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Effects of Marginalizing Social and Environmental Reporting

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Published: Mon, 05 Feb 2018

AIM

The aim of this research work is to observe and analyze the implications of marginalizing Social and Environmental reporting and explain how such reporting can be strengthened.

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

Problem statement

Conventional accounting reports place more emphasis on the financial performance of reporting entities compared to their social and environmental performance. Guidance on social and environmental reporting is currently provided by organizations outside the accounting profession, such as AccountAbility (AA) and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). We are going to discuss the implications of marginalizing social and environmental reporting. We will also shed light on how such reporting can be strengthened.

Objectives

To shed light on the above we will try to find out the following in our project:

  • Identify what has impelled the need for social and environmental reporting.
  • Identify how and why Social and Environmental reporting is being incorporated by entities into their reporting.
  • Identify the alternative approaches to Social and Environmental reporting.
  • Illustrate the relevance of the guidelines presented by organizations such as AccountAbility and Global Reporting Initiatives on Social and Environmental Reporting.
  • Discuss the nature of voluntary disclosure.
  • State the implications of marginalizing Social and Environmental reporting.
  • Outline how such reporting could be strengthened and be effectively incorporated by reporting entities.

RESEARCH METHODS

The following methods were used to gather information to compile this project:

Literature review was done. Previous working papers and journal articles of different accounting professionals and authors were analyzed in order to attain information that was both relevant and reliable in regards to social and environmental reporting.

We also interviewed Mr Napolioni Batimala (Audit Manager – PWC) to derive the current information available regarding the issues concerning social and environmental reporting and its current stand.

Case studies on three Fiji companies were conducted, in order to determine the situation in Fiji regarding Social and Environmental reporting. A qualitative data analysis of the results was carried out. These were selected based on their extensive environmental (FSC) and social (BAT) impacts. FMF was also considered, as it is the largest, manufacturing company in the country.

  • British American Tobacco Fiji Ltd
  • Fiji Sugar Corporation
  • Flour mills of Fiji

Library research was also conducted. Extensive archival research and literary research from respective journals was carried out in order to find extensive views and analysis and to get insight on past research and current thoughts on this topic. Annual reports were analyzed such as:

  • British American Tobacco (2005 – 2007)
  • FSC (2005 – 2008)
  • Flour Mills of Fiji (2005-2008)

Internet research was conducted as well. Proquest references were sourced to get hold of electronic journals for the issues of journals that USP library does not hold. The access of Internet references provided more up-to-date statistics and secular information that were available in library references. The South Pacific Stock Exchange (SPSE) website was also extensively visited. Corporate websites for these companies were also visited.

This project was compiled from discussion generated in our group during meeting in which information obtained by the methods mentioned above were extensively analyzed.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The research topic we undertook reflected the social and economic reality of many countries. It no doubt is an indication of the future of many companies in Fiji itself. This project would not have been possible without the contribution of the following authorities and individuals for providing us with latest information and their views on social and environmental reporting.

We are very appreciative to:

  • Mr. Tevita Veituna – Our Tutor
  • Mr. Nacanieli Rika – The Course Co-coordinator
  • Mr. Napolioni Batimala – Audit Manager (PWC)
  • The organizations and individuals who have contributed information

We would like to take this opportunity to thank anyone else who contributed towards the project in any way possible.

DECLARATION OF ORIGINALITY

We, Rieaz, Moreen, Priya and Zafeen hereby declare that the information presented in this project is our original work and correct to date. All the working papers especially used in the literature review or in guidance of this project are clearly referenced in the bibliography with in text referencing given after the various quotations used.

RATIONALE

With the emergence of many social and environmental problems globally including gender discrimination in the workforce, and excessive use of child labor, “the thinning of the ozone layer and global warming, deforestation, species extinction, waste disposal, energy usage land, air, and water pollution, usage of toxic chemicals, and resource scarcity together with the occurrence of significant environmental disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Bhopal gas leak� (Lodhia, S., 2004: p.111) and the growing power of the media to air these issues worldwide together with the apparent popularity of vocal special interest groups such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International, has resulted in “increased community attention towards the identification of approaches to deal more effectively with these concerns�(Wilmshurst & Frost, 2000). This is what the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (2001) has to say,

A combination of growing awareness of environmental issues by the general population and increased non-governmental organization (NGO) pressure and activity has led many corporations to reflect on and revise their corporate environmental responsibilities.

