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Greenwash: Corporate Environmental Disclosure under Threat of Audit


  • Thomas P. Lyon
  • John W. Maxwell


We develop an economic model of “greenwash,” in which a firm strategically discloses environmental information and an activist may audit and penalize the firm for disclosing positive but not negative aspects of its environmental profile. We fully characterize the model's equilibria, and derive a variety of predictions about disclosure behavior. We rationalize conflicting results in the empirical literature, finding a nonmonotonic relationship between a firm's expected environmental performance and its environmental disclosures. Greater activist pressure deters greenwash, but induces some firms to disclose less about their environmental performance. Environmental management systems discourage firms with poor expected environmental performance from greenwashing, which may justify public policies encouraging firms to adopt them.

Suggested Citation

  • Thomas P. Lyon & John W. Maxwell, 2011. "Greenwash: Corporate Environmental Disclosure under Threat of Audit," Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 20(1), pages 3-41, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:bla:jemstr:v:20:y:2011:i:1:p:3-41
    DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-9134.2010.00282.x

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Lyon,Thomas P. & Maxwell,John W., 2004. "Corporate Environmentalism and Public Policy," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521819473, December.
    2. Timothy J. Feddersen & Thomas W. Gilligan, 2001. "Saints and Markets: Activists and the Supply of Credence Goods," Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 10(1), pages 149-171, March.
    3. Robert Innes, 2006. "A Theory of Consumer Boycotts under Symmetric Information and Imperfect Competition," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 116(511), pages 355-381, April.
    4. Patten, Dennis M., 2002. "The relation between environmental performance and environmental disclosure: a research note," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 27(8), pages 763-773, November.
    5. Craig Deegan & Michaela Rankin & Peter Voght, 2000. "Firms' Disclosure Reactions to Major Social Incidents: Australian Evidence," Accounting Forum, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 24(1), pages 101-130, March.
    6. David P. Baron, 2003. "Private Politics," Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 12(1), pages 31-66, March.
    7. Partha Dasgupta & Eric Maskin, 1986. "The Existence of Equilibrium in Discontinuous Economic Games, I: Theory," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 53(1), pages 1-26.
    8. Hyun Song Shin, 2003. "Disclosures and Asset Returns," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 71(1), pages 105-133, January.
    9. Paul Milgrom & John Roberts, 1986. "Relying on the Information of Interested Parties," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 17(1), pages 18-32, Spring.
    10. Patten, Dennis M., 1992. "Intra-industry environmental disclosures in response to the Alaskan oil spill: A note on legitimacy theory," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 17(5), pages 471-475, July.
    11. Cho, Charles H. & Patten, Dennis M., 2007. "The role of environmental disclosures as tools of legitimacy: A research note," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 32(7-8), pages 639-647.
    12. Thomas P. Lyon & John W. Maxwell, 2004. "Astroturf: Interest Group Lobbying and Corporate Strategy," Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 13(4), pages 561-597, December.
    13. Mathias Dewatripont & Jean Tirole, 1994. "The prudential regulation of banks," ULB Institutional Repository 2013/9539, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
    14. Tom Tietenberg, 1998. "Disclosure Strategies for Pollution Control," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 11(3), pages 587-602, April.
    15. David P. Baron & Daniel Diermeier, 2007. "Strategic Activism and Nonmarket Strategy," Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 16(3), pages 599-634, September.
    16. Clarkson, Peter M. & Li, Yue & Richardson, Gordon D. & Vasvari, Florin P., 2008. "Revisiting the relation between environmental performance and environmental disclosure: An empirical analysis," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 33(4-5), pages 303-327.
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    • L0 - Industrial Organization - - General


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