The credibility of CSR reports in Europe. Evidence from a
quantitative content analysis in 11 countries.
Irina Lock, Università della Svizzera italiana
Peter Seele, Università della Svizzera italiana
For correct citations or quotations please see the original
publication in the journal!
Lock, I., & Seele, P. (2016). The credibility of CSR (corporate social
responsibility) reports in Europe. Evidence from a quantitative
content analysis in 11 countries. Journal of Cleaner Production, 122,
When it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports,
skepticism and mistrust toward companies often prevail among
holders and scholars. However, the overall content
quality of CSR reports has only sparsely evoked researchers'
attention. Therefore, this paper focuses on the credibility of CSR
reports, based on both human and software-enhanced quantitative
content analysis of 237 CSR reports from 11 European countries.
Credibility is conceptualized as a multilayered construct along CSR
and communication theories, filling the theory void in the field. The
influence of contextual (e.g., industry), format, and firm-level (e.g.,
size) factors on reporting credibility is also investigated. The results
show that European CSR reports do not score high on credibility,
leaving much room for improvement. The study finds that it is
standardization and content that matter most for reporting
credibility; external influences are secondary, at best. To be
considered credible, CSR reports must first be understandable to
their readers; in addition, credibility involves truth, sincerity, and
stakeholder specificity. Voluntary standardizatio
n affects CSR
reporting credibility positively, whereas regulation does not yet
have the same positive effect. Based on the empirical results of the
content analysis, we present a new two-phase-model of reporting
credibility. For practice, we suggest that companies focus on the
contents of their reports to render them more credible. To raise
credibility levels consistently, policy makers can create a level
playing field in CSR reporting regulation, as already initiated by
CSR/sustainability reporting; Credibility; Content analysis;
Credibility is central to every kind of communication, whether personal interaction, political
speeches, or companies communicating their role and responsibilities in society. Companies have
communicated ever more information regarding their corporate social responsibility (CSR), even
though this has not led to more goodwill on the side of stakeholders, but to more mistrust (Waddock
and Goggins, 2011). Stakeholders often view CSR communication as strategic in nature and thus not
credible (Elving, 2012; Illia et al., 2013). Such criticism surfaces particularly in one of the most
prominent tools for companies to communicate about their CSR, sustainability, and corporate
citizenship1 achievements: CSR reports. Just as credibility is central to everyday communication
(Jackob, 2008), it is also central to this communication tool. Hence, this article endeavors to analyze
whether CSR reports are credible.
CSR reports have received considerable scholarly attention in recent years and most research has
focused on the emergence of CSR reporting (Marimon et al., 2012; Hahn and Kühnen, 2013), firm
characteristics such as size, country, or industry regarding CSR reporting (Chen and Bouvain, 2009;
de Villiers et al., 2014b; Fifka, 2013), and its impact on financial figures (Ioannou and Serafeim,
2014b; Cheng et al., 2014; Fifka, 2013). Far too little attention has been paid to the quality of these
reports and very little is known about the contextual factors that affect reporting quality (Hahn and
Kühnen, 2013). Nonetheless, CSR reports have been harshly criticized for lacking credibility (Dando
and Swift, 2003), being pseudo-transparent (Coombs and Holladay, 2013), and being poor in quality
1 Throughout this paper, ‘CSR reporting’ is used as an umbrella term for non-financial, sustainability,
corporate citizenship, or corporate responsibility-labeled reports. In the corporate world, these terms are used
interchangeably, although there has been a trend toward ‘sustainability’ in CSR report titles (Gatti and Seele, 2014).
In academia, these concepts are defined differently, which becomes obvious when comparing definitions of
sustainability (Dyllick and Hockerts, 2002) with the multitude of CSR definitions (van Marrewijk, 2003). In this
journal, however, studies so far have referred to ‘sustainability reporting’ (Hahn and Kühnen, 2013; Roca and Searcy,
2012), ‘non-financial disclosure’ (Skouloudis et al., 2014), or as in this case ‘CSR reporting’ (Dong et al., 2014). This
showcases that researchers all contribute to advancing knowledge in the field, but by using different labels.
(Milne and Gray, 2013), despite voluntary standardization. Hence, CSR reports are accused of
deepening the credibility gap (Dando and Swift, 2003; MacLean and Rebernak, 2007) and threatening
companies’ legitimacy in society instead of facilitating dialogue with stakeholders adding to
corporate greenwashing (Seele and Gatti 2015). The central goal of this paper is to tackle the issue of
CSR reporting quality in terms of CSR report credibility. CSR reports’ credibility is analyzed and
investigated with respect to how extensively content, format, firm-level, and contextual factors affect
reporting credibility. To accomplish this, credibility is conceptualized and operationalized along
communicative action theory (Habermas, 1984). Furthermore, by applying a European perspective,
this paper examines whether mandatory reporting regulations render CSR reports more credible and
investigates the role of voluntary reporting standardization in this respect.
Data were collected in the 11 economically most powerful European countries, sampling CSR reports
from corporations of these countries’ leading stock indices. Quantitative content analysis was applied
using human as well as software coding. The present study has operationalized, for the first time, CSR
reporting credibility as a multilayered concept using political CSR and communicative action theory
(Scherer and Palazzo, 2011; Habermas, 1984). The resulting data were analyzed with multiple
regression models and other parametric statistics. The findings indicate that CSR reports are credible
at a mediocre level, leaving much room for improvement in terms of reporting quality. Credibility in
CSR reports was achieved through contents and standardization, while external factors were
secondary to reporting quality in this sample. Hence, the impact of reports’ length, their format in
terms of stand-alone or combined reports, the size of the firm, its reporting experience, the regulatory
context, and the company's industry on credibility resulted less important. On a conceptual level,
understandability is found to be a precondition for credibility in CSR reports, before truth, sincerity,
and appropriateness can be addressed to lead to reporting credibility.
This study makes an original contribution to several important areas: It is one of the first studies to
deliver empirical evidence on the issue of credibility in CSR reporting. Second, it provides a two-
phase-model of CSR reporting credibility and thus contributes to filling the gap in theory in the field
(Hahn and Kühnen, 2013). Third, it provides new insights into the impact of mandatory regulation of
CSR reporting on reporting quality and the role of voluntary standards. Fourth, it presents
suggestions for how companies can make their CSR reports more credible to maintain legitimacy
The paper proceeds as follows: After a literature review that outlines the applied theories and
develops the hypotheses, a methods section provides details on sample selection, operationalization,
and data analysis. The following section reports the empirical results, which are in consequence
discussed against existing literature. Finally, the conclusions part presents the theoretical, practical,
and policy implications along with limitations of the study.
2. Literature Review
CSR reporting is one of the most effective tools for communicating CSR; it encompasses both codes
of conduct and online reporting (predominantly CSR reports). These reports are defined as discrete,
independent corporate editorial works that provide information about CSR (Biedermann, 2008).
Thus, CSR reports are a formalized means of communication (Schaltegger et al., 2006) that may take
the form of stand-alone reports or integrated publications that combine economic, social, and
environmental information in one annual report (Daub, 2007).
Currently, CSR reports are harshly criticized for their contents and lack of credibility (Coombs and
Holladay, 2013). Companies have extensive leeway in choosing what to report, which has led to
diverse topics being included in CSR reports. Therefore, the reports are said to address few
stakeholders, to “cherry pick” elements of news despite standardization (Milne and Gray, 2013, p.
