Impression management in sustainability reports: An empirical investigation of the use of graphs

Charles H. Cho*, Giovanna Michelon, Dennis M. Patten

*Corresponding author for this work

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

80 Citations (Scopus)


The purpose of this paper is to investigate whether firms use graphs in their sustainability reports in order to present a more favorable view of their social and environmental performance. Further, because prior research indicates that companies use social and environmental disclosure as a tool to reduce their exposure to social and political pressures (the legitimacy argument), we also examine whether differences in the extent of impression management are associated with differences in social and environmental performance. Based on an analysis of graphs in sustainability reports for a sample of 77 U.S. companies for 2006, we find considerable evidence of favorable selectivity bias in the choice of items graphed, and moderate evidence that where distortion in graphing occurs, it also has a favorable bias. Our results regarding the relation between impression management and performance are mixed. Whereas we find that graphs of social items in sustainability reports for companies with worse social performance exhibit more impression management, no significant relation between environmental performance and impression management in the use of environmental graphs is found. Overall, our results provide additional evidence that corporate sustainability reporting, as it currently exists, appears to be more about fostering positive public relations than providing a meaningful accounting of the social and environmental impacts of the firm.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-37
Number of pages22
JournalAccounting and the Public Interest
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012


  • Graphs
  • Impression management
  • Legitimacy
  • Sustainability reporting

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