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Identifying transitions in corporate sustainability reporting: a content analysis of JSE/FTSE multinational sustainability reports from 2016 to 2021


The dominant practice governing sustainability reporting in the private sector is that of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Environmental Social Governance (ESG) reporting. CSR has its roots in philanthropy and charitable initiatives, while ESG aims to integrate environmental, social, and governance factors into business practices and decision-making. This paper analyses the transition in sustainability worldviews revealed in corporate sustainability reporting from 2016 to 2021. It uses a longitudinal content analysis methodology applied to a sample of ten multinational companies listed on the South African JSE/FTSE top 40 index. The period for the longitudinal study is framed from when the companies started reporting on ESG. The JSE/FTSE was chosen as the companies listed in the top 40 represent 80% of the value on the JSE (JSE 2020). The qualitative content analysis makes use of the five stages of corporate sustainability model to position companies’ sustainability reports within these five stages (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018a). The key finding of this paper is that multinational companies have been slow to transition their sustainability reporting practices. The current reports reflect a business-as-usual mindset that is driven by compliance with reporting regulations. There is an absence of reporting that reflects a view of embedding business operations within bounded science-based ecological and social environments.


It is becoming more apparent that business institutions are struggling to limit economic activity to sustainable levels within the boundaries of the planet. The intensifying effects of climate change and ecological destruction serve as clear evidence of this (Rockström et al., 2009). Globally, this has led to increased pressure on companies to adopt sustainable business practices and report on their environmental impact. However, despite the increasing importance of sustainability, there is still a global lack of consistency in sustainability reporting, which is the practice of communicating a company’s social and environmental performance to stakeholders. It is becoming increasingly important as stakeholders, including customers, investors, and regulators, demand greater transparency and accountability from companies. While CSR reporting can provide many benefits, such as improved reputation, increased stakeholder trust, and increased sales it also presents several challenges.

Even though sustainability or CSR reports are produced by 90–95% of the world’s largest corporations, a significant part of the challenge lies in the ongoing debate surrounding the terminology and definitions of sustainability and corporate social responsibility, as well as their implementation (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018a). Some businesses view the implementation of sustainability as incremental improvements, while others see it as a major paradigm shift. It is a field that is in a continuous state of evolution and development (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018a). The ambiguity surrounding the terminologies and definitions of sustainability contributes to the difficulties in its implementation. CSR has also been criticised for being too separate from mainstream business functions and purpose, resulting in it being used more for image management, greenwashing or weak sustainability practice (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018a). This is juxtaposed against Schot & Kanger (2018) whose work on sustainable transitions, highlights the need for radical transformative change if sustainability is going to be addressed in a manner that will make a difference.

The concept of ecological or planetary boundaries lies at the core of sustainable development discussions. Rockström et al. (2009) define planetary boundaries as a “safe operating space” for humanity concerning the Earth system. In their scientific research, they have identified nine planetary boundaries that cannot be exceeded without creating significant ecological system shifts that would jeopardize humanity’s survival. The planet operates within ecological limits yet historically economic growth has had no bounds. A key tenet of sustainable development is to bring economic activity back into limits outlined by planetary boundaries as defined by science. This refers to identifying boundaries or limits concerning what is ecologically possible (Antonini & Larrinaga, 2017). The history of CSR and ESG reporting shows a lack of science-based target setting and reporting.

According to Whiteman et al. (2013), corporations have a significant impact on global biodiversity and climate change through their choices regarding their business models and therefore have a key role to play in the planetary processes identified by Rockström et al. (2009).

Many companies have yet to fully integrate the concept of planetary boundaries into their CSR reporting. The integration of planetary boundaries into CSR is not without its challenges. Firstly, there is a lack of standardization in the reporting of planetary boundaries, making it difficult for stakeholders to compare the sustainability performance of different companies. Secondly, companies may face difficulties in accurately measuring and reporting on their impact on planetary boundaries, particularly regarding indirect impacts such as supply chain emissions. Finally, there may be resistance from companies to adopt planetary boundaries into their reporting practices, as it can involve significant changes to their business practices and may increase scrutiny from stakeholders.

The central argument in the discourse on CSR reporting concerns the apparent disjunction between the polished narratives found in corporate sustainability reports and the actual environmental practices executed by firms. A prevalent scepticism emerges, suggesting that these reports often serve more as tools for public relations rather than authentic manifestations of a company’s commitment to sustainability. A pivotal element of this debate pertains to the content of sustainability reports. These documents frequently highlight substantial environmental initiatives and corporate policies aimed at reducing carbon footprints and enhancing social welfare. However, the extent to which these declarations are mirrored by concrete actions remains contentious.

The absence of standardized guidelines in sustainability reporting further amplifies these inconsistencies. No universally endorsed framework or standards currently govern the reporting process, although organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) provide guidelines. Nevertheless, the uptake of these guidelines varies significantly across different companies and regions. This lack of uniformity complicates the comparison of sustainability practices across various entities, affording companies considerable discretion in their disclosures.

Another dimension of this discourse is the strategic misalignment between a company’s sustainability reporting and its core business strategies. In some instances, sustainability initiatives are not integral to the primary decision-making processes and cultural ethos of the company. This misalignment may result in sustainability being overshadowed by the pursuit of immediate financial returns, especially in sectors where environmental and social costs are not readily internalized. This is the key element of the debate as companies’ approaches to sustainability are largely governed by if they see it as a key strategic driver that needs to be internalised into their core business models, or merely as a legislative and governance requirement that needs to be complied with.