This heightened anxiety amongst the members of society over the adverse effects of business operations on the physical and social environment has culminated into what is referred to as social and environmental reporting, or synonymously, corporate social responsibility reporting (CSR). Social and environmental reporting as acknowledged by Deegan (2006) is “reporting that typically involves the provision, to a range of stakeholders, of information about the performance of an entity with regard to its interaction with its physical and social environment, inclusive of information about an entity’s support of employees, local and overseas communities, safety record and use of natural resources.�

This seminar paper endeavors to report on the main issues concerning social and environmental reporting. Thus, it will seek to address the following issues in relation to social and environmental reporting: how specific accounting theories help us to understand it, its perceived benefits to the reporting entities and society and some alternative approaches to social and environmental reporting such as AccountAbility and Global Reporting Initiative. It is important to note that in Fiji, social and environmental reporting is voluntary in nature.

Furthermore, the implications of marginalizing social and environmental reporting is also discussed together with suggestions on how this type of reporting can be strengthened.

INTRODUCTION

Conventionally, the accounting function of business organizations have been based on the accounting entity, measurement of economic events in financial terms and users of reports who are only concerned with the financial implications of entity on business position and performance.

However, there has been emerging a new focus in business reporting in this era where there are now various stakeholders who are demanding information on social and environmental performance of entities to be disclosed as well as financial performance. These demands have increased pressures on entities to use social and environmental issues in the decision-making process. This is particularly vital for the South Pacific Island communities, which have been plagued by a range of environmental problems culminating in sea-level rise and unexpected climatic change in the Islands.

These issues are also critical in Fiji and in recent years growing public awareness has resulted in closer scrutiny of the activities of the major industries that may be contributing to environmental degradation. The oil spillages in Suva’s major industrial area, Walu Bay (Fiji Times, 19 April 1998; Fiji Sun, 2 Feb 2000) and many activities as such have provoked the need for appropriate environmental and social legislation in Fiji.

Many companies throughout the world publish reports that discuss their economic, environmental and social performance. This evidently shows that companies today are now embracing sustainability as a corporate goal, rather than simply aiming for profitability. These practices represent moves towards sustainable development by these organizations, which require these entities to unequivocally consider various aspects of their economic, social and environmental performance. ( Deegan 2006 p.327) Such disclosure includes that in-printed form such as- Examples standalone environmental reports, triple bottom line reports, sustainability and annual reports. In addition information that is disseminated on the Internet via corporate websites.

(Hooks & van Staden 2007 p.197)

These social reporting practices are often referred to as corporate social responsibility reporting, or sustainability reporting. The latter covers aspects of both financial sustainability and performance, and social and environmental sustainability.(Deegan 2006 p.329) The moral arguments for greater corporate social responsibility arise from the increases in size, power and spread of multinational companies, as well as an increased awareness of the impact of companies on the environment and local communities.(Adams 2004 pg.731) This increase in awareness has been brought about by the media, the Internet, and the action of non-governmental organizations.

These social reporting practices are often referred to as corporate social responsibility reporting, or sustainability reporting. The latter covers aspects of both financial sustainability and performance, and social and environmental sustainability.(Deegan 2006 p.329) The moral arguments for greater corporate social responsibility arise from the increases in size, power and spread of multinational companies, as well as an increased awareness of the impact of companies on the environment and local communities.(Adams 2004 pg.731) This increase in awareness has been brought about by the media, the Internet, and the action of non-governmental organizations.

Social and environmental reporting developed as stakeholders began to demand information on other aspects of an organization’s operations, apart from their financial performance. Stakeholders’ expectations and needs have extended to the entities’ social and environmental performance. These were in the form of widespread interest of stakeholders in terms of demand for social reports of entities, pressure from environmental lobby groups to increase environmental disclosures, and also the increased competitiveness of the business environment where stakeholders today demand more accountability and transparency from organizations, concerning the utilization of their resources.

Our project will basically emphasize on social and environmental reporting by business firms. We will also shed light on the organizations outside the accounting profession namely, AccountAbility (AA) and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) who are providing guidance on social and environmental reporting. It also incorporates the implications of marginalizing social and environmental reporting and how such reporting can be strengthened and effectively be incorporated by reporting entities.

The various theories relating to voluntary disclosure are looked at, such as the legitimacy theory, stakeholder theory and institutional theory etc. How the information is reported and what implications it might have on the users of social and environmental information, in helping make decisions is also discussed. An analysis on some Fiji companies has also been undertaken to determine the extent of environmental and social reporting. However, social and environmental reporting in Fiji, is voluntary in nature to this day.

