Accounting, Organizations and Society 31 (2006) 763–781
0361-3682/$ - see front matter © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Can less environmental disclosure have a legitimising eVect?
Evidence from Africa
Charl de Villiers, Chris J. van Staden
School of Accountancy, Massey University at Albany, Private Bag 102-904, North Shore Mail Centre, Auckland, New Zealand
Organizational legitimacy theory predicts that corporations will do whatever they regard as necessary in order to
preserve their image of a legitimate business with legitimate aims and methods of achieving it. Legitimacy is mostly used
in the social and environmental accounting research (SEAR) literature to support the idea that social disclosures will be
maintained at present levels, or increased over time, to avert legitimacy crises. However, the SEAR literature contains
some references to reasons for, and incidents of, reductions in social disclosures. We submit that legitimacy theory pre-
dicts these reductions as much as it predicts maintaining or increasing disclosure levels.
We conduct a content analysis of more than 140 corporate annual reports over a 9-year period in order to identify
the trends in environmental disclosure by South African companies over time. We Wnd a reduction in environmental
reporting after an initial period of increases for both Mining companies and Top-100 industrial companies. The
decrease for Mining companies was bigger than that for Top-100 companies, both overall and when the results were
split between speciWc and general information. The publication of general and speciWc information increased from 1994
to 1999; disclosure of speciWc information then declined by Wve times more than the decline in disclosure of general
information. These trends are consistent with legitimacy theory and we conclude that legitimising objectives may also be
served by changing the type (general/speciWc) or reducing the volume of environmental disclosures.
© 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The consensus among researchers appears to be
that corporate environmental reporting of all
kinds is on the increase and will continue to
increase over time.
Organizational legitimacy the-
ory predicts that corporations will do whatever
they regard as necessary in order to preserve their
image of a legitimate business with legitimate aims
and methods of achieving it. Therefore, companies
may reduce environmental disclosures at some
Corresponding author. Fax: +64 9 441 8133.
E-mail address: C.van-Staden@massey.ac.nz (C.J. van Sta-
See for example, Deegan, Rankin, and Tobin (2002), Gray,
Kouhy, and Lavers (1995a) and Wilmshurst and Frost (2000).