l'Information et de la Communication. The Groupe d’Études et de Recherche (GER) Communication, Environnement, Science et Société brings together researchers from several French-speaking countries, including Canada.


On June 17 and 18 in Aix-en-Provence a symposium launches the new international Francophone research network on environmental communication and sustainable development. About forty researchers from different countries are present, including a representative of the Canadian contribution. Program