THEORETICAL UNDERPINNINGS

The different theoretical perspectives need not be seen as competitors for explanation but as sources of interpretation of different factors at different levels of resolution. In this sense, legitimacy theory and stakeholder theory enrich, rather than compete for, our understandings of corporate social disclosure practices. (Gray, Kouhy and Lavers 1995 )

Specific accounting theories help us to understand social and environmental reporting, by seeking to explain why many organizations publicly release information about their social and environmental performance, even with the general lack of regulation in this area. That is, it helps us understand what motivates entities to release this information voluntarily.

LEGITIMACY THEORY

According to Lindblom, legitimacy is “…a condition or status which exists when an entity’s value system is congruent with the value system of the larger social system of which the entity is a part. When a disparity, actual or potential, exists between the two value systems, there is a threat to the entity’s legitimacy.â€?[1]

This theory asserts that organizations continually seek to ensure that they are perceived as operating within the bounds and norms of their respective societies (which change over time), that is, they attempt to ensure that their activities are perceived by outside parties as being legitimate. Information disclosure is therefore vital to establishing corporate legitimacy.(Deegan 2006 pg.275)

Under Legitimacy Theory, an entity would undertake certain social activities (and provide an account of this), if management recognizes that the particular activities were expected by the society in which it operates. It is part of their social contract, or as is often stated by companies, part of their license to operate. If an entity fails to undertake these activities that are expected by the community, it would be identified as breaching its social contract. This will result in the entity no longer being considered legitimate.

Therefore this will have an effect on the support the entity receives from the society, and consequently its survival. Hence, success for an entity under this theory is impendent on it fulfilling its social contract. Lindblom, 1994 and Patten, 2000 state that “according to legitimacy theory, social disclosure is a means to deal with the firm’s exposure to political and social pressures� (as cited in Freedman & Jaggi 2005).

Those companies without much regard to environmental and social performance might find it faced with sanctions or explicit regulations imposed on them. In addition, they may also find it very difficult to obtain resources and finance or find the support of the community in which it works in the form of employee dissatisfaction.

Legitimacy theory assumes that society will allow an organization to continue operations up until the firm meets the society’s expectation. And the firm generally meets expectations to avoid further government regulations on operations or bad effects on reputation. But if there are some expectations that the management feels are unreasonable, they may try to change stakeholder expectations or try to justify their actions.

Legitimacy theory has been examined in numerous empirical studies with the results being fairly consistent in confirming the theory. For example the Deegan and Gordon (1996) study indicated among other findings, that there was a positive correlation between the environmental sensitivity of the industry to which the corporation belonged and the level of corporate environment disclosure. In addition, another study by Deegan, Rankin and Vought (2000) found that companies did appear to change their disclosure policies around the time of major company and industry related incidents. That is, social disclosure policies in the annual reports of companies tended to change when major social incidents or disasters occurred in the industry.

However, legitimacy is not only achieved by the actual conduct of the organization. Legitimacy is gained as long as the society perceives that the firm is acting responsibly. But sometimes, the society’s perceptions are quite misplaced as information disclosures, which are vital to establishing legitimacy do not give an accurate account of the firm’s activities. “An organization may diverge dramatically from societal norms yet retain legitimacy because the divergence goes unnoticed.�(Suchman, 1995, p. 574) So if society does not know that a firm is not acting ethically, then legitimacy cannot be threatened.

Lindblom describes 4 strategies of legitimization that an organization can adopt. The firm may seek to:

  • educate and inform its ‘relevant publics’ about actual changes in the organisation’s performance and activities.
  • change the perceptions of the relevant public without having to change the organisation’s actual behaviour
  • manipulate perception by deflecting attention from the issue of concern to other related issues through an appeal to, for example, emotive symbols
  • change external expectations of its performance

Hence, we can conclude from the perspective of this theory that, social and environmental reporting may be just a tool that entities use to legitimize or justify their operations. Particularly in the case of entities in industries which have extensive environmental and social impacts. For example, petroleum, oil or gas companies, tobacco producers, pharmaceutical companies, and manufacturing companies.

STAKEHOLDER THEORY

Stakeholder theory is concerned with how management addresses the various issues associated with relationships with stakeholders. In other words, it is how an organization manages its stakeholders. According to Freeman (1984), traditionally, the firms used the inputs of investors, suppliers and employees to convert inputs into usable outputs which customers use and return to the firm some capital benefit. By this, firms only address the needs and desires of those four parties which are investors, suppliers, employees and customers.

Stakeholder theory acknowledges that there are other parties involved, including governmental bodies, political groups, trade associations, trade unions, communities, and associated corporations. This view of the firm is applied to identify the specific stakeholders of a corporation, that is, the normative theory of stakeholder identifies as well as examines the conditions under which these parties should be treated as stakeholders, the descriptive theory of stakeholder. The two make up the modern treatment of Stakeholder Theory. It attempts to describe, prescribe, and derive alternatives for corporate governance that include and balance a multitude of interests.

