Just Look at the Numbers: A Case Study on Quantification in Corporate Environmental Disclosures

Janne T. Järvinen, Matias Laine, Timo Hyvönen & Hannele Kantola (2020)

Journal of Business Ethics. Online first

Abstract. This paper sheds further light on the role of quantification in corporate environmental disclosures. Quantification is an inherently social practice, which has attracted a fair amount of academic interest in recent years. At the same time, in the field of social and environmental accounting there is a paucity of research on quantification or the role it plays for organisations, for organisational communication and in societies more broadly. Accordingly, in this paper, we will draw on a qualitative case study to discuss the potential implications that might arise from the use of quantified information in corporate environmental disclosures. Our case study illustrates the diverse effects of quantification suggested in the prior literature by placing them in the context of corporate environmental disclosures. We discuss how quantification implies fake precisionism and promotes commensuration of incomparables, thereby limiting the discussion to themes and questions preferred by company management. We maintain that quantification, while appearing to produce neutral and value-free information, has a substantive ethical dimension through how it implicates accountability relationships as well as the respective power relations between diverse stakeholders in societies.

Extract. « We argue that the quantified information appeared to be precise and persuasive, as such figures seemed to show how the organisation strived to improve its environmental performance. Prior studies suggest that numbers are often viewed as representing a self-evident reality (see Desrosières 2001), which the company here used to establish the authority of its message. Inside the company, the top management framed such quantified measures are realistic business objectives, stressing the reflexive nature of measurement. […] Despite its obvious usefulness for firms, the power of quantification does not come without related potential ethical questions and implications (Espeland and Stevens 2008). The numbers and quantified information facilitate particular ontologies, suggest specific rationalities and imply certain accountabilities. In the economic context, environmental issues are always value-laden, as they imply a need to take into account different points of view, to settle and balance different value positions, and eventually to decide between potentially incommensurable and incomparable alternatives (see Boltanski and Thévenot 2006). » (p. 12)

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