Corporate Environmental Reporting Media: A Case for the World Wide Web

Article excerpt

This paper focuses on a particular form of environmental communication, commonly referred to as corporate environmental reporting, and highlights the vital role the World Wide Web (WWW) can play in facilitating such a process. The existing limitations of contemporary corporate environmental reporting practices, predominantly through conventional print media, are acknowledged and an attempt is made to establish whether a change in communication media for reporting environmental information could enhance the present practice. Accordingly, the various media for environmental reporting are investigated and a case is made for use of WWW technology. Media richness theory is used as a theoretical basis to conceptualize the potential the WWW has over conventional print media for corporate environmental reporting. However, caution is also thrown for the use of the WWW for environmental communication.

Introduction

Environmental issues have risen to prominence in the last decade and the importance of environmental protection is now globally accepted. This is evident from the numerous World Earth Summits that have been held in this time. Corporations have also begun to realize the importance of environmental issues and this is indicated by the increase in their communication of social and environmental issues in addition to the customary financial disclosure (Gray & Bebbington, 2001). Many organizations have embraced environmental management tools in order to reduce their environmental impacts (Schaltegger, Burritt & Petersen, 2003). While environmental management processes undertaken by organizations are necessary, and probably the most important step towards environmental consciousness, a need arises for communication of these to stakeholders. This process is referred to as corporate environmental reporting (CER), a mechanism whereby companies communicate the environmental aspects of their corporate activity to their numerous stakeholders. Corporate environmental reporting is a very important component of triple bottom line reporting that also includes the communication of social and economical issues (Elkington, 1997). The emphasis in this paper is merely on environmental issues, and hence, CER is the central concern.

The annual report, in the past, has been used as a communication tool for disseminating information to stakeholders in relation to a company's financial position. It has also been regarded as a medium of communication for portraying environmental information (Bebbington & Gray, 2000; Tilt, 2001; Gray & Bebbington, 2001). However, other communication media such as stand-alone environmental reports are available (Bebbington & Gray, 2000; Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, 2001a; Gray & Bebbington, 2001; Tilt, 2001). Advertisements and brochures may also be useful in communicating environmental information (Zeghal & Ahmed, 1990; Bebbington & Gray, 2000; Tilt, 2001), while news media could be used by parties in addition to the organization to disseminate information on a company's environmental performance or to report on major environmental incidents (Brown & Deegan, 1998; Deegan, Rankin & Tobin, 2002). Recent developments have seen an emergence of environmental reporting through the World Wide Web (WWW) (Jones, Alabaster & Hetherington, 1998, 1999; Jones & Walton, 1999; United Nations Environment Programme, 1999, 2001; Isenmann & Lenz, 2001; Shepherd, Abkowitz & Cohen, 2001; Wheeler & Elkington, 2001).

The bulk of CER research to date has primarily focused on conventional print media, especially annual reports, as a communication medium. There is an apparent lack of literature on the use of the WWW for communicating environmental information. Even though conventional print mechanisms such as annual reports or environmental reports are widely accepted as common media for environmental communication, these may also be criticized in relation to time lags for information dissemination, and a lack of accessibility and interaction with stakeholders, coupled with limited means of presenting and organizing information. …