Previous studies have concluded that ESG actions have a statistically significant, yet small positive effect on financial performance. The authors of Do Actions Speak Louder Than Words? The Case of Corporate Social Responsibility wanted to explore under what conditions CSR affects financial performance.
Olga Hawn, a professor in the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and Ioannis Ioannou, a professor at the London School of Business, examined not just the different impact of symbolic and substantive actions on the value of a company, but the way it was influenced by prior CSR-based assets – which represent the cumulative results of taking CSR actions in the past.
The authors found symbolic actions have a higher impact on market value than substantive actions, when the company has higher CSR-based assets. The study also concluded that a larger gap between symbolic and substantive actions has a higher positive impact on firm performance; and the more companies engage in both symbolic and substantive actions, the higher the value accumulates to the company.
Symbolic actions include any ceremonial conformity or compliance: for example, a company announcing plans to form a sustainability or corporate ethics committee to provide the appearance of an action, without necessarily having any substance. Symbolic actions can be more generally described as “window dressing” or greenwashing – essentially anything designed to give an appearance of an action while allowing business to proceed as usual.
Substantive actions are the real actions taken by an organization to meet certain expectations and often require changes in core practices, long-term commitments and investments in corporate culture.
The authors weighed four hypotheses and tested their theory using a market-value equation and a database of 2,261 firms in 43 countries from 2002 and 2008.
The four hypotheses:
- The higher the CSR assets (meaning prior CSR actions taken by a company), the higher the effect that symbolic ESG action will have on firm performance, and vice versa;
- The higher the CSR assets, the lower the effect that substantive ESG actions will have on firm performance, compared to symbolic actions, and vice versa;
- The larger the gap between symbolic and substantive ESG actions, the higher its effect on firm performance, and vice versa;
- The higher the coupling between substantive and symbolic ESG actions, the higher its effect on firm performance, vice versa.
A Deloitte report released last month found a connection between perception of stakeholders and a company’s bottom line. News about a company’s environmental behavior affects its market value, and an organization’s understanding of how its stakeholders perceive and value the organization’s ESG issues can lead to financial benefits, the report said.