Having been enmeshed in modernity’s quest for innovative progress on one hand, and in attempts at fundamental critique and warning on the other, academic research nowadays struggles both with a positive conceptual framing of sustainability transformations and with redefining its own roles vis-à-vis policy formulation and societal debate. Expectations towards “transformative research” partially involve the necessity to stronger contribute to societally-defined normative goals. This, however, has the potential to blur the demarcation of research as an independent functional system. Addressing this challenge, the headings of “transdisciplinarity” and “co-creation” promise renewed relevance through procedural modesty, but tend to do so at the expense of substantial goal articulations. The corresponding science society narratives either leave the articulation of sustainability goals to real-world ‘processes,’ thus deferring them into nebulous futures and negating a distinct normative contribution of science itself (beyond process facilitation). Or they simply revert to environmentalist notions of danger prevention, as in the planetary boundaries concept – with limited communicative impact in local policy arenas. In our contribution, we develop a typology of different understandings of transformative research based on explicit and implicit narrative elements of sustainability discourses. If sustainability research were to truly – and not only rhetorically – embrace the term “transformation,” it would have to reflexively seek to reposition itself between semantics of danger prevention and innovation, the latter being a precondition for any substantially loaded transformation concept. This, in itself, is hard enough with hindsight not only to the normative tensions between precaution and adaptation, conservation and betterment, that inevitable arise in almost every developmental context; and it becomes even more difficult when wanting to maintain a productive relationship with actual policy deliberations. To this adds the third, and decisive, key element of modern sustainability discourse: justice. It makes for good stories – including heroes and villains – and seems therefore an ideal candidate for framing sustainability communication. Its semantics, on the other hand, may cause unease for those who wish to be a counterpart to “all relevant stakeholders.” Our conceptual sketch is based on interviews and qualitative discourse analysis (MAXQDA) within our own sustainability research institute and within broader domains of marine and urban mobility policies. We critically reflect on structural elements for narratives of sustainability, such as actor constellations, purpose-agency-ratios, and metaphors, thereby covering substantial parts of the sustainability discourse.