Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 152, Issue 3, pp 725–739 | Cite as

Talk the Talk or Walk the Walk? An Examination of Sustainability Accounting Implementation

  • W. Eric Lee
  • Amy M. HagemanEmail author


This study examines how ambiguity in corporate objectives affects managers’ choice between opposing sustainability and short-term profit goals. We test this question with an experiment in which we vary whether environmental sustainability is included explicitly (vs implicitly) as a strategic objective that is used for managers’ performance evaluations. Findings show that managers increase (decrease) biodegradable production and correspondingly decrease (increase) short-term profit when environmental sustainability performance is explicitly (implicitly) incorporated within the company’s strategic objectives. Also, managers in the implicit incorporation group are more likely to decrease (increase) their biodegradable production when they learn that their counterparts within the firm have chosen to decrease (increase) biodegradable production in other product lines. Further, managers in the explicit incorporation group have greater trust in senior management, and that trust mediates the negative relationship between incorporation ambiguity and the level of biodegradable production. The theoretical and practical implications of this study are discussed.


Environmental sustainability Ambiguity avoidance Social norms influence Trust 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

W. Eric Lee declares that he has no conflict of interest. Amy M. Hageman declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Accounting, College of Business AdministrationUniversity of Northern IowaCedar FallsUSA
  2. 2.Department of Accounting, College of Business AdministrationKansas State UniversityManhattanUSA

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