17), and to be self-laudatory public relations publications (Seele and Knebel, 2015). This low
credibility has challenged stakeholders’ trust in the tools and the practice, resulting in a credibility
gap (Dando and Swift, 2003) between companies and stakeholders with regard to CSR reporting. This
gap, following - amongst other factors such as general cynicism toward CSR (Illia et al., 2013) - from
inconsistencies between CSR activities and what is reported (Basu and Palazzo, 2008), has led
stakeholders to question the moral legitimacy of corporations in society (Claasen and Roloff, 2012).
This comes at a time when corporations’ license to operate is put on the spot by corporate hypocrisy
(Wagner et al., 2009) and stories of scandals such as the Rana Plaza factory fire have hit the news.
2.1. Moral Legitimacy and Habermasian Communicative Action Theory
The basic assumption in this paper is that CSR reports can re-establish moral legitimacy by being
credible tools that facilitate communication and thereby bridge the credibility gap. According to the
political notion of CSR, this moral legitimacy is established and maintained through deliberative
discourse, a form of communication that is based on reaching consensus in a Habermasian sense
(Scherer and Palazzo, 2011). This CSR theory holds that the nation state’s power is declining, giving
rise to private actors such as transnationally operating corporations. It views multinational
corporations as important actors in efforts to resolve global public issues through voluntary self-
regulation. Corporations’ legitimacy is constituted through moral legitimacy. It is based on
deliberation between stakeholders and corporate actors that leads to consensus (Scherer and
Palazzo, 2011), following deliberative democracy theory (Habermas, 1996). Such deliberative
discussions, ideally, happen in situations of ideal speech, where the “unforced force of the better
argument” (Habermas, 2002, p. 96) leads all actors to agree on an issue. To arrive at such a situation,
four validity claims must be redeemed by the discourse participants (Habermas, 1984):
‒ Truth (objective truth of the statements made)
‒ Sincerity (also translated as truthfulness: subjective truth of the propositions, the speaker is
honest about what he/she says)
‒ Appropriateness (also translated as rightness: the message is appropriate in its context,
sender and recipient agree to the same social context) of communication
‒ Understandability (also translated as intelligibility or comprehensibility: degree of
comprehensiveness of the message, clarity)
In his later writings, Habermas regarded understandability as a precondition for communication
rather than a redeemable claim (Zinkin, 1998). In this study, however, it is considered a crucial
element of ideal speech and thus explicitly studied. Hence, the four claims are interrelated constructs
that together constitute the multilayered concept of credibility.
Accordingly, deliberative communication of CSR helps corporations establish and maintain their
legitimacy-based license to operate. From a political-normative perspective on CSR communication,
communication is rational if it is credible (Seele and Lock, 2015) and credibility is an outcome of
reporting quality (Perera Aldama et al., 2009). If CSR reports are credible tools, they can facilitate
ideal speech and deliberation between companies and stakeholders and thus help build up moral
legitimacy. The credibility of European CSR reports is therefore analyzed and the influence of content,
format, firm-level, and contextual factors is addressed. Thus, the overarching research question (RQ)
tackled by this article is: Are CSR reports credible?
2.2. Factors Influencing CSR Report Credibility
Much research on the emergence and characteristics of CSR reports has been ongoing. However, the
quality of CSR reports is still under-investigated (Hahn and Kühnen, 2013), with few exceptions
(Adnan, 2009). To the authors’ knowledge, no research has thus far been conducted on the credibility
of CSR reports, although their lack of credibility has been much criticized (Milne and Gray, 2013). In
addition to content-related factors, format, firm-level, and contextual factors are also likely to
influence the credibility of CSR reports, as described by the hypotheses below.
The contents of CSR reports are decisive for credibility. Standards are used to determine reporting
contents, and most companies in Europe rely on the Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI’s) guidelines
for CSR reporting (Brown et al., 2009), which are considered the best option available for companies
to use in reporting on CSR issues (Marimon et al., 2012). A big advantage of such CSR reporting
standards is thus the operationalization of the fuzzy term (de Colle et al., 2014). Although the GRI has
been criticized for representing work-in-progress (Milne and Gray, 2013) and for being a challenge
for reporting (Knebel and Seele, 2015), it is the backbone of most voluntary and mandatory
regulatory attempts (Rufflet et al., 2014). This is underscored by the fact that ever more companies
report according to the GRI (Marimon et al., 2012) and that it supports transparency in reporting
(Fernandez-Feijoo et al., 2014). The guidelines come in the form of three subsequent sets (G3, G3.1,
and G4) of general reporting indicators applied by the companies in the sample. To further
standardize CSR reports, GRI also offers sector-specific supplementary reporting material (the so-
called sector supplement, for instance, for the financial services industry), which are additional
reporting indicators that can be reported voluntarily by companies to target industry-specific topics.
Moreover, until introduction of the most recent guideline G4, GRI offered a self-referencing
application-level check that could receive (upon payment) official confirmation by the GRI.
Companies could self-classify into three categories of reporters ranging from A to C, with A being the
best. Furthermore, a report marked with a “+” indicated external assurance. Although assurance is
not necessarily an indicator of objectivity (Milne and Gray, 2013), it may have a positive impact on
credibility (Dando and Swift, 2003; Simnett et al., 2009). If assured, GRI’s best-in-class reports
(Lozano, 2013) could obtain an “A+” grade. In fact, Fernandez-Feijoo et al. (2014) used the
application level as one variable for reporting transparency. In the G4 guidelines, the application-
level check is replaced by the “materiality matters check,” which is a paid service by the GRI checking
the materiality of the report. With regard to credibility, standardization along GRI guidelines and
their supplements and features leads to these hypotheses:
H1a. CSR reports using standardized reporting guidelines from the GRI
(G3, G3.1, G4) are more credible than those without.
H1b. The more the guidelines are used (in terms of a sector supplement),
the more credible is the CSR report.
H1c. CSR reports with high application levels (or materiality matters
check) are more credible than those without.
A recent trend in CSR reporting has been to integrate non-financial information into annual financial
reports (Searcy and Buslovich, 2014), which is a first step toward integrated reporting (International
Integrated Reporting Council - IIRC, 2011). This development initiated in South Africa in 2009 and
has since spread to Europe. France has even made financial and non-financial reporting mandatory
for large enterprises (de Villiers et al., 2014a). Companies engaging in integrated reporting were
found to have improved the quality of the reported data and developed more positive stakeholder
relationships (IIRC, 2014). The most prevalent form of integrated reporting is the “combined report,”
which companies nonetheless label “integrated report,” where CSR information is integrated into the
annual financial report as a separate section. This represents one first step toward integrated
reporting (IIRC, 2011). Integrated reports are said to explain a company’s performance more broadly
(Frias-Aceituno et al., 2013) and are considered a “new reporting paradigm that is holistic” (Adams
and Simnett, 2011) and thus meant to arrive at all-round credibility (Kolk, 2004). Such "combined
reports" are usually longer than stand-alone publications, because they also contain financial
information. Currently, the length of CSR reports varies widely, as do the contents (Roca and Searcy,
2012). Reports' length was investigated with regard to the UK and Finland finding big variations
within the national samples (Fifka and Drabble, 2012). Boiral (2013) analyzed CSR reports for their
disclosure of real-life sustainability issues and found that length of report does not necessarily mean
broader coverage of topics. However, so far reports’ length was not analyzed regarding quality of
reporting. Building on previous research claiming that integrated reporting leads to positive
outcomes for the firm (Kolk, 2004; IIRC, 2011; Adams and Simnett, 2011; Frias-Aceituno et al., 2013),
it is hypothesized:
H2a. A positive relationship exists between CSR reports’ length and their
H2b. Combined reports are more credible than stand-alone reports.
