Although a rhetoric of sustainability is now widely used by government,nongovernmental organisations, and business in addressing the public, there is no evidence of a broad shift of behaviour in response to it. Yet most sustainability programmes at international, national, and local levels require broad public participation if they are to reach their goals. We argue that organisational communication with the public is central to defining the form of participation that is expected, and that rhetorical analysis can show relationships that are implicit in these attempts to persuade. We analyse leaflets from a range of organisations to identify some of the elements that are common between them, both in their explicit content and their implied models of participation. Then we analyse the responses in focus groups to these common appeals. Our findings show that the generalised appeals and the rhetoric of crisis tend to distance policy organisations from the immediacy and dailiness of the public's own experiences of and talk about the environment. Because of this distance, the rhetoric does little to encourage participation and practical action.