CSR disclosure: the more things change…?

Charles H. Cho (Department of Accounting and Management Control, ESSEC Business School, Cergy Pontoise Cedex, France)
Giovanna Michelon (Department of Accounting, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK)
Dennis M. Patten (Department of Accounting, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, USA)
Robin W. Roberts (Kenneth G. Dixon School of Accounting, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Publication date: 19 January 2015

Abstract

Purpose

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) disclosure is receiving increased attention from the mainstream accounting research community. In general, this recently published research has failed to engage significantly with prior CSR-themed studies. The purpose of this paper is threefold. First, it examines whether more recent CSR reporting differs from that of the 1970s. Second, it investigates whether one of the major findings of prior CSR research – that disclosure appears to be largely a function of exposure to legitimacy factors – continues to hold in more recent reporting. Third, it examines whether, as argued within the more recent CSR-themed studies, disclosure is valued by market participants.

Design/methodology/approach

Using Fortune 500 data from the late 1970s (from Ernst & Ernst, 1978) and a more recent sample (2010), the authors identify differences in CSR disclosure by computing adequate measures in terms of disclosure breadth and comparing them for any potential changes in the influence of legitimacy factors between 1977 and 2010. In the second stage of the analysis, the authors use a standard valuation model to compare the association between CSR and firm value between the two time periods.

Findings

The authors first find that the breadth of CSR disclosure increased significantly, with respect to both environmental and social information provision. Second, the authors find that the relationship among legitimacy factors and CSR disclosure does not differ across the two time periods. However, the analysis focusing on environmental disclosure provides evidence that industry membership is less powerfully related to differences in reporting, but only for the weighted disclosure score. Finally, the results indicate that CSR disclosure, in apparent contrast to the arguments of the more recent mainstream investigations, is not positively valued by investors.

Research limitations/implications

The authors explore changes in CSR disclosure only for industrial firms and as such the authors cannot generalize findings to companies in other industries. Similarly, the authors focus only on companies in the USA while different relationships may hold in other countries. Further, the disclosure metrics are limited by the availability of firm-specific information provided by Ernst & Ernst. Limitations aside, however, the findings appear to suggest that the failure of the new wave of CSR research in the mainstream accounting community to acknowledge and consider prior research into social and environmental accounting is potentially troublesome. Specifically, recent CSR disclosure research published in mainstream journals often lends credence to voluntary disclosure arguments that ignore previous contradictory findings and well-established alternative explanations for observed empirical relationships.

Practical implications

This paper provides supporting evidence that the unquestioned acceptance by the new wave of CSR researchers that the disclosure is about informing investors as opposed to being a tool of legitimation and image enhancement makes it less likely that such disclosure will ever move meaningfully toward transparent accountability.

Originality/value

The study suggests that CSR disclosure, while used more extensively today than three decades ago, may still largely be driven by concerns with corporate legitimacy, and still fails to provide information that is relevant for assessing firm value. As such, the failure of the mainstream accounting community to acknowledge this possibility can only hinder the ultimate development of better accountability for all of the impacts of business.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful for comments and suggestions provided by Michele Fabrizi and participants of the 24th International Congress on Social and Environmental Accounting Research in St Andrews UK; the 4th Italian CSEAR Conference in Trento, Italy; and the 7th Asia-Pacific Interdisciplinary Research in Accounting in Kobe, Japan (special thanks to discussant Gillian Vesty). The authors are also grateful to Hyemi Shin, Joanne Sopt, and Amanda Williams for their valuable research assistance. Charles Cho gratefully acknowledges financial support received from the ESSEC Business School’s Research Center (CERESSEC) and Giovanna Michelon gratefully acknowledges financial support received from the University of Padova under project 60A15-8333/12: “Corporate disclosure in (ir)responsible firms.”

Citation

Cho, C.H., Michelon, G., Patten, D.M. and Roberts, R.W. (2015), "CSR disclosure: the more things change…?", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 14-35. https://doi.org/10.1108/AAAJ-12-2013-1549

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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