CSR reporting research has also examined firm-level characteristics such as size, age, and experience
in reporting. Studies have almost unanimously confirmed that the size of a firm has a positive
influence on its reporting (Hahn and Kühnen, 2013; Fifka, 2013; Skouloudis et al., 2014), its
likelihood of reporting (de Villiers et al., 2014b; Frias-Aceituno et al., 2014), and the quantity of
disclosure (Albertini, 2014). In this vein, it is hypothesized that this also holds for reporting
H3. The bigger the firm (in terms of employees and turnover), the more
credible its CSR report.
For the French case, Albertini (2014) found that reporters experience a learning curve over the years:
Disclosure of CSR-related topics becomes more precise over time. The older the firm, the more
experience it has in business, and the longer it has reported on CSR issues, the more practice it has
acquired. Hence, it is assumed:
H4. The more experienced the firm (in terms of age and reporting
experience), the more credible its CSR report.
Several contextual effects influence CSR reporting. Cultural differences in reporting in terms of the
company’s country of origin exist in Europe and elsewhere (Fifka, 2013), in terms of CSR reporting
developments (de Villiers et al., 2014a), CSR disclosure on the web in developing countries
(Wanderley et al., 2008), CSR adoption (Marimon et al., 2012), likelihood of integrated reporting
(Jensen and Berg, 2012), assurance of reporting (Simnett et al., 2009), or level of reporting (Van der
Laan Smith et al., 2005). However, again the relationship between quality of reporting and company
domicile is under-researched (Hahn and Kühnen, 2013), with the exception of a few studies that have
reported differences on the country level (Lock and Seele, 2015; Vormedal and Ruud, 2009).
The trend toward regulation of non-financial disclosure has also reached Europe, exemplified by the
recently passed directive of the European Commission mandating that large companies report on
CSR issues (EU, 2014). Following Ioannou and Serafeim’s (2014a) classification, comprehensive CSR
reporting legislation mandates that publicly traded companies report on environmental, social, and
governance issues2. This is consistent with the EU directive and the GRI approach. Legally enforced
CSR reporting is a new research field that has seen some pioneering work (Hahn and Kühnen, 2013).
Albertini (2014) found that regulation in the chemicals industry elicited companies’ environmental
engagement in France. Legal regulation of CSR reporting also promoted the adoption of standards
such as the GRI guidelines (Marimon et al., 2012). For China and South Africa, non-financial
disclosure increased when laws were passed and this regulation had a positive effect on companies’
financial position (Ioannou and Serafeim, 2014a). Hence, a similar effect for reporting credibility is
H5. CSR reports from countries with legally mandated CSR reporting
regulations are more credible than CSR reports from countries without
Sector-level differences are a main determinant of CSR reporting (Fifka, 2013). Sweeney and
Coughlan, for instance, observed a “clear industry effect in reporting of CSR” (2008, p. 120).
Researchers have found in particular that firms with a high impact on the environment reach higher
2 In this sample, such legislation is in place in France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The Dutch sample
comprises only 19 reports and thus could not be used for statistical significance tests. For more information on the
French law, visit:
http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000022470434&categorieLien=id. For more
information on the Spanish reporting regulations, refer to:
levels of CSR reporting because they are forced to respond to stakeholder pressure (Hahn and
Kühnen, 2013) and, as evident in the extractive industries, adhere more tightly to CSR standards
(Raufflet et al., 2014). In fact, environmentally sensitive industries such as extraction, energy,
forestry, chemicals, construction materials, and steel report more on CSR (Branco and Rodrigues,
2008; Jenkins and Yakovleva, 2006; Fifka and Drabble, 2012). Thus, it is hypothesized that this also
holds for reporting credibility:
H6. Credibility levels differ according to the impact of the company on the
environment. Environmentally sensitive industries’ reports are more
credible than less sensitive sectors’ reports.
As in many studies on CSR reporting (Fifka, 2013), a quantitative content analysis (Riffe et al., 1998;
Campbell, 2003) from a population comprising the leading 320 stock-listed companies from the 10
biggest countries by gross domestic product (GDP; World Bank, 2012) in the EU and Switzerland
(Table 1) was conducted to represent the most powerful economies in Europe. European companies
were chosen as a sample to reflect current CSR reporting practices in one of the most important
markets worldwide (World Bank, 2015). The diversity of the European market is unique and in the
light of mandatory CSR reporting provides an interesting field of study as it combines regulated and
unregulated national legislations in one market. The final sample consisted of 237 CSR reports in the
English language (74.06% of the population) that were downloaded from the internet or obtained
directly from the companies; 88.2% are from 2013 and the others are from 2011, 2012, and 2014.
This variance exists because companies have different publication routines; some publish a report
every year, others bi- or triennially. The most recent reports as of summer 2014 were collected.
Table 1. Countries and stock market indices of the population and sample.
Human as well as software coding was applied
(details below). The codebook comprised 11
content, 17 formal, and 62 GRI indicator
variables3 (see appendix B.). To pre-test the
codebook and refine the selected categories of
variables in an inductive process, 25 CSR reports
from the same sample but from previous years
were coded in three consecutive rounds, each
followed by consensus sessions with the coders
and the study’s authors. Three independent coders from three different European national
backgrounds who were not involved in the conceptualization of the codebook coded a sample of 237
CSR reports in summer 2014, summing to 613 coding hours; 27 different industries were
represented by these reports (see appendix A.). The coders’ objectivity and reliability were checked
regularly by six intercoder reliability tests. Three reliability tests were performed on the pre-test
sample to validate the codebook and apply changes. The other three rounds were performed on the
final codebook during the coding process (Table 2), resulting in an aggregated and reliable value of
87.04 using the Holsti formula. These figures were calculated using the online tool ReCal (Freelon,
3 The codebook is available from the authors upon request.
Table 2. Intercoder reliability measured over four rounds.
No. of coders
No. of variables
93 (31 content,
93 (31 content,
No. of cases
Reliability tests other than Holsti or percentage agreement could not be applied because most of the
codebook is conceptualized as nominal variables with binary codes. As Krippendorff’s alpha, Scott’s
pi, or Cohen’s kappa only produce meaningful results with scale data, they could not be computed for
this study (Krippendorff, 2013). Balance and readability analyses were performed using two
software packages, QDA Miner/Wordstat and Flesh. SPSS was used for statistical analyses.
The four validity claims were operationalized through relevant CSR reporting literature (Reynolds
and Yuthas, 2008; Morsing et al., 2008) and with the help of the GRI G3.1 reporting guidelines (GRI,
2011; Table 3), consistent with other studies on CSR reports (de Villiers et al., 2014b; Skouloudis et
al., 2014; Lozano and Huisingh, 2011; Dong et al., 2014; Mosene et al., 2013). Each validity claim
resulted in a summative scale ranging from 0 to 10. Credibility was then calculated as the mean of all
four constructs (no weighting applied between the four), also resulting in a range from 0-10.
