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Social Accountability and

Corporate Greenwashing William S. Laufer

ABSTRACT. Critics of SRI have said little about the Much less has been said in the SRI literature,
integrity of corporate representations resulting in however, about the integrity of corporate repre-
screening inclusion or exclusion. This is surprising sentations resulting in a screening inclusion or
given social and environmental accounting research exclusion. This is surprising given the growing
that finds corporate posturing and deception in the body of social and environmental accounting
absence of external verification, and a parallel body
research that finds corporate posturing and
of literature describing corporate “greenwashing” and
other forms of corporate disinformation. In this paper
deception in the absence of external monitoring
I argue that the problems and challenges of ensuring and verification, e.g., the structuring of corpo-
fair and accurate corporate social reporting mirror rate disclosures so as to maximize perceptions of
those accompanying corporate compliance with law. legitimacy (Deegan, 2002). In its most favorable
Similarities and points of convergence between social light, a “specious gloss” is said to characterize
reporting and corporate compliance are discussed, social reporting initiatives in the United States
along with proposals for reform. and Europe (Owen and Swift, 2001). A parallel
literature, perhaps less mature, describes corpo-
rate “greenwashing,” “bluewashing,” and other
Even with a dramatic rise in the number and forms of disinformation from organizations
assets of socially screened mutual funds and seeking to repair public reputations and further
indexes (e.g., Domini 400, Dow Jones shape public images (Beder, 1997; Bruno, 1997).
Sustainability Indexes and FTSE4Good Index) In discussing the future of socially responsible
concerns about socially responsible investing investing, for example, a principal with Domini
(SRI) remain. Critics point to an unease with the Social Investments recently observed that
methods of screened funds (Sparkes, 2001; “[a]lthough an increasing number of corporations
Anderson, 1996; MacKenzie, 1998). Allegations publish environmental and health and safety
that performance has not always matched reports, many are simply token efforts – green-
unscreened funds or major indexes lead to washing – and few address the full range of social
worries that screening results in an unfortunate issues necessary to assess adequately a corpora-
but predictable tradeoff (cf. Abramson and tion’s behaviour” (Lydenberg, 2002). A com-
Chung, 2000; Guerard, 1997; Mallin et al., mittee formed by the International Organization
1995). The objectives of SRI have been chal- for Standardization (ISO) to examine the
lenged as well (Sparkes, 1998). prospects of ISO corporate responsibility stan-
dards concurred, with an additional caveat. “In
William S. Laufer is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies
the absence of credible, verifiable information,”
and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and
Director of The Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for
according to the ISO report, “. . . it is difficult
Business Ethics Research at the Wharton School. for shareholders, investors, and pension fund
Professor Laufer’s research focuses on the development managers to make meaningful assessments and
of corporate criminal law. He has authored or edited decisions about the CR [corporate responsibility]
numerous books and articles on a wide range of business practices” (ISO 2002).
and legal topics. Some scholars have been even less kind (Ball

Journal of Business Ethics 43: 253–261, 2003.


