Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Rhetorics of Environmental Routinisation in One Australian Company's Annual Reports

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Rhetorics of Environmental Routinisation in One Australian Company's Annual Reports

Article excerpt

After the effervescence of the late 1980s and early 1990s, environmentalism in Australia has been routinised in political expectations and institutionalised in political structures (Jensen-Lee 2001). A demand for and corporate acceptance of 'environmental responsibility' is one element in these shifts. Although corporate environmental disclosure was not mandatory in Australia until 1998, for example, when section 299(1)(f) was added to the Company Law Review Act, most listed companies had long addressed the issues in their annual reports.

In this paper we take one Australian company that operated in environmentally sensitive industries, Amcor, and examine how it reacted in its annual reports to the routinisation of environmentalism. Given the increasing salience of corporate activity in Australia, we aim to see what this one issue reveals about corporate interventions in public discourse more generally.

We first introduce Amcor, and then review the use of corporate annual reports in Australian studies of environmental responsiveness. Using an approach to corporate communication as 'rhetoric' and 'impression management,' we derive three 'rhetorics of responsiveness' that we call 'good news,' 'retroscription' and 'we know best.' 'Good news' refers to claims of present success, 'retroscription' to revisions of the past in responses to current issues, and 'we know best' to calls for confidence in the future on the grounds of reliable knowledge. After showing the routinisation of Amcor's response to environmentalism through a content-analysis of its reports from 1970 to 1999, we illustrate its use of the three rhetorics. We conclude by tinting the increasing shareownership in Australia. When this private investment is joined to the superannuation funds mandatory for wage and salary earners, few Australians are not engaged at least indirectly with the stockmarket. Corporate activity and corporate communication are emerging as important sites of political participation, and the more than can be known about that participation the better.

Amcor over thirty years

On both political-economic and environmental grounds, Amcor is ideal for a study of environmental reporting, and the period from 1970 to 1999 is just as suitable. Economically, Amcor typifies successful Australian companies. It was founded in the 1860s, and, after a series of mergers, was listed in the 1920s as the Australian Paper Manufacturing Company (A.P.M.). It entered forestry and pulp-making in the 1930s, and by 1970 it was the market-leader in these industries (Sinclair, 1991). As it often said in its reports, it 'touches the lives of most Australians every day.' It remained among Australia's largest listed companies through the lowering of tariffs, the floating of the dollar, the exposure to globalisation, the deregulation of labour markets and the privatisations that have transformed the economy over the last thirty years. During this time it expanded, first to New Zealand and then to North America, Europe and Asia, until it became globally significant in its industries; the change of its name from A.P.M. to Amcor in the 1980s marked that shift. As a further mark of its typicality, it displays an increasingly diffuse ownership, with the number of its shareholders more than tripling from 1970 to 1999.

Environmentally, Amcor's operations in forestry, paper-making and packaging required both unsightly logging and the production of effluents. Since forestry has been an emotive issue in Australian environmental campaigns (e.g. Hutton and Connors 1999), and since for years Amcor was the largest non-governmental owner of forests in Australia, it was open to environmental criticism. Despite all this, however, and despite publicity by the Boycott Woodchipping Campaign and by dissident owners in the Amcor Green Shareholders' Group (BWC 2000; AGSG 2000), it is a mark of Amcor's success that it has largely escaped public opprobrium. …

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