Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 109, Issue 2, pp 227-242

First online:

The Harm of Symbolic Actions and Green-Washing: Corporate Actions and Communications on Environmental Performance and Their Financial Implications

  • Kent WalkerAffiliated withOdette School of Business, University of Windsor Email author 
  • , Fang WanAffiliated withI.H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba

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We examine over 100 top performing Canadian firms in visibly polluting industries as we seek to answer four research questions: What specific environmental issues are firms addressing? How do these issues differ between industries? Are both symbolic and substantive actions financially beneficial? Does green-washing, measured as the difference between symbolic and substantive action, and/or green-highlighting, measured as the combined effect of symbolic and substantive actions, pay? We find that substantive actions of environmental issues (green walk) neither harm nor benefit firms financially, but symbolic actions (green talk) are negatively related to financial performance. We also find that green-washing (discrepancy between green talk and green walk) has a negative effect on financial performance and green-highlighting (concentrated efforts of the talk and walk) has no effect on financial performance. In this article, we provide explanations of our findings and put forth future research directions.


Corporate environmental performance Corporate websites Green-highlighting Green-washing Substantive actions Symbolic actions