© 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
254 William S. Laufer

et al., 2000; Owen et al., 2000; Mitchell et al., ecution of Arthur Andersen, L.L.P. reveals the
1994). As Gray (2001, p. 13) writes, “the quality stern consequences for those companies that
of attestation to social and environmental reports choose another strategy or path.
is woefully poor.” After reviewing ethical A central concern with this partnership is that
reporting in the United Kingdom, Stittle (2002, corporations will find ways to further “play the
p. 349) concluded that “there are significant dis- rules” or “game” regulators in an effort to fully
tortions and omissions of information concerning insulate the entity from liability. This may be
ethical issues in current U.K. reporting systems.” accomplished, for example, by offering to pros-
Simply relying on the integrity of corporate ecutors culpable subordinate employees as
representations should seem increasingly naïve to evidence of cooperation in exchange for leniency
those inside and outside the SRI community, or mitigation – reverse whistle blowing (Laufer,
particularly in the wake of the recent accounting 2002). This is especially concerning in cases
scandals in the United States. Ensuring attesta- where top management is involved in the com-
tion and mechanisms by which corporate repre- mission of an offense. Managing such risk
sentations are systematically assessed remains an translates into a simple strategy: push liability
unmet challenge (Gray, 2001; Waddock and down the hierarchy, and away from the firm.
Smith, 2000). In this paper I argue that the Recasting corporate violations as those com-
problems and challenges of ensuring fair and mitted by employees across the organization is
accurate corporate social reporting mirror those now such a familiar a reputational script that
accompanying corporate compliance with law. recently released federal prosecutorial guidelines
Similarities and points of convergence between explicitly caution against such a practice.
social reporting and corporate compliance are A related concern is that some corporations
discussed, along with proposals for reform. will hold themselves out as fully committed to
compliance when the commitment is in fact
absent. Without metrics for assessing compliance
Playing the rules effectiveness, regulators and prosecutors often
rely on little more than corporate representations.
Elsewhere I have written that corporations Evidence of compliance, such as a rise in the
received a host of incentives to join a novel part- number of calls to an ethics office or a ethics
nership of crime control with the government hot line, may be indicative of effectiveness (i.e.,
over the past decade (Laufer, 1999; Laufer and the existence of procedures reasonably capable of
Geis, 2001; Laufer, 2002). Following a period preventing law violations), ineffectiveness (i.e., an
of intense lobbying from business associations, increase in the extent of deviance within the
the United States Sentencing Commission firm), or both. Regulators, prosecutors and
announced guidelines that increased the threat courts may be able to determine that a firm has
of significant corporate punishment while, at adopted the prescriptive steps in the Guidelines,
the same time, generously offering mitigation, but this may be quite different from assessing
leniency, and amnesty. Command and control effectiveness. It is not surprising that many cor-
strategies of corporate regulation gave way to porations are equally clueless. According to the
theories of cooperative regulation and negotiated National Center for Preventive Law (1997),
compliance (Simpson, 2002). In aligning the “[w]hile some rudimentary tests are contained in
interests of government and business the the Sentencing Guidelines and other legal stan-
Guidelines support a dynamic enforcement game. dards, these tests provide little concrete direc-
With the threat of significant Guideline pre- tion on how to create effective programs.”
scribed fines, corporations seeking to save their Survey research produces findings that are
souls have but one choice – to trade favors intuitively pleasing: Ethics programs are perceived
with authorities by cooperating, accepting to be most effective in firms with strong ethical
responsibility, and providing evidence of renewed cultures and credible ethical leadership (Trevino
compliance initiatives. The recent criminal pros- et al., 1998; Weaver et al., 1999). When are
Social Accountability and Corporate Greenwashing 255

