Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 114, Issue 1, pp 107–129 | Cite as

Is Environmental Governance Substantive or Symbolic? An Empirical Investigation

  • Michelle Rodrigue
  • Michel Magnan
  • Charles H. ChoEmail author


The emergence of environmental governance practices raises a fundamental question as to whether they are substantive or symbolic. Toward that end, we analyze the relationship between a firm’s environmental governance and its environmental management as reflected in its ultimate outcome, environmental performance. We posit that substantive practices would bring changes in organizations, most notably in terms of improved environmental performance, whereas symbolic practices would portray organizations as environmentally committed without making meaningful changes to their operations. Focusing on a sample of environmentally sensitive firms, results are consistent with environmental governance mechanisms being predominantly part of a symbolic approach to manage stakeholder perceptions on environmental management, having little substantial impact on organizations. Statistical analyses show mostly that there is no relation between environmental governance mechanisms and environmental performance, measured in terms of regulatory compliance, pollution prevention, and environmental capital expenditures. However, there is some indication that environmental incentives are associated with pollution prevention. Interviews with corporate directors shed further light on these results by underlining that environmental governance mechanisms are employed at the board level to protect the organization from reputational and/or regulatory harm, but are not necessarily intended to proactively improve environmental performance.


Environmental performance Environmental regulation Governance Substantive management Symbolic management 



Chief Executive Officer


Corporate Environmental Performance Database


Environmental capital expenditure


Generalized least squares


Ordinary least squares


Property, plants, and equipment


Research and development


Resource Conservation and Recovery Act


Return on assets


U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission


Standard Industrial Classification


U.S. Sarbanes–Oxley Act


Socially Responsible Investing



We would like to thank Emilio Boulianne, Nola Buhr, Denis Cormier, Giovanna Michelon, Den Patten, and participants in parallel sessions of the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Accounting Association, the 34th Congrès de l’Association Francophone de Comptabilité, the 33rd European Accounting Association Annual Congress in Istanbul, the 21st International Congress on Social and Environmental Accounting Research in Saint Andrews, the 2010 and 2011 North American Congress on Social and Environmental Accounting Research (CSEAR Summer Schools in North America) in Orlando and Montreal for their comments and suggestions on previous versions of the paper. Financial support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Ordre des Comptables Agréés du Québec, the Lawrence Bloomberg Chair in Accountancy (Concordia University), the RBC Professorship in Responsible Organizations (Concordia University), and the École de comptabilité and the Faculté des Sciences de l’Administration of Université Laval is gratefully acknowledged. Also special thanks to our informants who generously donated their time for this study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michelle Rodrigue
    • 1
  • Michel Magnan
    • 2
  • Charles H. Cho
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.École de comptabilité, Faculté des Sciences de l’AdministrationUniversité LavalQuebecCanada
  2. 2.Lawrence Bloomberg Chair in Accountancy, John Molson School of BusinessConcordia UniversityMontrealCanada
  3. 3.ESSEC Business SchoolCergy Pontoise CedexFrance

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