In the ruling paradigm of corporate governance, those who invest their capital into any type of business, and those who risk losing their investment in parts or in total, have a right and a responsibility to govern the business they have invested into. Capital investors or principals either govern the business themselves, or they do so with support of agents or managers who they may appoint.

One way to sum up the use of the stakeholder concept in the management literature and stakeholder theories is by reference to the framework suggested by Donaldson and Preston (22). It can be used in a number of ways, they identify a descriptive, and an instrumental and a normative aspect of stakeholder theory that can help understand and classify the different facets of stakeholder theory. They argue that:

  1. Stakeholder theory is descriptive as “it describes the corporation as a constellation of cooperative and competitive interests possessing intrinsic value� (p.66). This is also known as the positive approach.
  2. Stakeholder theory is instrumental since “it establishes a framework for examining the connections, if any, between the practice of stakeholder management and the achievement of a variety of corporate performance goals�
  3. Lastly, “the fundamental basis� of stakeholder theory is normative and involves acceptance of the following ideas: “stakeholders are persons or groups with legitimate interests in procedural and /or substantive aspects of corporate activity� and “the interests of all stakeholders are of intrinsic value�

The difference between the three uses of stakeholder theory is explained by the fact that they imply different types of claims and include different forms of reasoning for their justification. Positive (or descriptive) uses of stakeholder theory make claims to truth and are justified through constative discourses, strategic (or instrumental) uses make claims of effectiveness and employ pragmatic discourses, and normative uses of stakeholder theory can entail different types of claims (rightness, goodness) and be justified through different types of discourses (moral, ethical). However, this research report is limited to explain that the stakeholder theory comprises of an ethical/moral or normative branch also known as the prescriptive branch and a positive or managerial branch. The ethical or normative branch of the stakeholder theory basically deals with fairness, that is, to treat all stakeholders the same. While the positive or managerial approach focus more on the ability of the stakeholders to influence or be influenced by a company. It is primarily a theory of the private-sector firm although the insights can be applied in parts to public sector settings. This is due to the circumstance that public management responsibilities are similar to private sector management tasks not only formally but also concerning the rising network nature of organizations in both spheres.

It gives a more refined solution by referring to particular groups within society, that is, stakeholder groups while the Legitimacy theory discusses the expectations of society in general. Stakeholder theory recognises that as different stakeholder groups will have different opinions about how an organization should carry out its operations, there will be a variety of social contracts ‘negotiated’ with different stakeholder groups, instead of one contract with society in general.

Stakeholder Theory (Normative/Ethical Perspective):

The ethical or normative branch of Stakeholder theory argues that all stakeholders have the right to be treated fairly by an organization, regardless of the resources that they individually control or how economically powerful they are. Therefore organizations should consider the rights of all parties affected by the operation of the entity. The definition of stakeholders in this case would include “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the firm’s objectives� (Freeman 1984).

Stakeholder Theory (Positive/Managerial Perspective):

The managerial or positive branch of stakeholder theory predicts that management is more likely to focus on meeting the expectations of powerful stakeholders. These are those that have the greatest potential to influence the firm’s ability to generate profits, that is have the most economic power and influence over the firm. Under this perspective, management would be expected to undertake those economic, social and environmental activities expected by the powerful stakeholders, and also provide an account of these activities to these stakeholders. (Deegan 2006 p.298)

Defining Stakeholders

A stakeholder in an organization is by definition any identifiable group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s objective (Freeman, 1984: 25).

As a broad definition this includes many individuals or organizations for instance, governments, shareholders, creditors, employees and their families, local charities, local communities, media and so forth. It also allows the inclusion of groups such as terrorists and competitors (Phillips, 1997). For clarity this dilemma can partly be resolved by narrowing the definition in a meaningful way, that is, to divide the stakeholders into primary and secondary stakeholders. By following Clarkson’s argument (Clarkson, 1994), Mitchell et al. claimed that the use of risk as a second defining property for the stake in an organization helps to “narrow down the stakeholder field to those with legitimate claims, despite the legitimacy of their relationship to the firm or their power to influence the firm”. (Mitchell et al., 1997, 857).

Therefore, a primary stakeholder was identified as ‘one whose continuing participation to the corporation is vital as a going concern’. While secondary stakeholders were identified to be ‘those who affect or influence, or are affected or influenced by the corporation but they are not engaged in transactions with the corporation and are not crucial for its survival’. According to Clarkson, primary stakeholders must primarily be considered by management, as they are essential for the survival of a company. Also, in order for the company to succeed in the long run, it must primarily be administered for the benefit of all stakeholders. This definition may be related to the managerial branch of the stakeholder theory that will be discussed later. However, with the focus on primary stakeholders; it is challenged by the ethical branch of the stakeholder theory that all stakeholders have a right to be considered by management.