The objective truth of statements in the reports is measured by the form and extent of assurance
(Dando and Swift, 2003; Reynolds and Yuthas, 2008), the accuracy of the indicators and the
completeness of the covered performance, and the standards used (GRI, 2011; Lozano, 2013). The
honesty and truthfulness associated with a CSR report – sincerity – is tested by looking at the
materiality of the topics covered (Hahn and Kühnen, 2013). This includes six categories: impacts,
values, risks, prioritized material topics, goals, scope, and boundary of report (GRI, 2011). In addition,
the level of stakeholder engagement (Searcy and Buslovich, 2014), subdivided into stakeholder
inclusiveness and dialogue (GRI, 2011; Ramos et al., 2013), and the implementation of relevant
management systems (Windolph et al., 2014) constitute the sincerity dimension. Appropriateness is
operationalized as the degree to which specific “expert” stakeholders (Morsing et al., 2008) are
addressed, hence, the level of stakeholder specificity for three elite stakeholder groups: investors,
employees, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs; Morsing et al., 2008, p. 105). The core
indicators of the GRI G3.1 guidelines that address the three stakeholder groups were selected and
their level of fulfillment in reporting was used as a measure. Understandability refers to how
comprehensible the report is to readers, not only in terms of how readable it is, but also in style and
tone. It is measured along the sub-dimensions of style, which refers to the timeliness of the
publication and its accessibility, and tone, which refers to the report’s readability and the distribution
of positive and negative language (balance; Lock and Seele, 2015; GRI, 2011). Readability was
measured with the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease index using the software package Flesch. Balance of
language was calculated with the text analysis software QDA Miner/Wordstat and the Wordstat
sentiment dictionary that classifies words into positive versus negative. Table 3 provides an
overview of the constructs and measured variables.
Table 3. Operationalization of the study’s constructs and measured variables.
4. Results: Credibility of CSR Reports
This chapter presents the empirical findings regarding the research question and hypotheses,
reporting results from multiple linear regression analyses, independent samples t-tests, correlation
statistics, and analysis of variance (ANOVA) tests.
4.1. Descriptive Statistics of the Sample and Validity Claims
To tackle the overarching research question of whether CSR reports are credible, summative scales
of the four constructs of truth, sincerity, appropriateness, and understandability were calculated
(range: 0-10; Table 4).
Table 4. Means and standard deviations of the four validity claims.
By summing up and dividing by four, an overall summative scale for credibility was established
(range: 0-10). Overall, the sampled CSR reports display a credibility mean of M = 5.74 (SD = 1.41, Min
= 1.27, Max = 8.2), which lies in the middle of the scale (0-10).
The single constructs that constitute credibility show diverse results for their respective means.
While sincerity and appropriateness levels lie above the sample mean (M = 6.78, SD = 1.88, and M =
6.71, SD = 2.38, respectively), truth falls below the mean at M = 5.16, SD = 1.88. Understandability has
the lowest mean, M = 4.82, SD = .66. Interestingly, no report scored the maximum for truth or
understandability and thus for credibility. No report achieved the maximum score for truth either,
which results from a lack of standards (assurance and general CSR-related standards) applied in the
The sampled CSR reports furthermore show the following descriptive characteristics relating to the
format of reporting, sector supplement, GRI guidelines used, and the application level check (see
Table 5: Descriptive statistics of the sampled CSR reports given in percentages.
4.2. Correlations and Reliability of the Credibility Dimensions
As assumed by communicative action theory (Habermas, 1984), the four measured dimensions of
credibility should correlate to provide a solid scale with adequate internal consistency (see Table 6).
Table 6. Correlations of the credibility dimensions.
*: Pearson correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).
**: Pearson correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
The findings indicate a strong positive Pearson’s correlation coefficient between truth and
appropriateness (r(237) = 0.75, p < .01) and moderately positive correlations between truth and
sincerity (r(237) = 0.56, p < .01) and sincerity and appropriateness (r(237) = 0.54, p < .01).
Furthermore, weak positive correlations exist between sincerity and appropriateness (r(237) = 0.14,
p < .05) and appropriateness and understandability (r(212) = 0.14, p < .05; see Table 5). No significant
correlation between understandability and truth was found. Given that the correlations of
understandability across the other three constructs are weak or non-existent, understandability only
weakly contributes to the overall credibility score.
A reliability analysis served to further test and verify the weak contribution of understandability to
the total credibility scale. The four constructs were treated as a scale for credibility. Cronbach’s alpha,
including all four constructs, results in a moderate value of 0.75. However, if understandability is
deleted, Cronbach’s alpha would result in 0.84 over the remaining three items. These findings suggest
that the understandability dimension does not contribute significantly to the concept of credibility.
As a consequence, the validity claim of understandability is not considered a part of the credibility
concept and thus excluded.
The reliability of this new scale composed of truth, sincerity, and appropriateness is high, with a
Cronbach’s alpha of 0.82. As expected, the sample mean rises from M = 5.75 (old scale composed of
four claims) to M = 6.22 (new scale composed of three claims without understandability). All further
analyses are based on this new summative credibility scale (Table 7).
Table 7. Descriptive statistics of the new credibility scale.
Std. Dev. (SD)
4.3. Standardization and Credibility
Overall, the standardization of CSR reports is important to credibility. Several findings substantiate
this claim (Table 8).
Table 8. Summary of hypotheses H1a-c and results.
H1a. CSR reports using standardized reporting guidelines from the GRI (G3, G3.1, G4)
are more credible than those without.
regression (MLR) model
H1b. The more guidelines are used (in terms of a sector supplement), the more
credible is the CSR report.
H1c. CSR reports with high application levels are more credible than those without.
Standardization is hypothesized to lead to higher levels of reporting credibility. A multiple linear
regression model (MLR; model 1; method: forced entry) was performed with credibility as the
dependent variable (DV) and reporting guidelines, sector supplement, and application level as
independent variables (IV) to test hypotheses 1a, 1b, and 1c. Dummy coding was applied for the
categorical variables. The R2 of this model results in 0.49; thus, the IVs explained 49% of the variance
of credibility. The ANOVA resulted in F(11; 199) = 16.24; MS = 28.08 and is significant at p < .001.
The Durbin-Watson test results in 1.97. Variance inflation factors (VIFs) are all below the threshold
of 5 (Hair et al., 2010; Table 9).
Table 9: Results of the multiple linear regression analysis model 1.
Application level A+
Application level A
Application level B+
Application level B
Application level C+
Application level C
***p < .001, **p < .01, *p < .05
Dummy coding results in significant values per category. As displayed in Table 8, second column (N),
only some categories include enough cases to perform meaningful statistical tests. Thus, the
presented findings are based on categories with N > 25 only (in bold). The results of MLR model 1
show that a high application level (A+ or B+) and reporting along one of the three GRI guidelines
affect credibility positively. The sector supplement, however, was not significant. Thus, H1a and H1c
are accepted while H1c is rejected.
4.4. Format, Firm-level, and Contextual Factors’ Influence on Credibility
How do format, contextual, and firm-level factors influence credibility? Table 10 summarizes the
Table 10. Summary of hypotheses H2-6 and results.
H2a. A positive relationship exists between CSR reports’ length and their credibility.
H2b. Combined reports are more credible than stand-alone reports.
H3. The bigger the firm (in terms of employees and turnover), the more credible its
H4. The more experienced the firm (in terms of age and reporting experience), the
more credible its CSR report.
H5. CSR reports from countries with legally mandated CSR reporting regulations are
more credible than CSR reports from countries without such legislation.
H6. Credibility levels differ according to the impact of the company on the
environment. Environmentally sensitive industries’ reports are more credible than
less sensitive sectors’ reports.
It is hypothesized that length and reporting format influence the credibility of CSR reports positively.
A MLR (model 2; method: forced entry) with credibility as the DV and length of report and format as
IVs was tested. The coefficient of determination R2 is 0.198 and the regression results are significant
(F(2; 210) = 25.68, p < .001, MS = 67.31). The Durbin-Watson statistic for this model is 1.79 and the
VIF is below 5 for all IVs (Table 11).
Table 11. Results of the multiple linear regression analysis model 2.
