How we can hold companies accountable on sustainability
If companies are telling us a story, it should be true.
As the global climate shifts, and environmental disasters become increasingly commonplace, it’s more important than ever that consumers and investors are able to hold companies accountable for their impact on the planet. But do we actually know the full extent of that impact?
Transparency from companies when it comes to social and environmental accounting and reporting is what Dr Claire Horner from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics is determined to address through her research.
And she has her sights set on those who repeatedly try to pull the wool over our eyes.
“We’re seeing an increasing trend amongst consumers and investors in wanting to support ethical companies,” says Dr Horner.
“So I’m interested in whether big, listed corporations are actually accounting for their social and environmental impacts before they produce sustainability reports, or are they simply using what we call ‘impression management’ to make it look like they care about their social responsibility?”
When it comes to environmental and social concerns, ethical consumers, investors, and potential employees primarily rely on an organisation’s annual sustainability reports to make their decisions.
So Dr Horner spent her PhD investigating whether large organisations are actually accounting for their impacts before they produce their annual sustainability reports.
Turns out, sustainability reports don’t always tell the full story.
Comparing sustainability reports across a variety of industries, Dr Horner looked for actual numbers, facts, and evidence in the reports that justified the story the organisation was trying to tell.
“If organisations are undertaking a process of accounting, then they’re undertaking systematic measurement of their performance. If they’re measuring things, they should have the numbers to demonstrate that,” she says.
Dr Horner found a huge range in the quality of such reports, with some companies using accounting principles to measure and report their impacts in an accurate manner, while others used their sustainability reports to market themselves as an ethical company without providing any tangible record of their impact.
“If companies are just telling a story, it’s very hard to compare their performance over time, and very hard to compare performance across two different organisations,” she says.
“But if they’re providing numbers that measure their performance, you can compare that more easily, and you can verify that information through an audit process.”
Informed by her background in financial accounting, Dr Horner wants to see sustainability reports treated with the same rigour as financial reports.
“In financial reporting, companies would never get away with simply saying, ‘We really care about our financial performance, we really care about making a profit, we really care about reducing our costs,’ without producing the numbers. No one would tolerate that kind of reporting,” she says.
“If sustainability or social and environmental reporting was regulated in the same way that financial reporting is, then companies would have a lot less choice about how they can report on their performance. They wouldn’t be able to make vague ‘motherhood’ statements like, ‘We really care about the environment and we really care about our employees, and we’re really going to aim to improve our performance in these areas.”
Dr Horner is now keen to use what she’s learned from her PhD research to change how government and industry policy-makers think about sustainability reporting.
“I’m interested in advising governments on government policy. That’s one of the things that appealed to me about academia in the first place – the potential to have some influence on policy development,” she says.
She adds that she’d particularly like to see some regulation from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission around listing requirements for the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), and for big companies to have some kind of rigour around their reporting practices.
“I’d like to see them provide evidence that they’re actually accounting for their impact, and not just telling us what they think we want to hear, rather than what we need to know,” says Dr Horner.
“Because if companies are telling us a story, then it should be a true story.”
Research that makes a difference
Dr Claire Horner is a Lecturer in Accounting in the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics. She has a background in both accounting and management, and her research interests include corporate social and environmental accounting, reporting and accountability; the use of impression management strategies in corporate communication; corporate social responsibility and sustainability; and accounting education practices. She is a past recipient of the CPA Australia Award for Honours Study in Accounting and a University of Tasmania Elite Research Scholarship, and is a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society.
Dr Horner has over ten years experience in various administrative roles in the private legal industry, such as Investments and Accounts Officer, HR Manager, Finance Officer, and Lending Manager. Since entering academia she has also volunteered her time and expertise as a Board Member of several non-government organisations, where she has chaired various committees and held roles such as Treasurer, Finance Director, and Executive Committee member. She is presently a member of the Advisory Council for Greening Australia Tasmania.
|Degree||Thesis title||University||Country||Date of award|
Accountability and the use of Multi-Modal Impression Management Strategies in Corporate Social and Environmental Reporting
University of Tasmania
BBus (1st Class Hons)
Legitimation strategies and quantitative disclosures in sustainability reports within Australia
University of Tasmania
Dr Horner has been the convenor of the Accounting and Corporate Governance Seminar Series since January 2016, and has had held various administrative roles within the University of Tasmania including assisting with the coordination of the Graduate Research Conference and administration of NHMRC Funding applications. She is presently a member of the TSBE WH&S Committee.
BFA715/302 Accounting Theory BFA713 Audit and Assurance BFA605 Financial and Corporate Accounting BFA527 Corporate Sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line BFA526 Financial Reporting and Analysis BFA507 The Accounting Framework BFA301 Advanced Financial Accounting BFA104 Accounting Context and Method BFA103 Accounting and Financial Decision Making
Dr Horner has a depth and breadth of experience in teaching at both the post-graduate undergraduate levels. In addition to the aforementioned subjects Dr Horner has appeared as a guest lecturer in BFA522 Risk Management, and has undertaken tutoring through the University of Tasmania Riawunna Centre in BFA104 Commercial Transactions. In her unit coordination roles she has been proactive in updating unit content and assessment activities to ensure students are equipped to meet the evolving demands of the accounting profession, and adapting unit and content delivery to accommodate blended and distance learning.
