Enhancement and obfuscation through the use of graphs in sustainability reports: An international comparison
Cho, Charles H.
Patten, Dennis M.
Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal
Purpose – In this study we investigate the use of graphs in corporate sustainability reports and attempt to determine, first, whether the use of graphs appears to be associated with attempts at impression management, and second, whether differences across three levels of reporting regulatory structure (Leuz, Nanda and Wysocki, 2003) are associated with differences in the level of impression management. Design/methodology/approach - Based on a sample of 120 sustainability reports issued by firms from six different countries, we empirically test for differences in presentation of favorable as opposed to unfavorable items (enhancement) and for differences in the direction of materially distorted graphs (obfuscation). Findings - For the overall sample we find substantial evidence of both enhancement and obfuscation in the graph displays. We also find more limited evidence that impression management differs across companies facing different regulatory structures. Research limitations/implications – We investigate graph use for only one year’s reports and for a sample of large companies from only six different countries. Further, our enhancement findings are not evidence that the companies are necessarily providing misleading information. However, our results show that the way information is being provided in corporate sustainability reports appears to be manipulated by the firms to enhance a positive image and to obfuscate negative trends. The reports may thus be less about increasing corporate accountability across the social and environmental domains than about managing impressions. Hence, it may be beneficial for advocate organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative to provide additional guidance on “how” information gets portrayed in sustainability reports. Originality/value – Our study expands prior research into corporate manipulation of graphs to the domain of sustainability reporting and adds further evidence that the reporting needs to be carefully assessed.
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Vol. 3, Issue 1, pp. 74 - 88