***p < .001, **p < .01, *p < .05
Model 2 showed that the length of a report positively influences the credibility levels of CSR reports,
while a similar effect was not found for reporting format. Hence, hypothesis 2a is accepted, while
hypothesis 2b is not.
Regarding firm-level characteristics (H3), size was measured by number of employees and yearly
financial turnover (see appendix C.). Including both variables as predictors of credibility, a MLR
(model 3; method: forced entry) was performed. The Durbin-Watson test was 1.67. The model
showed that IVs did not significantly affect (R2 = 0.002; employees: β = -0.03, t(2) = -0.46, p >.05, VIF
= 1.02; turnover: β = 0.04, t(2) = 0.62, p > .05, VIF = 1.02) the credibility of CSR reports; thus, H3 is
Moreover, the more experienced a firm is in reporting on CSR, the more credible are its reports (H4).
The year of the first report of each company (first report) and the company age were measured.
Another MLR (model 4; method: forced entry) with age and first report as IVs and credibility as the
DV was estimated. Model 4 resulted in non-significance (Durbin-Watson = 1.70, R2 = 0.015; age: β = -
0.02, t(2) = -0.25, p >.05, VIF = 1.12; turnover: β = -0.05, t(2) = /1.79, p > .05, VIF = 1.12). Thus, H4 is
Several contextual factors have an impact on CSR reporting, but do they also affect credibility?
Different credibility means between the reports of the sampled countries were found (see appendix
D.). It was assumed that the regulatory context of the country has a positive impact on the report’s
credibility (H5). Three countries in the data set mandate comprehensive CSR reporting: France,
Spain, and the Netherlands. Dutch reports could not be included in the test, since the sample amounts
to only 19 reports, which is below the generally agreed sample size required for statistical
significance tests (Hair et al., 2010). An independent samples t-test (t(106.40) = 1.10, p > .05) revealed
that reports from these two countries (M = 6.43, SD = 1.86) are not significantly more credible than
reports from countries without regulation (M = 6.14, SD = 1.74). When looking at the country level,
significant differences were found (ANOVA, F(4; 143) = 6.00, p < .01, MS = 17.09) between Germany,
France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain4. Specifically, Bonferroni post hoc tests revealed that
Spanish CSR reports (M = 7.39, SD = 1.39) are significantly more credible than French (M = 5.68, SD
= 1.84, p < .01) and British reports (M = 5.79, SD = 1.7, p < .01). However, this result is inconclusive
because both France and Spain have mandatory CSR reporting laws; thus, H5 is rejected.
Finally, it was assumed that the sector’s environmental impact positively influences the credibility
levels of CSR reporting. Seventy-one reports stem from environmentally sensitive industries, 166
from less sensitive sectors. Although the mean credibility level of sensitive industries’ reports is
above the sample mean (M = 6.47, SD = 1.93), less environmentally sensitive industries’ reports
display an average of M = 6.11 (SD = 1.69). An independent samples t-test found that this difference
is not significant (p > .05); hence, H6 is rejected.
4 Swedish, Dutch, Swiss, Polish, Belgian, and Austrian reports were excluded from this analysis as their sample size is
smaller than 25.
Theoretical papers on CSR reporting often suggest that CSR reports are not credible and are merely
a public relations exercise (Milne and Gray, 2013). Instead, the empirical findings indicate that
European companies’ CSR reports tend to be credible. Nevertheless, they have considerable room for
improvement: Levels of credibility are above the middle, which makes them mediocre rather than
good. However, companies face difficulties in reporting on their CSR, which arises because they must
increase awareness on the one hand and prevent skepticism on the other (Coombs and Holladay,
2013; Waddock and Goggins, 2011) and given that they must address a vast audience of multiple
stakeholders coupled with an array of topics. The credibility gap in CSR reporting that was
proclaimed more than a decade ago (Dando and Swift, 2003; McLean and Rebernak, 2007) is thus
still in place. To report more credibly and eventually bridge it, companies must focus on
standardization and on the contents of their reports. Secondary for reporting credibility are format-
, firm-level, and contextual factors.
5.1. Credibility of CSR Reports and Influencing Factors
Few factors have been found to influence reporting credibility. Voluntary standards aid in reaching
higher levels of reporting credibility. Standards codify and operationalize what many researchers
and practitioners still regard as a fuzzy and ill-defined concept, namely, CSR. However, an
exaggerated focus on standards might lead to a lack of creativity and render CSR reporting a tick-the-
box exercise (de Colle et al., 2014), as observed in the finding that the GRI guidelines and a high
application level increase credibility, while a sector supplement does not. This finding confirms
political CSR theory’s postulation that voluntary self-regulation, for instance, through the adoption
of reporting guidelines of the GRI, strengthens CSR’s impact and can help establish and maintain
moral legitimacy (Scherer and Palazzo, 2011).
The CSR reports in this sample varied in length, too (Fifka and Drabble, 2012). The findings show
that the lengthier a CSR report, the more credible it is, implying that the more content provided the
more qualitative it is. However, no indications were found that combined reports are more credible
than stand-alone reports, even though combined reports are usually longer than stand-alone
publications. Thus, integrated reporting in the form of combined reports did not have a significant
effect on reporting quality in this sample, even though it is deemed to provide a more “holistic”
picture of the company’s CSR efforts and therefore is supposed to lead to better quality (Adams and
Simnett, 2011; Kolk, 2004). This can be due to the fact that combined reports symbolize only a first
step towards a complete integration of financial and non-financial reporting (IIRC, 2011).
While the likelihood of reporting in an integrated fashion and the size of the firm showed to be related
positively (Frias-Aceituno et al., 2014), similar effects of firm size on reporting credibility were not
found in this sample. Although the size of the firm (in terms of number of employees and yearly
turnover) is important for the adoption of CSR reporting (Marimon et al., 2012) and for developments
in terms of quantity in a given context (de Villiers et al., 2014a), quality of CSR reports is not impacted
by size. Furthermore, companies with more experience in reporting did not result to also report more
credibly. Thus, first-time reporters can report as credibly as more experienced firms, implying that
reporting practice does not necessarily make credible reports.
When looking at contextual factors affecting reporting credibility, the importance of reporting
standardization and contents over external factors’ influences is even more pronounced. Neither the
sector nor the country and its regulatory context showed consistently significant effects on the
credibility of CSR reports in the sample. Even though companies from environmentally impactful
industries report more on CSR (Branco and Rodrigues, 2008; Jenkins and Yakovleva, 2006; Fifka and
Drabble, 2012), they do not report significantly more credibly.
Country-level differences (Fifka, 2013) as evident for the likelihood of integrated reporting (Jensen
and Berg, 2012), assurance of reporting (Simnett et al., 2009), or CSR reporting developments (de
Villiers et al., 2014a) were observable only at a descriptive level, resulting in diverse mean credibility
levels per country. Instead, the regulatory context did not impact reporting credibility. Mandatory
reporting of CSR did not consistently benefit reporting credibility, possibly because regulations’
effects depend heavily on the cultural and national context (Ioannou and Serafeim, 2014a).
In brief, for quality of reporting in terms of credibility, it is standardization and content that matter
most. External influences such as the reporting format, firm size, industry’s environmental impact,
and regulatory context are secondary, at best.
5.2. The Peculiar Role of Understandability
Another theoretical contribution emerges from the finding that understandability has a special role
in the credibility concept: It is a necessary precondition to enter discussions on credibility. This
empirical result is consistent with Habermas’s re-interpretation of the validity claim structure. In his
early writings, understandability is considered one of four validity claims of rational communication
(Zinkin, 1998). Later, he stated that “every speech-act as a whole can always be criticized as invalid
from three perspectives: as untrue […] as untruthful […] and as not right” (Habermas, 1992, p. 77).
