Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Speech Communication

First Advisor

Bardhan, Nilanjana


The functions of modern organizations continually pressure the natural environment. Although the concept of sustainability has been widely accepted in the business world, environmental problems, rather than disappearing, still linger and even deteriorate. The problems reside in the organization-natural environment relationship. Understanding this relationship is key for addressing contemporary environmental problems. This dissertation is a study of the organization-natural environment relationship. Specially, the dissertation focuses on the case of Ford Motor Company (FMC), and through a study on FMC's communication of sustainability, the dissertation analyzes, defines, evaluates, and attempts to theorize the organization-natural environment relationship. The dissertation reviews organizational theories as well as other theories within the communication studies discipline pertaining to the organization-natural environment relationship. Why the topic of natural environment has been downplayed in communication studies literature is discussed, and the dissertation also reviews emerging studies on the organization-environment relationship from the perspective of various sub-disciplines of communication studies, namely, environmental communication, business communication, and public relations. The review of literature revealed a lack of theorizing of the organization-natural environment relationship, although specific environmental issues, along with their social context, are examined in the reviewed studies. The theoretical framework for the dissertation is based in organizational communication theory; therefore, the development of organizational communication theory is reviewed, and a critical approach of organizational communication was selected as the theoretical position of this dissertation. Following previous research on the organization-natural environment relationship, the dissertation adopts rhetorical criticism, and particularly uses cluster analysis/criticism as the research method. The use of cluster analysis helps to explain the meanings of FMC's discourse of sustainability and to further define, analyze, evaluate, and theorize the company's relationship to the natural environment. To achieve the goal, an overarching research question was proposed: How is the FMC-natural environment relationship reflected and constituted in FMC's discourse on sustainability? And to answer the overarching question, five detailed research questions were posed. RQ1: What are the key terms and clusters that the FMC uses on sustainability? RQ2: How does the FMC use these terms and clusters in relation to sustainability? RQ3: Does the FMC's discourse on sustainability seem reactive or proactive? RQ4: What are the implications of those meanings for the company's relationship with the natural environment? RQ5: How can we theorize this relationship within organizational communication? Data collected were primarily from FMC's annual sustainability reports over the 10 years examined (2002/03 - 2012/13). Data also comprised four published interview reports on the chairman, Bill Ford, one published commentary from Bill Ford, three documentary films on Ford, and a video clip of Ford's director of sustainability John Viera's discussion on sustainability. The research findings focused on the selection of key terms and their clusters as well as on the explanation of the relationship between key terms and their clusters. Seven key terms, namely, sustainability, environment, technology, commitment, fuel, emission, and climate change, were identified from the analyzed texts. Clusters were charted, and were assigned to classified themes, like "business," "profitability," "market," "environment," "efficiency," and "importance." Analysis of the relationship between key terms and their clusters showed that the key terms have different layers of meanings, ranging in a continuum from FMC's business to its environmental sustainability, although more clusters, both in intensity and frequency, were themed toward the company's business, indicating the company's heavier emphasis on its business rather than on environmental sustainability. The key terms and their clusters, therefore, confirmed the meanings of sustainability reviewed in the literature. The meanings are always ambiguous, complex, vague, and flexible, and are mixed with connotations between FMC's business growth and environmental concerns. The company was proactive in terms of addressing the environmental issues because the company emphasized internal control and plans rather than just passively reacting to environmental problems. In terms of the company's relationship with the natural environment, cluster analysis showed a rather slippery definition. The relationship described in the sustainability lacks clarity, but is layered in different meanings. Specifically, three metaphors, relationship as a responsibility, relationship as an opportunity, and relationship as a journey, were proposed to describe the relationship. The dissertation concluded that the two-layer meaning of sustainability, showing a co-existing relationship between the two layers of environmental sustainability and business profitability, could enrich a better understanding of the organization-natural environment relationship. An organizational communication theory of sustainability, based on the two-layer framework and developed from critical organizational communication theories, is proposed, and future research can study how the interactions and conflicts of two-layered meanings between environmental sustainability and business profitability constituted in the discourse of different organization could further such a theory.




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