A critical analysis of corporate reports that articulate corporate social responsibility

Bernard, Taryn
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Stellenbosch : Stellenbosch University
ENGLISH ABSTRACT: In the last 15 years, growing public awareness of the negative impact of corporate activities has prompted big corporations in the mining, manufacturing and retail sectors to publish reports that communicate their awareness of environmental and social issues. These reports typically take the form of standalone corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports or integrated annual (IA) reports. The publication of these reports is not an isolated event or practice on behalf of each company; the structure and content of the reports are informed by stock exchange policies such as the King Code in South Africa, and reporting frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) on an international level. The nature of corporate social responsibility and CSR reporting has captured the interest of researchers in diverse disciplines. Scholars such as Jones (1995) and Pedersen (2006), working within business and marketing-related fields, have praised CSR reports as a “win-win” concept which encourages corporations to focus on both their financial and social performance. Conversely, scholars such as Banerjee (2003, 2007) and Redclift (2002, 2005) have criticised CSR for being a new form of “greenwashing” and a mechanism that promotes the continued dominance of financially strong institutions. Critical scholars typically adopt a neo-Marxist perspective of neoliberalism and assert that legitimate environmental protection or social transformation and equality cannot take place within the reigning economic paradigm (see Pepper 1984, 1996). This study is a contribution to applied linguistic research into CSR and IA reports, particularly those originating from the Global South. It draws on methods developed within critical discourse analysis (CDA), systemic functional linguistics (SFL) and corpus linguistics to investigate the 2011, 2012 and 2013 CSR and IA reports of six South African companies located in the mining, retail and food manufacturing industries. Drawing on Halliday’s (1978) three metafunctions of texts, Fairclough’s (1989, 2002) three dimensional framework, as well as the Appraisal Framework (White 2001; Martin and White 2005) this study investigates the textual, representational and interpersonal meanings of the selected reports as ones that represent a new, gradually conventionalised genre within modern corporate discourse. In summary, the study contributes to an understanding of CSR and IA reports in three ways: First, it highlights the significant role of the GRI in prescribing, and thus restricting, the structural and discursive features of CSR and IA reports. Second, the study shows how the six companies draw on a limited set of discourses in the reports which all, in some way or another, embed neoliberal ideologies. This suggests that the South African CSR and IA reports function to maintain an established, dominant ideological and discursive order. Third, the degree of reliability of the information in the reports is dependent on how the companies construct themselves in this report. In this regard, the analysis reveals that the companies use a limited set of linguistic resources to construct themselves as strategic, moral and responsible social actors. In a country marked by widespread social inequality and diminishing resources, the findings ultimately suggest that social transformation and environmental protection are unlikely to be achieved if the sustainability discourses of corporate institutions are not publically challenged.
Thesis (PhD)--Stellenbosch University, 2015.
Corporate reports -- Analysis, Corporate social responsibility, Applied linguistic research, UCTD