The visual disclosure of information in stand-alone sustainability reports: A study of impression management

Mirwais Usmani

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines standalone sustainability reporting, with a focus on visual communication, through a study of the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) compliant reports of companies worldwide.

It takes a blended theoretical framework of visual impression management theories and legitimacy theory to analyse the standalone sustainability reports of 69 companies worldwide in four highly sensitive sectors (Chemical, Energy, Automotive, and Mining) and four less sensitive ones (Financial Services, Telecommunications, Media, and Retailing). The research firstly examines the overall archival content of standalone sustainability reports and their breakdown into numbers, narratives, visuals, mixed materials, and blank space. It then further analyses graph types, the topics graphed, the time series and colours used, together with their potential for visual impression management through the reporting of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ news, and through graphical distortion. Finally, the authorship and preparation of standalone sustainability reports is considered through six interviews with key preparers.

The key findings are: (1) that sustainability reports have become lengthy documents incorporating substantial proportions of visual material, with double the usage of graphs compared to annual reports; (2) companies typically use column and bar graphs, focus on environmental and social rather than economic issues, display relatively shorter time-series (less than five years), and show a preference for the colour green; (3) high sensitive sectors use more visuals, graphs and engage in more visual impression management in the context of graphs compared to the low

sensitive sectors; (4) the preparation process is complex and costly, and companies and their CEOs are aware of the power of visual communication, graphs, and colour.

This thesis contributes to the literature on visual communication in sustainability reporting by being the first comprehensive survey of the length and make-up of GRI-compliant standalone sustainability reports. It extends the work on sustainability reporting by focusing on worldwide countries, diverse industries and up to date stand-alone sustainability reports (2014). It contributes methodologically to disclosure measurement in content analysis by taking into the consideration the quantification of disclosures complete by focusing on numbers, narratives, visuals, mixed materials and blank space.

It also updates the sparse prior work on graphs in sustainability reporting and contributes through various methodological extensions and by incorporating an analysis of colour. Additionally, prior studies were primilarly empirical, with little theoretical discussion, this study provides grounding in theories of visual impression management and legitimacy. Finally, this study provides a prelimary investigation into the nature of sustainability report preparation and authorship. It contributes methodologically by considering interviews, which are lacking in the accounting-related visual literature.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Davison, Jane, Supervisor
Award date1 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 26 Mar 2018

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