ethics programs least effective? The answer, or mitigate the negative image portrayed through
according to Trevino and her colleagues, is com- the required disclosures with information
panies with “an ethical culture that emphasizes exhibiting other, presumably more positive,
self-interest and unquestioning obedience to aspects of environmental performance” (Milne
authority, and the perception that the ethics or and Patten, 2002, p. 381).
compliance program exists only to protect top
management from blame.” How are regulators
and prosecutors to tell the difference? Left largely Greenwashing
unregulated and unchecked unless or until a
failure is disclosed internally or externally, com- In recent years, social activists and, in particular,
pliance often devolves into a creative blend of environmental activists, have raised identical
risk and reputation management in firms with concerns about corporate deception, sometimes
less than inspired ethical leadership (Laufer, imbedded in fiery rhetoric. With a mix of
1999). anecdotal evidence these allegations of deception
extend far beyond the problem of concerted
lobbying, political and corporate cronyism, and
Social accountability and managing the instrumental use of media by “big” business
legitimacy (Vogel, 1989). The emergence of the terms
“greenwash” and “bluewash” (washing through
An impressive stream of social and environmental the reputation of the United Nations) reflect an
accounting research makes parallel arguments increasing apprehension that at least some
with comparable assumptions. Leading propo- corporations creatively manage their reputations
nents of legitimacy theory, for example, reason with the public, financial community, and regu-
that social and environmental disclosures are lators, so as to hide deviance, deflect attributions
generally made for strategic reasons having little of fault, obscure the nature of the problem or
or nothing to do with perceived responsibilities allegation, reattribute blame, ensure an entity’s
or obligations (Deegan et al., 2002; O’Donovan, reputation and, finally, seek to appear in a lead-
1999; Brown and Deegan, 1998; Deegan and ership position (see, e.g., Quirola and Schlup,
Gordon, 1996). These institutional and manage- 2001).
rial strategies range from those designed to “gain With titles like Global Spin: The Corporate
or to extend legitimacy, to maintain its level of Assault on Environmentalism; Battling Big Business:
current legitimacy, or to repair or to defend its Countering Greenwash, Infiltration and Other Forms
lost or threatened legitimacy” (O’Donovan, of Corporate Bullying; Greenwash: The Reality
2002, p. 349). Unsubstantiated and unverified Behind Corporate Environmentalism the case is
social and environmental disclosures often made that such corporations as Royal Dutch/
amount to little more than public relations – Shell, Mobil Corporation, Dow Chemical, and
issued to manage public perceptions, to respond many other familiar Fortune 500 companies
to public pressure, or to react to perceived public engage in complex strategies and counter strate-
opinion (Hooks et al., 2002; Adams, 2002). gies that serve to shift the focus and attention
Efforts to achieve corporate legitimacy, away from the firm, create confusion, undermine
according to Milne and Patten (2002), reflect credibility, criticize viable alternatives, and decep-
organizational myths, or words and actions that tively posture firm objectives, commitments,
are decoupled from the operational code. These and accomplishments. Environmentalists refer to
initiatives may be nothing more than an “elabo- countless examples:
rate and convincing façade designed or adopted
to conceal the “back stage” activities from prying The World’s leading Ozone destroyer takes credit
eyes” (Milne and Patten, 2002, p. 375). Distinct for leadership in ozone protection. A mammoth
threats to an organization’s legitimacy prompt greenhouse gas emitter professes the precautionary
deception, as “[f]irms have an incentive to offset approach to global warming. A major agrichem-
256 William S. Laufer

ical manufacturer trades in a pesticide so hazardous with greenwashing, from manipulating public
it has been banned in many countries, while opinion to explicit attacks against environmen-
implying it is helping feed the hungry. A petro- talists (Beder, 1998). As Figure 1 reveals, green-
chemical firm uses the waste from one polluting washing turns on three elements of deception:
process as raw materials for another hazardous confusion, fronting, and posturing.
process, and boasts of an important recycling
At first, this deception appears to be far more
initiative. Another giant multinational cuts timber
from virgin rainforest, replaces it with monocul-
elaborate than tactics employed defensively by
ture plantations and calls the project “sustainable corporations when allegations of deviance
forest development.” (Bruno, 1997) surface. After all, what civil society activists allege
involves multiple stakeholders, third parties, as
It is alleged that corporate activism, in well as the participation of senior management.
response to increased regulatory activity and The extent of these differences, however, may be
heightened public concern about environmental more significant than their direction. As with
matters, includes a panoply of evils associated greenwashing, the defensive strategies employed

Confusion Fronting Posturing Examples

Cast doubt on the Employ “front groups” or Promote image that assumes
severity of the problem coalitions of firms to oppose ethical leadership in the field
or danger solution or legislation
Disclose or publish Employ “front groups” or Unveil projects that have
exaggerated claims coalitions of firms to support negligible value but appear on
solution or legislation surface to be significant
Emphasize uncertainty Use front group to promote Promote image of a
associated with problem moderate “middle ground” committed corporate culture
or accusation positions
Acknowledge problem Use data to suggest that front Publicly align firm with
by questioning available groups enjoy widespread NGOs that are sympathetic to
solutions public or “grassroots” support cause or issue
Rebrand to avoid past Employ front groups to Publicly align firm with
association; use image examine, define, and redefine NGOs that offer certification,
advertising to suggest a industrial standards accreditation, or award
“green” association without provisions for
accountability or verification
Counter threats to an
organization’s legitimacy
Manage expectations of
stakeholder groups
Thwart increased regulatory
requirements
Seek publicity for recognition
from or membership in an
“ethics” organization

Figure 1. Elements of greenwashing, adapted from Beder (1997).


Social Accountability and Corporate Greenwashing 257

by firms to protect against entity liability are zation as a whole, now remain those of individual
aimed both inside and outside the organization. employees. The result is that certain compliance
Internally, Confusion flows naturally from the orientations, particularly those that prize the
complex nature of the corporate form, reliance purchase of compliance as insurance or hedges
on decentralized decision making, and the prac- against liability, may have the counter intuitive
tices of managerial winking. Fronting is accom- effect of increasing white collar deviance.
plished through the representations of retained Civil society activists regularly make the same
counsel, compliance officers, ethics officers, and argument. The very firms that wash their repu-
ethics committees. Posturing seeks to convince tations through public relations, complex front
internal customers, as much as external stake- coalitions, sponsored “think tanks,” and who
holders, of the organization’s collective commit- publicly lead the fight against global warming,
ment to ethics. Finally, both sets of strategies, nuclear waste, and water pollution, remain some
interestingly, rely heavily on the advice of a large of the worst corporate offenders. The appearance
cottage industry of public relations and reputa- of environmental leadership, for example, like the
tion management firms (see, e.g., Beder, 1997). appearance of corporate compliance, may actually
The effect in both cases is that ethics codes and serve to decrease care levels. Corporations can
programs are perceived internally as if designed rely on their reputations for compliance and
to manage a firm’s reputation (Lordi, 2000). social responsibility with lesser scrutiny. The
Externally, the firm achieves confusion by careful emblem of certification to certain standards and
document control and strict limits on the flow of the reputational advantage of membership or
information made available to regulators and participation in socially responsible organizations
prosecutors. Fronting is realized by subordinate distances the firm from any alleged deviance (cf.
scapegoating or reverse whistle blowing. Posturing Deegan and Carrol, 1993).
is accomplished through active use of the cor- The good corporate citizenship movement of
poration’s public affairs department and, if nec- the 1990s produced many followers and few
essary, the retention of an outside public relations critics. Most assumed that compliance expendi-
firm. tures were wise investments by committed
If there is one striking similarity, it is the organizations. To their credit, civil society
potentially perverse nature of these strategies. organizations and activists remained profoundly
Both internal and external strategies have the skeptical. As Greer and Bruno (1996, p. 41)
potential to give an organization the appearance conclude: “Now they say they have changed.
of ethicality and leadership, when no such com- That they are spending money for the environ-
mitment exists. In cases of deviant organizations, ment. That they will regulate and police them-
I have argued that this may result in a moral selves. That their technologies are safe. That their
hazard. The purchase of the “commodity of products help the poor. We urge you to look
compliance” sufficient to shift the risk of liability critically at their real world behavior. . . .”
and loss, in certain firms, may result in decreased Rhetoric from members of the white collar
levels of care by senior managers. This is espe- bar and civil society activists, however, share the
cially concerning in companies where top man- same vulnerability. Without rigorous reporting
agement fosters an environment of tacit methods and assessment of corporate compliance
acceptance of illegalities and winks at deviance. effectiveness, no less social accountability, it is
With constant pressure on middle and lower next to impossible to assess the extent of the
management to produce results, levels of moral hazard problem. It is also impossible to
deviance may increase throughout the corporate judge how significant the disconnect is between
hierarchy. The purchase of compliance for public statements of compliance or social respon-
purposes of liability shifting and cost internal- sibility, and a firm’s genuine efforts – particu-
ization results in a redefinition of this deviance. larly without external, third party verification
Acts that were once held to be those of the firm, and monitoring. Environmental reports, corpo-
running a risk of being attributed to the organi- rate social reports, and sustainability reports
258 William S. Laufer

