The purpose of this paper is to show a significant overlap in the models accounting research uses for fraud and the models other research disciplines use for greenwashing, and show how researchers and policymakers interested in the application of effective sustainability policy can draw from fraud accounting literature to better understand, and therefore, combat greenwashing. This is illustrated by showing multi-actor information-asymmetry models from other branches of accounting literature and synthesizing them with the fraud triangle model to suggest new avenues for reducing greenwashing and strengthening corporate social responsibility (CSR).
This paper reviews the current literature surrounding the greenwashing aspect of corporate camouflage compares the legal and technical definitions of fraud and synthesizes a new variant fraud triangle that more usefully describes greenwashing.
This paper is able to show that other areas of accounting research in North America have already tackled similar systems of multiple actors in an information-asymmetric environment and that a recurring trait is the emergence of a more robust reporting system. CSR reporting is currently in the process of emerging and could develop more swiftly by copying extant fraud-fighting tools. This is particularly salient given the increasing amount of liability legal regimes are giving to both sustainability activities and sustainability reporting from firms, as evidenced in both guidelines and scandals over the past decade.
Sustainability reporting is not unique in comprising a large number of interrelated entities with non-financial information asymmetry between actors. Previous researchers have encountered similar situations in government accounting and public administration and developed network models to study these relationships as a result. In government accounting, this led to the development both of better diagnostic tools for further research and better models for local governments to use to prevent fraud and malfeasance. This paper suggests that using such research methods in the area of CSR will allow for the development of similarly-useful tools and models.
Visualizing greenwashing as a form of fraud allows policymakers to use tools from the fraud-fighting literature to improve CSR reporting and produce a more robust regime in the future. As governments increasingly seek to respond effectively to material misstatements with an intent to deceive in sustainability reports, understanding the underlying information asymmetry as it is found in other private-public interfaces is critical. Similarly, researchers can analyze CSR reporting through the lens of fraud researchers to gain novel insights into how information asymmetry in CSR reporting works.
Greenwashing is not traditionally seen as a form of fraudulent reporting, even though it often meets the same technical test used to determine fraudulent reporting. The realization that the two are structurally similar allows the authors to better understand how CSR reporting works and how CSR reporting can be falsified. By understanding the latter, governments, firms and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can develop tools to prevent CSR reporting from being falsified.
This paper suggests a new suite of tools with which to study greenwashing, and with which to fight greenwashing in a sustainability accounting context.
The authors would like to acknowledge the to the anonymous referees, as well as the editors of this special issue who have provided invaluable insights in the development of this paper. The authors would also like to thank the planners and participants of the 2018 Centre for Social and Environmental Research (CSEAR) North America conference, which provided us with a wealth of expertise and assistance in bringing this paper to fruition.
Kurpierz, J.R. and Smith, K. (2020), "The greenwashing triangle: adapting tools from fraud to improve CSR reporting", Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/SAMPJ-10-2018-0272Download as .RIS
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