Circular economy to the rescue? The U.S. corporate disclosure response to the plastic crisis

Wioleta Olczak, Dennis Patten, Hyemi Shin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Media attention to the world’s growing plastic crisis exploded in 2018, almost certainly increasing social exposures for companies heavily involved in the material’s manufacture or use. Relying on arguments from media agenda setting theory (Brown & Deegan, 1998), we explore how a sample of large U.S. plastic manufacturers and users responded to the crisis in their standalone CSR reports, with particular emphasis on their use of circular economy terminology to frame that response. Circular economy ideas have been gaining traction with governmental units, non-governmental organisations, and academic researchers, and like the plastic crisis, are seeing substantially increased coverage in media outlets. The concern we address in our investigation is whether the exposed companies use the circular economy terminology in an attempt to identify with symbols of legitimacy. As expected, we find significantly more extensive disclosure of plastics-related issues in our sample companies’ 2018 CSR reports than had been the case for reports covering the prior three-year period, and we show increased reliance on the use of circular economy terms within those disclosures. We further document that the circular economy-related plastics disclosure is significantly weighted toward symbolic as opposed to substantive disclosure and is far more commonly related to disclosures of goals and initiatives than to the provision of actual data. We thus argue that rather than reflecting an underlying shift in the sample companies’ operating processes, the increased use of the circular economy terminology may be an attempt at legitimation.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages21
JournalAccounting Forum
Early online date21 Mar 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 21 Mar 2023


  • Circular economy
  • Plastics crisis
  • CSR reporting
  • Legitimacy

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