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Sustainability reports as simulacra? A counter-account of A and A+ GRI reports

Olivier Boiral (Department of Management, Université Laval, Québec City, Canada)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 16 September 2013

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Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to examine the extent to which sustainability reporting can be viewed as a simulacrum used to camouflage real sustainable-development problems and project an idealized view of the firms' situations.

Design/methodology/approach

The method was based on the content analysis and counter accounting of 23 sustainability reports from firms in the energy and mining sectors which had received application levels of A or A+ from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The information disclosed in some 2,700 pages of reports was structured around 92 GRI indicators and compared with 116 significant news events that clearly addressed the responsibility of these firms in sustainable development problems. Moreover, the 1,258 pictures included in sustainability reports were categorized into recurring themes from an inductive perspective.

Findings

A total of 90 per cent of the significant negative events were not reported, contrary to the principles of balance, completeness and transparency of GRI reports. Moreover, the pictures included in these reports showcase various simulacra clearly disconnected with the impact of business activities.

Originality/value

The paper shows the relevance of the counter accounting approach in assessing the quality of sustainability reports and question the reliability of the GRI's A or A+ application levels. It contributes to debates concerning the transparency of sustainability reports in light of Debord's and Baudrillard's critical perspective. The paper reveals the underexplored role of images in the emergence of several types of simulacra.

Keywords

Citation

Boiral, O. (2013), "Sustainability reports as simulacra? A counter-account of A and A+ GRI reports", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 26 No. 7, pp. 1036-1071. https://doi.org/10.1108/AAAJ-04-2012-00998

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited