CSR disclosure: The more things change…?

Charles H. Cho*, Giovanna Michelon, Dennis M. Patten, Robin W. Roberts

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

178 Citations (Scopus)


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-35
Number of pages22
JournalAccounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015

Structured keywords

  • AF Accountability Sustainability and Governance


  • CSR disclosure
  • Disclosure changes
  • Ernst
  • Legitimacy theory
  • Market valuation


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