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Carbon footprints and legitimation strategies: symbolism or action?

Sue Hrasky (School of Accounting and Corporate Governance, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 1 January 2012




Climate change and carbon footprints are among the most urgent concerns facing society and are key issues of corporate responsibility. The purpose of this study is to assess whether Australian companies have adjusted their footprint‐related disclosure responses. Adopting a legitimacy perspective, a key aim is to assess whether pragmatic or moral legitimation approaches dominate by determining whether disclosure tends to be more reflective of symbolism or of apparent behaviour.


Content analysis of the sustainability and annual reports of the ASX's Top 50 companies is undertaken to compare carbon footprint‐related disclosures in 2008 and 2005. Their extent and nature (action or symbolism) and the use of attention‐attracting devices are reported for the more carbon intensive and less carbon intensive sectors.


Footprint‐related disclosure rates are increasing, and disclosure is being signalled more prominently. However, while carbon‐intensive sectors appear to be pursuing a moral legitimation strategy underpinned by substantive action, the less intensive sectors are relying more heavily on symbolic disclosure.

Research limitations/implications

The sample size is small and comprises only large listed Australian companies.

Practical implications

While the carbon‐intensive sectors appear to be taking encouraging actions, a regulatory response may be required for the less carbon‐intensive sectors to take advantage of their market power to facilitate cooperative carbon reduction with broader constituent groups. Further, incentives for the carbon‐intensive sectors may be needed to encourage ongoing efforts to bridge the carbon chasm that is emerging.


This study appears to be the first to provide direct Australian evidence on favoured legitimation tactics by assessing the symbolic versus behavioural management implicit in carbon footprint‐related disclosures.



Hrasky, S. (2012), "Carbon footprints and legitimation strategies: symbolism or action?", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 25 No. 1, pp. 174-198.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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