Thus, understandability has a peculiar position among the four validity claims; it is considered a
precondition or basis for communication rather than a redeemable claim (Germonprez and Zigurs,
2009). Following Zinkin (1998, 459): “Habermas's point […] seems to be that the fact that there is
communication is itself the validation of a claim to intelligibility. If utterances were unintelligible,
there would just be no communication.” This interpretation is controversial because it is known that
communication is more than the comprehensible use of language and that it entails, in interpersonal
communication, non-verbal factors such as gestures and facial expressions (Sperber et al., 1986). In
CSR reporting, this refers to images in the reports or design parameters, which were not measured.
Hence, Habermas’s assessment also holds with regard to communicational artifacts such as CSR
Understandability takes on a special role within the credibility concept, which empirically confirms
Habermas’s theory shift. Referring to theoretical constructs in CSR reporting, understandability is
thus regarded as a necessary precondition for CSR reporting that has to be in place (phase I) before
truth, sincerity, and appropriateness can be addressed in phase II. Thus, understandability can be
considered a necessary precondition for credibility of the entire spectrum (Seele and Lock, 2015) of
CSR communication. Only if all four claims are fulfilled, mutual understanding and thus credibility
can be reached. The two-phase-model of reporting credibility depicted in Figure 1 illustrates this
peculiar role of understandability.
Figure 1: The two-phase model of reporting credibility adopting the four validity claims of Habermas.
6. Conclusions and Limitations
It is challenging to translate ideal philosophical theory into practice, as this study attempted with
regard to Habermas. But in return results derived from this approach can also lead to theoretical
advancements: This study addressed the under-researched area of reporting quality and expanded
it by the concept of credibility, which, as shown, emerges from the contents of reports rather than
external factors. Conceptually, the study re-defined and operationalized credibility as a multi-
dimensional construct of reporting quality along communicative action theory and thus fills the
theory void in the field of CSR reporting. The findings indicate that all communicative actors must be
on the same page to engage in credible and valid communication. This can be achieved by
understandability as a precondition and quality of content as the main factor enhancing the
credibility of CSR reports. Being understood is the most important aspect, before only starting a
(possibly) credible communication act. Only after ensuring that they are being understood by their
stakeholders should companies strive to obtain high levels of truth (via standards and assurance),
sincerity (through stakeholder engagement and materiality), and appropriateness (through
stakeholder-specific communication), which together render a CSR report credible. That way, CSR
reports become crucial facilitators of understanding between companies and stakeholders, which
ultimately constitutes moral legitimacy and thus companies’ license to operate in society. On the
theoretical level of political CSR we hence suggest to strengthen the overall role of understandability.
Political CSR needs to acknowledge quality of content as specified above and understandability
before embarking on deliberatively addressing CSR issues. Furthermore, this study also confirms the
importance of voluntary standardization.
For companies, the findings imply that avoiding jargon and overly positive reporting and being clear,
concise, and objective are preconditions for credibility of CSR reports. Moreover, a focus on contents
rather than format or contextual factors and following standardized guidelines lead to higher levels
of reporting credibility. The fact that a company belongs to a specific industry or cultural context or
is of a particular size does not serve to explain low credibility in reporting.
For policy makers, this study showed that credibility levels of CSR reports are mediocre. Policy
makers might conclude that laws are needed to lift these levels. Although this study does not provide
consistent evidence that regulation leads to higher credibility of reports, it demonstrates with the
examples of France and Spain that different laws can have different impacts on credibility. Thus,
comprehensive regulation at a transnational level as proposed by the EU could be a useful move to
level the playing field in the market and raise the credibility of reporting.
The study’s findings, however, must be moderated at least in the following respects. The focus was
on publicly listed companies from the leading stock indices in the biggest European countries. Thus,
these findings are not generalizable to small and medium-sized companies.
Next, it would be interesting to monitor how the credibility of CSR reports develops over time,
particularly regarding development of mandatory reporting regulations in the European Union. A
cross-cultural comparison to other cultural areas such as the US or China would further be valuable.
Moreover, very diverse formats of CSR reports were observed during the study, including GRI-only
reports, summaries of stand-alone publications, and websites printed as PDFs and “sold” as CSR
reports. Mapping these different design developments and their impact on quality provides another
fruitful avenue for future studies.
The authors thank the coders of this study, Tanja Coray, Michele Fratin, and Alexandra Grammenou,
for their excellent work. Special thanks also to Uwe Hartung for helpful advice on the applied method
and Arthur Dubowicz for his constructive comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. The
authors also thank the Swiss National Science Foundation, which funded this research with grant no.
Adams, S., & Simnett, R. (2011). Integrated reporting: an opportunity for Australia's not-for-profit
sector. Australian Accounting Review, 21(3), 292-301.
Adnan, S. M. (2009). Do culture and governance structure influence CSR reporting quality: evidence
from China, India, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. (Doctoral dissertation, Department of
Accounting and Finance, University of Auckland).
Albertini, E. (2014). A descriptive analysis of environmental disclosure: A longitudinal study of
French companies. Journal of Business Ethics, 121(2), 233-254.
Basu, K., & Palazzo, G. (2008). Corporate social responsibility: A process model of
sensemaking. Academy of Management Review, 33(1), 122-136.
Biedermann, C. (2008). Corporate Citizenship als strategische Unternehmenskommunikation. In
Corporate Citizenship in Deutschland (pp. 291-306). Wiesbaden, Germany: VS Verlag für
Boiral, O. (2013). Sustainability reports as simulacra? A counter-account of A and A+ GRI reports.
Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 26(7), 1036-1071.
Branco, M. C., & Rodrigues, L. L. (2008). Factors influencing social responsibility disclosure by
Portuguese companies. Journal of Business Ethics, 83(4), 685-701.
Brown, H. S., de Jong, M., & Levy, D. L. (2009). Building institutions based on information disclosure:
lessons from GRI's sustainability reporting. Journal of Cleaner Production, 17(6), 571-580.
Campbell, D. (2003). Intra‐and intersectoral effects in environmental disclosures: evidence for
legitimacy theory? Business Strategy and the Environment, 12(6), 357-371.
Chen, S., & Bouvain, P. (2009). Is corporate responsibility converging? A comparison of corporate
responsibility reporting in the USA, UK, Australia, and Germany. Journal of Business Ethics,
Cheng, B., Ioannou, I., & Serafeim, G. (2014). Corporate social responsibility and access to finance.
Strategic Management Journal, 35(1), 1-23.
Claasen, C., & Roloff, J. (2012). The link between responsibility and legitimacy: the case of De Beers
in Namibia. Journal of business ethics, 107(3), 379-398.
Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (2013). The pseudo-panopticon: the illusion created by CSR-related
transparency and the internet. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 18(2),
Dando, N., & Swift, T. (2003). Transparency and assurance minding the credibility gap. Journal of
Business Ethics, 44(2-3), 195-200.
Daub, C. H. (2007). Assessing the quality of sustainability reporting: an alternative methodological
approach. Journal of Cleaner Production, 15(1), 75-85.
de Colle, S., Henriques, A., & Sarasvathy, S. (2014). The paradox of corporate social responsibility
standards. Journal of Business Ethics, 125(2), 177-191.
de Villiers, C., Rinaldi, L., & Unerman, J. (2014a). Integrated Reporting: Insights, gaps and an agenda
for future research. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, 27(7), 1042-1067.
de Villiers, C., Low, M., & Samkin, G. (2014b). The institutionalisation of mining company
sustainability disclosures. Journal of Cleaner Production, 84, 51-58.
