Communicating ethical business practices and its effects on the knowledge, perception and behaviour of stakeholders
Ross, Heather Fiona
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Concern about the economic, social and environmental impacts caused by the production and consumption of products and services has resulted in an escalation in the monitoring of companies by stakeholders. Scrutiny has been enhanced by an expanding array of behaviour-modulating instruments, which span a voluntary to mandatory continuum, in the form of ethical identifiers that range from collaborative partnerships, through codes and standards, to regulations, directives and laws. Such identifiers are now becoming more-widely used by businesses in the formulation and communication of their Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability (CSRS) related strategies. In a business environment undergoing closer examination, individual companies must determine the extent to which they will endorse CSRS, as well as deciding on their level of public disclosure of related practices. However, despite an increasing number of tools that are available for communicating ethical disclosure, there is currently no agreed standard format for presenting the relevant data. This can create difficulties for stakeholders who may wish to compare and contrast the ethical business practices of different companies and can reduce the pressure for meaningful change to be brought about. In the course of the research reported in this thesis, philosophical, ethical and legitimacy theories were drawn upon to understand the approaches that underpin CSRS disclosure, whilst the engagement of key stakeholders was evaluated by applying the principles involved in stakeholder mapping and ethical business strategy communication. For practical reasons, the study focusses on a single global business sector with identifiable CSRS interests, the apparel sector, which has well-publicised issues regarding both its social and environmental impacts, while also possessing constituent parts that are applicable to a variety of other consumer goods markets (for example, extended supply chains). Using a pragmatic methodology, the primary research consisted of two phases carried out in sequence; quantitative research first, then qualitative investigation. The first phase utilised findings from previously published quantitative research to pinpoint five fashion sector brands. The brands’ web-based CSRS-related disclosure was examined by means of a longitudinal four-stage content analysis, which involved an assessment of the click paths created by brands to enable interested parties to access information about their ethical business practices. The ethical identifiers disclosed were then classified and enumerated to quantify the range and complexity of the CSRS-related information provided by each brand. The information gained from the findings was also used to inform the development of a framework for identifying, grading and communicating CSRS disclosure to enable comparative analysis of the approaches adopted by different companies and their suitability to different types of stakeholders. The second phase of the research utilised a qualitative methodology to probe the results from the quantitative phase and to develop an improved communication tool. In-depth interviews were undertaken with fifteen key informants on CSRS, encompassing policy makers, advisors and representatives from commerce; as well as five consumer focus groups divided by age (20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60 years and over). As a result of the research findings, ten stakeholder types were identified as key audiences for CSRS-related information, while stakeholder engagement with the data was classified into three levels ranging from ‘active’, through ‘aware but ambivalent’, to ‘inactive’. Stakeholders who were categorised as ‘active’, responded to triggers created by CSRS-related knowledge and readily participated in behaviours that were sympathetic to promoting social responsibility. The ‘active’ stakeholders were likely to be professionals working in the area of CSRS and consumers personally committed to ethical goals. The participants who demonstrated ‘awareness but ambivalence’ to CSRS information possessed knowledge of CSRS issues, but were not emotionally committed to its goals. They used behavioural filters to explain the rationale supporting a position of commitment that was flexible and dependent on circumstances; hence their tendency to consider the information was affected by a range of additional factors. By contrast, ‘inactive’ stakeholders created blockers or barriers to justify why the responsibility for CSRS lay not with themselves, but with second and third parties in the supply chain. They displayed limited or no commitment to CSRS goals and were not swayed in their behaviour by associated knowledge. The multi-layering of stakeholder perspectives emphasises the need for a reporting framework designed to satisfy the requirements of a growing and diverse body of interested parties. To address this need, ethical identifiers used in CSRS disclosure were divided into deontological and teleological indicators to provide greater classification exclusivity than previous models. From this division, the current research proposes a new communications framework suited to a variety of levels of stakeholder commitment and CSRS complexities by using a three concentric circles (TCC) format, with core, intermediate and outer circles identifying respectively what a company is required to do (mandatory and co-regulatory actions), agrees or chooses to do (self-regulatory and voluntary activities), and is going to do (through ethical collaborative partnerships). If applied digitally, the proposed framework could provide further detail relating to the ethical identifiers contained in each circle and expand the level of information available. When current CSRS disclosure by five sample brands was analysed using the TCC format, voluntary aspects (intermediate and outer circles) were found to dominate in number over mandatory obligations (core circle). However, the deontological actions or activities within which the companies engaged (core and intermediate circles) were seen to have greater longevity than their teleological collaborations and partnerships (outer circle). Bringing together the proposed framework for communicating CSRS information and the stakeholder engagement categories, the potential for full-disclosure access to ethical indicators, and their details, was designed for the ‘active’ group, who were the most likely category to create change-making pressure on companies. The availability of basic and concise ethical data was favoured by the ‘aware but ambivalent’ group, whislt an identifiable logo, indicating that a company was disclosing its practices was considered more than adequate for the requirements of the ‘inactive’ group who were unlikely to seek further information. The stance adopted by this latter group highlighted that business accountability is not demanded by all potential stakeholders and illustrated why mandatory intervention can be needed to enforce behavioural expectations on companies. At a time when the primary and secondary rules of society are increasing the expectation of CSRS-related disclosure from companies, as well as imposing a minimum level of annual reporting on them, the current research provides theoretical, practical and public policy-based contributions to progress the discipline of ethical communications.