Legitimacy Strategies in Corporate Environmental Reporting: A Longitudinal Analysis of German DAX Companies’ Disclosed Objectives

Abstract

Ecological objectives in environmental reports usually promise a high degree of environmental responsibilities in a company’s activities. Several studies have already highlighted that most companies do not keep their promises since stakeholders’ expectations and a company’s capabilities for internal adjustments do not always match. Thus, a company might use strategic reporting in order not to endanger its legitimacy. However, no study so far has demonstrated how companies use different legitimacy strategies in reporting their environmental objectives over time. To achieve this in our study, we focus primarily on findings from legitimacy theory in combination with the legitimacy strategies suggested by Lindblom (in: Gray, Bebbington, Gray (eds) Social and environmental accounting: developing the field, Sage, Los Angeles, pp 51–63, 2010). To test our theoretical framework empirically, we analyze 260 corporate environmental reports of German DAX companies between the years 2000–2014 by coding all disclosed objectives within these reports. Based on this longitudinal approach, we are able to identify reporting patterns of the different companies that provide insights into those companies’ environmental reporting legitimacy strategies. Overall, this study contributes to research on voluntary disclosure by showing that a comprehensive analysis of the reporting pattern of disclosed objectives allows the identification of certain legitimacy strategies.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    The wide variety of terms and definitions relating to non-financial/voluntary disclosure asks for an exact delimitation. In general, topics concerning corporate social responsibility are disclosed in corporate sustainability reporting, which usually includes the dimensions ecological and social, sometimes complemented by financial issues (for an overview, see Hahn and Kühnen 2013). Since we exclusively focus on the ecological dimension of voluntary disclosure, we use the term corporate environmental reporting (CER) hereafter. Yet, because CER is part of the larger concept corporate sustainability reporting, and to avoid inaccuracy, we use the term CER also when authors were originally referring to both dimensions ecological and social. Likewise, when speaking of environmental reports as our research subject, this includes both pure environmental reports and sustainability reports in which we coded only environmental elements (Stray 2008).

  2. 2.

    The GRI labels these twelve categories “aspects,” while the aspects are summarized in the “categories” Economic, Environmental and Social. However, to achieve a clearer naming system, in this paper we are always speaking of categories. Each objective is classified in one category. All categories form the category system.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Jennifer Koschel for helping to collect the data. We further thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful and valuable comments.

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Correspondence to Philipp Borgstedt.

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This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Appendices

Appendix 1

See Table 5.

Table 5 Sample

Appendix 2

See Table 6.

Table 6 Category system

Appendix 3

See Table 7.

Table 7 Distance table

Appendix 4

See Fig. 3.

Fig. 3
figure3

Longitudinal results

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Borgstedt, P., Nienaber, AM., Liesenkötter, B. et al. Legitimacy Strategies in Corporate Environmental Reporting: A Longitudinal Analysis of German DAX Companies’ Disclosed Objectives. J Bus Ethics 158, 177–200 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3708-y

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Keywords

  • Corporate Environmental Reporting
  • Ecological sustainability
  • Environmental reports
  • Legitimacy strategies
  • Legitimacy theory
  • Transparency