Critiques of Stakeholder Theory

There have been a variety of critiques of stakeholder theory from many viewpoints. Weiss (1995) discards the descriptive and instrumental usage of stakeholder theory and comes to a conclusion that the normative use “probably might be too limited and has a too weak foundation to be considered as either useful or valid.� Further critiques suggest that business interests are vital in both the identification of stakeholders and prioritizing their demands (Thomas, 1999; Banerjee, 2000). The stakeholders’ needs and demands may be limited particularly where stakeholders groups have very different social, cultural and political agenda. A great deal of critique has been towards the level of engagement with stakeholders that is, little consultation instead of genuine dialogue and the exchange of ideas. That is, the stakeholder’s needs are not taken seriously.

INSTITUTIONAL THEORY

Institutional Theory is a relatively new perspective that assumes that managers of an organization will develop or adopt new practices (such as social and environmental reporting) as a result of a variety of institutional pressures. For example, managers may be concerned that if they do not keep up with other entities in developing new practices, they will risk disapproval from some of their economically powerful stakeholders.

SOCIAL CONTRACT THEORY

According to Godfrey, Hodgson and Holmes (2003), social contract has been described as “the interaction between individuals or organizations within society through implicit or explicit boundaries of behavior�, where implicit boundaries are moral obligations and explicit boundaries are regulatory requirements. Therefore, the social contract explains the boundaries of acceptable interaction between participants in a society.

The social contract is sometimes used to explain the behaviour of firms where productive organizations are “…subject to moral evaluations which transcend the boundaries of the political systems that contain them. The underlying function of all such organizations from the standpoint of society is to enhance social welfare through satisfying consumer and worker interests, while at the same time remaining within the bounds of justice. When they fail to live up to these expectations they are deserving of moral criticisms…â€?

Thus, because of a business’ social contract with stakeholders within a community, it is expected to perform only those actions which are desirable and beneficial to the whole society, rather than having to the investors only. This will give the firm acceptance from the society.

Hence, management responds positively to environmental and social issues, because it has it has moral obligations to the society and failure to exercise care while carrying out their activities i.e. doing misdeeds towards the community will result in introduction of regulatory requirements to control management performance on environment and employee, for example.

POSITIVE ACCOUNTING THEORY:

Positive Accounting Theory predicts that all people are driven by self-interest. As such, particular social and environmental reporting activities, and their related disclosure, would only take place if they had positive wealth implications for the management involved.

Therefore motives for social and environmental reporting can be a result of a reporting entity’s desire to maximize financial returns for shareholders and (or) managers by using social and environmental reporting as a tool to maintain and enhance the support of economically powerful stakeholders. On the other hand, it may also be a result of an entity’s desire to discharge duties of accountability for the social and environmental impact the organization (potentially) has on a wide range of stakeholders.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Historical Development:

Non-financial disclosure existed in a variety of forms in corporate reports in periods long before the 1990’s.Studies have found that such voluntary disclosure have existed for a number of decades. For example, Unerman (2000a,b) found evidence of social disclosures in annual reports of the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell since 1897,with these disclosures becoming more prevalent from the 1950s.Adams &te (1998) analysed UK banks and retailers from 1935,Tinker & mark (1987,1988) and Neimark (1992) analysed social-type disclosures in the annual reports of the US company General Motors from 1916.Studies by Campbell (2000) and others have examined social and environmental disclosures in companies from the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, the development of social and environmental reporting in the 1990s was a development of non-financial reporting practice rather than a completely new phenomenon. (Deegan 2006 p.331).

A review on “ Social responsibility and impact on society� by Mohamed Zairi (2000) discusses the emerging commitment to address both environment and societal concerns, an area which is growing in terms of significance and proven to impact on business performances, reputation and corporate image. The observation made was that the world wide organizations have staged conferences to debate the relevance of social and environmental reporting on corporations and stakeholders. Also companies have started to make real headway in this area of reporting by proposing a framework that deals with social and environmental reporting and disclosing issues that concerns social and environmental reporting.

According to Trevor Wilmshurst and Geoffrey Frost (2000) , they tried to analyze the link between the importances of, as stated by reporters of specific factors in the decision to disclose environmental information and actual reporting practices. They used Legitimacy theory as an explanatory theory of environmental disclosure. The legitimacy t


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