require audits, verification, and validation. Trust, reporting practises worldwide” (Global
intuition and speculation seem partisan, unsci- Reporting Initiative, 2002). In the recently
entific, and unfair (Swift, 2001). Assuming released 2002 GRI Sustainability Reporting
opportunism and manipulation also fails any test Guidelines (2002 GRI Guidelines) an impressive
of fairness. list of performance indicators appear in three cat-
egories: economic, environmental, and social
(Global Reporting Initiative, 2002).
Social accounting research and the limits The 2002 GRI Guidelines are a much
of voluntary reporting improved version. For all of the obvious reasons,
much is now made of the need for reporting
At the heart of the practical debate over corpo- transparency, inclusiveness, completeness, rele-
rate social accountability are fundamental vance, and auditability. Indeed, independent
questions of regulation. Should social and assurance of corporate reports is repeatedly
environmental disclosure be voluntary? A encouraged in the 2002 GRI Guidelines.
growing consensus bemoans the quality and Unfortunately, however, they fail to require
reliability of voluntary disclosure (Gray et al., external audits and simply reports that the way
1995; Owen, 1994). An almost equal number in which the GRI may play a “constructive role”
raise problems with an interventionist stance in ensuring the validity of sustainability reports
(Gallhofer and Haslam, 1996). While this debate is still being considered. Companies are left with
proceeds, however, a host of international stan- the caveat: “In designing data collection and
dards for social accounting emerged over the past information systems, reporting organizations
decade, including AA1000, ACCA (Association therefore should anticipate that internal auditing
of Chartered Certified Accountants), and SA and external assurance processes may be used in
8000 holding out the promise of something more the future” (GRI, 2002, p. 25).
than voluntary corporate disclosures. A compre- How serious a problem is this omission? The
hensive review by the ILO of all initiatives, from emergence of countless reporting initiatives
intergovernmental investor driven, is less than reflects a growing trend of corporations to
inspiring. Initiatives are credited for having provide more than annual financial reports.
variable scope, variable levels of inclusivity and Results from KPMG’s International Survey of
engagement of stakeholders, variable levels of Corporate Sustainability Reporting (2002), for
transparency in code and standards development, example, reveal a significant increase over a three
variable content, variable ability to measure year period ending in 2002 in the number of
and ensure compliance, variable flexibility in sustainability, environmental, and social reports
addressing differing operating contexts, variable from the Global Fortune 250 (GFT 250) (35%
quality of implementation and reporting, and v. 45%). Notably, this increase does not include
most important, approaches to variable compli- health, safety, and economic ((HS)E) reports.
ance verification (ISO 2002). They are, in the Reporting varied by sector, not surprisingly, with
words of the ISO committee, much like the higher reporting rates in industries that have the
efforts of the first generation of corporate respon- most significant environmental impact, e.g.,
sibility initiatives. mining, forestry, pulp and paper, chemicals and
If there is an exception, a second generation synthetics, transport, and pharmaceuticals. The
effort, it is the Global Reporting Initiative United States, Japan, Germany, the United
(GRI). Its mission is to “[e]levate sustainability Kingdom, and France led reporting rates.
reporting practises worldwide to a level equiva- Assuring the accuracy of corporate reports, as
lent to financial reporting; design, disseminate, the 2002 GRI Guidelines suggest, is still a chal-
and promote standardised reporting practises, lenge. According to KPMG’s 2000 survey only
core measurements, and customised, sector- 29% of the GFT250 had their report indepen-
specific measurements; [and] ensure a permanent dently verified – a modest increase of ten percent
and effective institutional host to support such over 1999. Most verified reports, approximately
Social Accountability and Corporate Greenwashing 259