Dong, S., Burritt, R., & Qian, W. (2014). Salient stakeholders in corporate social responsibility
reporting by Chinese mining and minerals companies. Journal of Cleaner Production, 84, 59-69.
Elving, W. J. (2013). Scepticism and corporate social responsibility communications: the influence of
fit and reputation. Journal of Marketing Communications, 19(4), 277-292.
EU - European Union (2014), Directive 2014/95/EU of the European Parliament and the Council of
22 October 2014 amending Directive 2013/34/EU as regards disclosure of non-financial and
diversity information by certain large undertakings and groups, Strasbourg. Available at:
Fernandez-Feijoo, B., Romero, S., & Ruiz, S. (2014). Effect of stakeholders’ pressure on transparency
of sustainability reports within the GRI framework. Journal of Business Ethics, 122(1), 53-63.
Fifka, M. S. (2013). Corporate Responsibility Reporting and its Determinants in Comparative
Perspective–a Review of the Empirical Literature and a Meta‐analysis. Business Strategy and
the Environment, 22(1), 1-35.
Fifka, M. S., & Drabble, M. (2012). Focus and standardization of sustainability reporting–a
comparative study of the United Kingdom and Finland. Business Strategy and the
Environment, 21(7), 455-474.Fleming, P., Roberts, J., & Garsten, C. (2013). In search of
corporate social responsibility: Introduction to special issue. Organization, 20(3), 337–348.
Freelon, D. (2010). ReCal: Intercoder reliability calculation as a web service. International Journal of
Internet Science, 5(1), 20-33.
Frias‐Aceituno, J. V., Rodríguez‐Ariza, L., & Garcia‐Sánchez, I. M. (2014). Explanatory factors of
integrated sustainability and financial reporting. Business Strategy and the Environment, 23(1),
Frias-Aceituno, J.V., Rodriguez-Ariza, L., & Garcia-Sanchez, I.M. (2013). Is integrated reporting
determined by a country’s legal system? An exploratory study. Journal of Cleaner Production,
Gatti L., & Seele P. (2014). Evidence for the Prevalence of the Sustainability Concept in European
Corporate Responsibility Reporting. Sustainability Science, 9, 89-102.
Germonprez, M., & Zigurs, I. (2009). Task, technology, and tailoring in communicative action: An in-
depth analysis of group communication. Information and organization, 19(1), 22-46.
Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). (2011). Sustainability Reporting Guidelines Version 3.1, Amsterdam:
Golob, U., & Podnar, K. (2014). Critical points of CSR‐related stakeholder dialogue in practice. Business
Ethics: A European Review, 23(3), 248-257.
Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action. Boston: Beacon Press.
Habermas, J. (2002). On the pragmatics of social interaction: preliminary studies in the theory of
communicative action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hair, J. F., Black, W. C., Babin, B. J., & Anderson, R. E. (2010). Multivariate data analysis. New York:
Hahn, R., & Kühnen, M. (2013). Determinants of sustainability reporting: a review of results, trends,
theory, and opportunities in an expanding field of research. Journal of Cleaner Production, 59,
Hooghiemstra, R. (2000). Corporate communication and impression management–new perspectives
why companies engage in corporate social reporting. Journal of Business Ethics, 27(1-2), 55-68.
Hsu, C.-W., Lee, W.-H., & Chao, W.-C. 2013. Materiality analysis model in sustainability reporting: a
case study at Lite-On Technology Corporation. Journal of Cleaner Production, 57, 142-151.
IIRC. (2011). Towards integrated reporting: Communicating value in the 21st century. International
Integrated Reporting Committee, London.
IIRC. (2014). Realizing the benefits: The impact of Integrated Reporting. International Integrated
Reporting Committee, London.
Illia, L., Zyglidopoulos, S. C., Romenti, S., Rodríguez-Cánovas, B., & del Valle Brena, A. G. (2013).
Communicating corporate social responsibility to a cynical public. MIT Sloan Management
Review, 54(3), 15-18.
Ioannou, I., & Serafeim, G. (2014a). The Consequences of Mandatory Corporate Sustainability
Reporting: Evidence from Four Countries. Harvard Business School Research Working Paper,
Ioannou, I., & Serafeim, G. (2014b). The impact of corporate social responsibility on investment
recommendations: analysts' perceptions and shifting institutional logics. Strategic
Management Journal, 36(7), 1053-1081.
Jackob, N. (2008). Credibility effects. In International Encyclopedia of Communication (pp. 1044-
1047). Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley
Jenkins, H., & Yakovleva, N. (2006). Corporate social responsibility in the mining industry: Exploring
trends in social and environmental disclosure. Journal of Cleaner Production, 14(3), 271-284.
Jensen, J. C., & Berg, N. (2012). Determinants of traditional sustainability reporting versus integrated
reporting. An institutionalist approach. Business Strategy and the Environment, 21(5), 299-316.
Knebel, S., & Seele, P. (2015). Quo vadis GRI? A (critical) assessment of GRI 3.1 A+ non-financial
reports and implications for credibility and standardization. Corporate Communications: An
International Journal, 20(2), 196-212.
Kolk, A., (2004). A decade of sustainability reporting: Developments and significance. Int. J. Environ.
Sustain. Dev. 3, 1, 51-64.
Krippendorff, K. (2013). Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Lock, I., & Seele, P. (2015). Analyzing Sector‐Specific CSR Reporting: Social and Environmental
Disclosure to Investors in the Chemicals and Banking and Insurance Industry. Corporate Social
Responsibility and Environmental Management, 22(2), 113-128.
Lozano, R. (2013). Sustainability inter-linkages in reporting vindicated: a study of European
companies. Journal of Cleaner Production, 51, 57-65.
Lozano, R., & Huisingh, D. (2011). Inter-linking issues and dimensions in sustainability reporting.
Journal of Cleaner Production, 19(2), 99-107.
Marimon, F., del Mar Alonso-Almeida, M., del Pilar Rodríguez, M., & Alejandro, K. A. C. (2012). The
worldwide diffusion of the global reporting initiative: what is the point? Journal of Cleaner
Production, 33, 132-144.
MacLean, R., & Rebernak, K. (2007). Closing the credibility gap: The challenges of corporate
responsibility reporting. Environmental Quality Management, 16(4), 1-6.
Milne, M. J., & Gray, R. (2013). W(h)ither ecology? The triple bottom line, the global reporting
initiative, and corporate sustainability reporting. Journal of Business Ethics, 118(1), 13-29.
Morsing, M., Schultz, M., & Nielsen, K. U. (2008). The ‘Catch 22’of communicating CSR: Findings from
a Danish study. Journal of Marketing Communications, 14(2), 97-111.
Mosene, J. A., Burritt, R. L., Sanagustin, M. V., Moneva, J. M., & Tingey-Holyoak, J. (2013).
Environmental reporting in the Spanish wind energy sector: an institutional view. Journal of
Cleaner Production, 40, 199-211.
Perera Aldama, L. R., Awad Amar, P., & Winicki Trostianki, D. (2009). Embedding corporate
responsibility through effective organizational structures. Corporate Governance: The
international journal of business in society, 9(4), 506-516.
Ramos, T. B., Martins, I. P., Martinho, A. P., Douglas, C. H., Painho, M., & Caeiro, S. (2014). An open
participatory conceptual framework to support State of the Environment and Sustainability
Reports. Journal of Cleaner Production, 64, 158-172.
