Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 152, Issue 3, pp 865–886 | Cite as

The Frontstage and Backstage of Corporate Sustainability Reporting: Evidence from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Bill

  • Charles H. Cho
  • Matias LaineEmail author
  • Robin W. Roberts
  • Michelle Rodrigue
Original Paper


While proponents of sustainability reporting believe in its potential to help corporations be accountable and transparent about their social and environmental impacts, there has been growing criticism asserting that such reporting schemes are utilized primarily as impression management tools. Drawing on Goffman’s (The presentation of self in everyday life, Doubleday, New York, 1959) self-presentation theory and its frontstage/backstage analogy, we contrast the frontstage sustainability discourse of a sample of large U.S. oil and gas firms to their backstage corporate political activities in the context of the passage of the American-Made Energy and Good Jobs Act, also known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) Bill. The ANWR Bill was designed to allow oil exploration within the most sensitive environmental areas in the Refuge and this bill was vigorously debated in the United States Congress in 2005 and 2006. Our results suggest that the firms’ sustainability discourse on environmental stewardship and responsibility contrasts sharply with their less visible but proactive political strategies targeted to facilitate the passage of the ANWR Bill. This study thus contributes to the social and environmental accounting and accountability literature by highlighting the relevance of Goffman’s frontstage/backstage analogy in uncovering and documenting further the deceptive nature of the discourse contained in stand-alone sustainability reports. In addition, it seeks to contribute to the overall understanding of the multifaceted nature of sustainability reporting by placing it in relation to corporate political activities.


Backstage and frontstage Goffman Impression management Lobbying and political strategies Self-presentation Sustainability reporting 



The authors wish to thank Carmen Correa (discussant at the 35th EAA Annual Congress), Bruno Oxibar (discussant at the 32eme AFC Congrès), Leslie Paik, Hyemi Shin, and the participants of the 22nd International Congress on Social and Environmental Accounting Research in Saint Andrews, the 4th GECAMB Conference on Environmental Management and Accounting (Portuguese CSEAR Conference) in Leiria, the 2011 Conference of the American Accounting Association’s Public Interest Section Mid-Year Meeting in Chicago, the 32ème Congrès de l’Association Francophone de Comptabilité (AFC) in Montpellier, the International Workshop on The Role of Business in Society and the Pursuit of the Common Good at ESSEC Business School in Cergy, the 2012 Alternative Accounts Conference in Quebec City, the 35th European Accounting Association Congress in Ljubljana, the 2016 McMaster Symposium in Hamilton and research workshops and seminars at Seoul National University, Pusan National University, Aston Business School, the University of Ottawa, the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM), the Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis, the University of Central Florida, the University of Maastricht, Dongguk University, Yonsei University, HEC Lausanne, Concordia University, KAIST, CEIBS, the Ivey Business School, the Schulich School of Business and the Université Toulouse 1 Capitole for their valuable comments and feedback. Charles Cho also acknowledges the financial support provided by the Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Société et la Culture (FQRSC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and the ESSEC Research Centre (CERESSEC). Michelle Rodrigue acknowledges the financial support from Université Laval’s Programme de soutien à la recherche de la Faculté des sciences de l’administration and the École de comptabilité.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles H. Cho
    • 1
  • Matias Laine
    • 2
    Email author
  • Robin W. Roberts
    • 3
  • Michelle Rodrigue
    • 4
  1. 1.ESSEC Business SchoolCergy Pontoise CedexFrance
  2. 2.School of ManagementUniversity of TampereTampereFinland
  3. 3.Kenneth G. Dixon School of AccountingUniversity of Central FloridaOrlandoUSA
  4. 4.École de comptabilité, Faculté des Sciences de l’AdministrationUniversité LavalQuébecCanada

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