- C7B Master of professional accounting
- Unit Outline BFA605 Financial and Corporate Accounting (PDF 333.3KB)
- B3A Bachelor of Business
- Unit Outline BFA301 Advanced Financial Accounting (PDF 714.5KB)
Dr Horner was invited to speak at the international Financial Reporting and Business Communication Conference in 2016 and 2017.
Corporate social and environmental accounting, reporting and accountability, the use of impression management strategies in corporate communication, corporate social responsibility and sustainability, accounting education practices.
Dr Horner’s research is closely aligned with the University’s research theme of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, the TSBE research theme of Sustainability and the Business Community, and the TSBE Accounting and Corporate Governance Discipline themes of Accountability, Stakeholder Engagement, and Accounting Towards the Future. Her primary research to date has examined the ways in which companies account for their social and environmental performance, and whether their accounting, reporting and stakeholder engagement practices are indicative of a desire to discharge accountability, or merely an exercise in impression management. In her PhD research she conducted the first known Australian study exploring the role of graphic designers in corporate social and environmental reporting.
Dr Horner was employed as a research assistant for a collaborative project between researchers at the University of Tasmania and Bristol University, the results of which were published in Accounting Forum. This research explored the role of creative accounting in a landmark Tasmanian case: The drowning of Lake Pedder.
At present Dr Horner is focused on continuing to publish papers from her PhD research, and is in the early stages of embarking on a collaborative project regarding accounting for biodiverse plantations in Tasmania.
Fields of Research
- Sustainability accounting and reporting (350107)
- Accounting, auditing and accountability (350199)
- Conservation and biodiversity (410401)
- Pollution and contamination (410599)
- Agricultural land management (300202)
- Environmental management (410404)
- Other environmental management (189999)
- Expanding knowledge in commerce, management, tourism and services (280106)
- Environmentally sustainable information and communication services (220299)
- Teaching and curriculum (160399)
- Microeconomics (150599)
- Environmentally sustainable commercial services and tourism (110199)
- Terrestrial biodiversity (180606)
- Evaluation, allocation, and impacts of land use (180603)
- Environmentally sustainable plant production (260199)
Dr Horner has undertaken reviews for the Accounting Research Journal, and Financial Accounting textbook chapters for Cengage Learning
Journal Article(4 outputs)
|2020||Horner CA, Davison N, 'Accounting for biodiverse wildlife corridor plantations', Meditari Accountancy Research ISSN 2049-3738 (2020) [Refereed Article]|
|2019||Lohrey RC, Horner CA, Williams BR, Wilmshurst TD, 'Coming to grips with corporate governance in local government', Australian Journal of Public Administration, 78, (4) pp. 596-612. ISSN 1467-8500 (2019) [Refereed Article]|
Citations: Scopus - 1Web of Science - 2
Co-authors: Williams BR; Wilmshurst TD
|2019||Williams B, Horner C, Allen S, 'Flipped v's traditional teaching perspectives in a first year accounting unit: an action research study', Accounting Education, 28, (4) pp. 333-352. ISSN 0963-9284 (2019) [Refereed Article]|
Citations: Scopus - 6Web of Science - 7
Co-authors: Williams B; Allen S
|2016||Horner CA, Wilmshurst TD, 'Stakeholder engagement and the GRI: Implications of effective risk management', Corporate Ownership & Control, 13, (3) pp. 209-218. ISSN 1727-9232 (2016) [Refereed Article]|
Co-authors: Wilmshurst TD
|2014||Horner CA, 'Accountability and the use of Multi-Modal Impression Management Strategies in Corporate Social and Environmental Reporting' (2014) [PhD]|
Grants & Funding
Number of grants
- The project will develop a method for measuring environmental sustainability at the farm-level.
- Meat and Livestock Australia ($54,000)
- Administered By
- University of Tasmania
- Research Team
- Horner CA; Barmuta LA; Jones ME
- 2020 - 2022
- This is the second cycle of an interdisciplinary action research study working in collaboration with anNGO on accounting for biodiverse wildlife corridor plantations in the Tasmanian midlands
- Accounting & Finance Association of Australia and New Zealand Ltd ($2,000)
- Administered By
- University of Tasmania
- Research Team
- Horner CA; De Lange PA
In addition to PhD supervisions, Dr Horner has successfully co-supervised two Honours Candidates to completion and is presently co-supervising another Honours Candidate, their respective topics being ‘Corporate Governance in Local Government in Tasmania’, ‘Optimal CEO Compensation Design in China’, and ‘The Use of Data Analytics in Performance Audit’.
|PhD||Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Exploring Disclosure Quality in Australia and Pakistan: The context of a developed and developing country||2016|
|PhD||Exploring the Notion of Corporate Governance in Local Government in Tasmania||2017|
|PhD||Linking Environment with Production in Agricultural Landscapes||2019|
|PhD||Quality Assurance Practices and Preferences: A study of Australian Accounting Schools|
Candidate: Syed Fahad Ashraf
|PhD||Stakeholder Engagement and Corporate Social and Environmental Reporting: Are companies meeting their accountability obligations?|
Candidate: Daria Varenova