Raufflet, E., Barin Cruz, L., & Bres, L. 2014. An assessment of corporate social responsibility practices
in the mining and oil and gas industries. Journal of Cleaner Production, 84, 256-270.
Reynolds, M., & Yuthas, K. (2008). Moral discourse and corporate social responsibility reporting.
Journal of Business Ethics, 78(1-2), 47-64.
Riffe, D., Lacy, S., & Fico, F. (1998). Analyzing media messages. Using quantitative content analysis in
research, London: Mahwah.
Roca, L. C., & Searcy, C. (2012). An analysis of indicators disclosed in corporate sustainability reports.
Journal of Cleaner Production, 20(1), 103-118.
Scherer, A. G., & Palazzo, G. (2011). The new political role of business in a globalized world: A review
of a new perspective on CSR and its implications for the firm, governance, and democracy.
Journal of management studies, 48(4), 899-931.
Scherer, A. G., Palazzo, G., & Seidl, D. (2013). Managing legitimacy in complex and heterogeneous
environments: Sustainable development in a globalized world. Journal of Management Studies,
Searcy, C., & Buslovich, R. (2014). Corporate perspectives on the development and use of
sustainability reports. Journal of Business Ethics, 121(2), 149-169.
Seele, P., & Gatti, L. (2015). Greenwashing Revisited: In Search for a Typology and Accusation-based
Definition Incorporating Legitimacy Strategies, Business Strategy and the Environment. DOI:
Seele, P., & Lock, I. (2015). Instrumental and/or Deliberative? A Typology of CSR Communication
Tools. Journal of Business Ethics, 131(2), 401-414. DOI: 10.1007/s10551-014-2282-9.
Simnett, R., Vanstraelen, A., & Chua, W. F. (2009). Assurance on sustainability reports: An
international comparison. The Accounting Review, 84(3), 937-967.
Skouloudis, A., Jones, N., Malesios, C., & Evangelinos, K. (2014). Trends and determinants of corporate
non-financial disclosure in Greece. Journal of Cleaner Production, 68, 174-188.
Sperber, D., Wilson, D., Ziran He, & Yongping Ran. (1986). Relevance: Communication and Cognition.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sweeney, L., & Coughlan, J. (2008). Do different industries report Corporate Social Responsibility
differently? An investigation through the lens of stakeholder theory, Journal of Marketing
Communications, 14 (2), 113-124.
Van der Laan Smith, J., Adhikari, A., & Tondkar, R. H. (2005). Exploring differences in social
disclosures internationally: A stakeholder perspective. Journal of Accounting and Public Policy,
Van Marrewijk, M. (2003). Concepts and definitions of CSR and corporate sustainability: Between
agency and communion. Journal of Business Ethics, 44(2-3), 95-105.
Vormedal, I., & Ruud, A. (2009). Sustainability reporting in Norway–an assessment of performance
in the context of legal demands and socio‐political drivers. Business Strategy and the
Environment, 18(4), 207-222.
Waddock, S., & Goggins, B. K. (2011). The paradoxes of communicating corporate social
responsibility. In O. Ihlen, J. L. Bartlett, & S. May (Eds.), The Handbook of Communication and
Corporate Social Responsibility (pp. 23-43). Chichester: Wiley and Blackwell.
Wagner, T., Lutz, R. J., & Weitz, B. A. (2009). Corporate hypocrisy: Overcoming the threat of
inconsistent corporate social responsibility perceptions. Journal of Marketing, 73(6), 77-91.
Wanderley, L. S. O., Lucian, R., Farache, F., & de Sousa Filho, J. M. (2008). CSR information disclosure
on the web: a context-based approach analysing the influence of country of origin and industry
sector. Journal of Business Ethics, 82(2), 369-378.
Windolph, E. S., Schaltegger, S., & Herzig, C. (2014). Implementing corporate sustainability: What
drives the application of sustainability management tools in Germany? Sustainability
Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, 5(4), 378-404.
World Bank (2012). Countries worldwide by GDP (current US Dollars). Retrieved July 24, 2015, from
World Bank. (2015). World Economic Prospects. Having Fiscal Space and Using It. Washington, D.C.:
The World Bank.
Zinkin, M. (1998). Habermas on intelligibility. The Southern journal of philosophy, 36(3), 453-472.
A. Sectors of the sampled CSR reports.
Energy (and energy
Food and beverage
Forest and paper
Health care products
Household and personal care
B. Coding sheet.
Size I: turnover
Size II: no. employees
Age of firm
First report issued
Format of report
Nominal: stand-alone or integrated
Nominal: GRI G3, 3.1, 4, none
Nominal: sector supplement used with GRI
Nominal: application level (A+, A, B+, B, C+, C, materiality matters)
Table of contents, Electronic navigation helps in PDF, Chapter
headings close to page number, Imprint, Free download, PDF open,
Length of report
Open code: no. of words (software)
Felsh-Kincaid Reading Ease Index (software): 0-100 points
Amount of pos./neg. words in report (software): scale 0-10
Recent data used
Type of assurance
Nominal: Internal, external, none
Reach of assurance
Nominal: entire report, specific sections, not specified
Nominal: AA1000AS, ISAE3000, General national standard,
Sustainability national standard, Other, None
Nominal: section on methodology yes/no
Nominal: info on data measurement yes/no
Nominal: CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project), IFC (International Finance
Corporation), OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, UNGC
(United Nations Global Compact), ISO 9001, 14001, AA1000, None
Nominal: impacts, values, risks, goals, prioritization of topics, scope
and boundary of report
Nominal: general CSR mngt, environmental mngt, social mngt,
health/safety mngt, no mngt system
Nominal: section of stakeholder dialogue
Nominal: stakeholder description, dialogue, issues
GRI INDICATOR VARIABLES
Scale 0-3: 0: not, 1: partially, 2: fully reported, 3: not applicable/not
Scale 0-10: percentage of reported performance indicators, rescaled
Ordinal: amount and extent of indicators reported specific to
Ordinal: amount and extent of indicators reported specific to
Ordinal: amount and extent of indicators reported specific to NGOs
C. Sampled companies and their number of employees and turnover figures.
Raiffeisen Bank International
Schoeller-Bleckmann Oilfield Equipment.
Delhaize Group SA
KBC Groep NV
Compagnie de Saint Gobain
Electricite de France (EDF)
Banca popolare dell'Emilia Romagna
Banco Popolare Milano
Pirelli & C
Bank Polska Kasa Opieki SA
Grupa LOTOS S.A.
KGHM Polska Miedz SA
Lubelski Wegiel Bogdanka
Orange Polska S.A.
Polskie Gornictwo Naftowe
PZU (Powszechny Zaklad Ubezpieczen SA)
Banco Popular Espanol SA
Banco Santander SA
Bolsas y Mercados
Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas
Mediaset Espana Comunicacion S.A.
Red Electrica Corporacion S.A.
Tecnicas Reunidas SA
Ericsson (Telefonaktiebolaget L. M. Ericsson)
Hennes & Mauritz (H&M)
Modern Times Group
Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB)
Svenska Cellulosa SCA
Compagnie Financiere Richemont
Credit Suisse Group AG
Roche Holding AG
Swiss Prime Sight
Zuerich Insurance Group
Akzo Nobel NV
Delta Lloyd NV
Koninklijke DSM N.V.
Koninklijke Philips N.V.
Royal Boskalis Westminster Dredging
Royal Dutch Shell
Wolters Kluwer NV
Associated British Foods
British American Tobacco
Glaxo Smith Kline
Lloyds Banking Group ORD
Royal Bank of Scotland
*unless indicated differently in the table
D. The mean credibility levels of the studied CSR reports per country of origin.