two-thirds, are reviewed by major accountancy Beyond verified disclosure: Tripartism


firms. Even so, the scope and approach taken by
auditors differed widely. This fact and the ad hoc Answers to questions of auditor independence
nature of verification more generally led authors may rest with the engagement of stakeholders
of the KPMG 2000 survey to conclude that outside the firm. This is familiar ground for those
“inconsistency in the approach to verification has who seek independent sources and metrics for
adversely impacted the overall credibility of ver- “effective” corporate compliance. Ayres and
ification with stakeholders.” (p. 21). It is far from Braithwaite (1991, 1992) have long argued for
surprising, therefore, that “. . . NGOs have real Tripartism, or the integration of a third party
concerns about the potential for companies, into the regulatory arena occupied by an orga-
espousing sustainable rhetoric, to use the GRI to nization and a regulator. In theory, Tripartism
engage in ‘greenwash’ for the marketing benefit insures against regulatory capture, enhances
it would give their companies. Which is where communication, and allows for independent third
the question of verification becomes relevant” party monitoring.
(Macken, 2002). Stakeholder engagements that approximate
Similar concerns have been raised with the Ayres and Braithwaite’s conception of a “third”
United Nations Global Compact, an initiative party are now codified in social accountability
credited to the leadership of Secretary General standards, e.g., Accountability Standard AA1000
Kofi Annan, designed to promote a core set of (ISEA, 1999). Stakeholders and other elements
human rights, environmental, and social princi- of civil society, including NGOs, are beginning
ples within the private sector. Not long after its to serve an increasing role in ensuring the
conception, civil society activist groups raised the integrity of corporate social and environmental
now familiar charge “. . . that by attaching them- disclosures (Cumming, 2001; Tilt, 1994). In fact,
selves to the United Nations, corporations may some notable successes have been described in
be able to ‘bluewash’ themselves throughout the detail (Gray et al., 1997). Taken to a logical
developing world” (Karliner, 1999). The Global extreme, the future of social accounting may one
Compact, like the GRI, fails to require more day turn on stakeholder governance (Henriques,
than mere corporate representations of social 2001).
responsibility (Deegan and Carol, 1993). Whether or not that day has arrived,
The growing conventional wisdom is that Lydenberg (2002, p. 58) makes the incisive obser-
companies must produce verified accountability vation that the vocabulary of SRI and CSR are
reports – verified reports by auditors specializing now an integral part of the “debate about the
in social accounting and auditing. Some claim, proper form and role of global capitalism.” In
however, that this does not go far enough to asking whether the potential of corporations to
protect the independence of social auditors from do good can be harnessed, the potential to do
management influence. O’Dwyer (2001) poses a bad tamed, and the goals of transnational cor-
critical question, yet to be answered: “Can we porations reconciled with the social objectives
expect anything different if financial accountants of national governments, he calls for corporations
move into the realm of social auditing, particu- to fully disclose “actual” data on social and
larly as social accounting consulting services are environmental impacts.
being promoted along side social audit services This important call must be heard not only
as part of packages aimed at reputation assurance by corporations, but by the reporting bodies and
and risk management?” initiatives that seek a corporate constituency with
integrity. If for no other reason, with accusations
of greenwashing and evidence of its practice,
decisions to defer third party auditing or to forgo
the requirement entirely strongly undermine an
appearance of legitimacy. For those who invest
in socially screened funds, the stakes are just as
260 William S. Laufer

high. For many if not most investors, SRI is Global Reporting Initiative, Sustainability Reporting
less an investment strategy than a matter of Guidelines 2002 (GRI, Boston, MA) (available at:
principle. ttp://www.globalreporting.org/GRIGuidelines/
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