Given the above context, this paper aims to examine the transition of worldviews highlighted in sustainability reporting practices of multinational companies over time. The purpose of this study was not to compare companies’ actual sustainability performances with what was reported, but rather to assess their worldviews and approaches to sustainability reporting practices, to assess if they are approaching sustainability from a weak or strong sustainability worldview and if this has shifted over time. This was done by conducting a longitudinal content analysis of sustainability and annual reports of a sample of ten multinational companies listed on the South African JSE/FTSE top 40 index.

FTSE, previously referred to as the Financial Times Stock Exchange, is a financial organization based in the United Kingdom that specializes in offering indices for global financial markets. FTSE Russell Group ( is the current name of the organization. The FTSE/JSE is created to showcase the performance of the stock values of companies in South Africa. The performance of the FTSE/JSE is a measure of how the collective value of the stocks within the index is changing over time, reflecting broader economic trends, investor sentiment, and market dynamics. It offers investors a comprehensive and complementary range of indices that gauge the performance of significant capital and industry segments of the South African market. The key components of the FTSE/JSE can be categorised into the following:

  1. 1.

    Top 40 Index: This represents the 40 largest companies listed on the JSE, based on market capitalization. This index is often watched closely by investors as a key indicator of market health.

  2. 2.

    All Share Index (ALSI): This is a broader index, including a larger number of stocks than the Top 40, providing a more comprehensive view of the market’s performance.

  3. 3.

    Sector Indices: The FTSE/JSE also has indices for specific sectors, like mining, financials, industrials, etc. These are useful for tracking the performance of these sectors.

  4. 4.

    Market Capitalization Weighted: The indices are typically weighted by market capitalization. This means that companies with a higher market value have a larger influence on the index.

The period for the longitudinal study was framed by when the sample companies started reporting on sustainability which was from 2016 to 2021. There is some variation in the timing of reporting as not all companies began their reporting on sustainability simultaneously. The JSE/FTSE was chosen as the companies listed in the top 40 represent 80% of the value of the JSE/FTSE (JSE 2020). The content analysis made use of (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018a) five stages of corporate sustainability model to position companies’ sustainability reports within the five stages. Landrum and Ohsowski (2018a) indicate that their model of the stages of corporate sustainability was built on Pearce’s (1993) sustainability spectrum and incorporates Hartwick (1977); Solow (1993); and Daly’s (1973) work that identifies the differences between weak and strong sustainability. The stages along the sustainability spectrum are linked to four worldviews. These range from technocentric being associated with weak sustainability to ecocentric being associated with strong sustainability, recognising that economic growth is bounded. Their model is further unpacked later in this paper. This study contributes to the knowledge base of CSR and ESG by utilizing content analysis to provide an analysis of current sustainability reporting in South African-based multinationals.

The overarching research question and key contributions of this paper are the following:

To what extent have multinational corporations listed on the JSE/FTSE been transitioning towards stronger sustainability world views in their sustainability reporting practices?

The key contributions are:

  1. A.

    To identify the common themes reported on in current sustainability reports of the chosen sample of JSE/FTSE companies.

  2. B.

    To assess the sustainability approaches of the sampled multinationals as revealed through the content analysis of their reports.

  3. C.

    To examine if sustainability reporting approaches have changed over time to reflect a move towards a stronger sustainability approach and an incorporation of boundary setting.

The paper is structured as follows. Section one outlines the literature review and evolution of CSR and ESG, before introducing the method in section two. Section three presents the results of the study, followed by section four which contains the discussion and limitations of the research. Section five contains the conclusion and summary of the key findings.

Literature review

Planetary boundaries framework

For the last three decades, countries have been unable to fulfill the essential needs of their populations while maintaining a level of resource usage that is sustainable worldwide. The United Nations has declared the period from 2021 to 2030 as the “Decade of Action,” (United Nations, 2020). A critical period in which humanity must take urgent and decisive action to address the environmental and social challenges facing the planet. In recent times scientific work has been undertaken to define biophysical processes, pressures, and limits at a planetary scale (Rockström et al., 2009; Raworth, 2017; O’Neill et al., 2018). Rockström et al. (2009) have identified nine critical planetary boundaries that must not be exceeded to ensure a sustainable and equitable society. These boundaries encompass both environmental and social factors that are essential for supporting life on earth. Specifically, the nine boundaries are climate change, rate of biodiversity loss in terrestrial and marine ecosystems, interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, change in land use, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading.

These boundaries are crucial to ensure that humanity can live within safe ecological limits, and not exceed the earth’s carrying capacity. When considered holistically these boundaries establish a “safe operating space” within which the stable conditions of the Holocene era can be preserved. However, currently, four of the seven planetary boundaries that have been measured, namely biosphere integrity, climate change, biogeochemical flows, and land-system change have been exceeded (O’Neill et al., 2018). The development of social boundaries is guided by the work of Raworth (2012) in the development of a framework for a safe and just space (SJS).

Raworth’s framework identifies 11 social issues that were mentioned in at least 50% of the submissions to Rio + 20, which together form the basis of the social foundation necessary for a safe and just space. This framework is based on the theory of human needs which argues that there is a finite set of universal and non-substitutable basic human needs which have underlying characteristics that can be measured empirically (O’Neill et al., 2018). Raworth (2012) merges the concept of (Rockström et al., 2009) planetary boundaries with social boundaries. This framework follows a strong sustainability approach as it requires the conservation of critical natural stocks (planetary boundaries) as well as the preservation of essential human and social capital stocks (basic needs requirement) (O’Neill et al., 2018). Figure 1 is a graphical representation of the combined planetary boundaries and social safe and just framework.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Planetary boundaries framework. Source: Fanning et al. (2021)

Change in paradigms and practices is required if meeting the basic human needs of the population with processes of production and consumption that honour the ecological limits of the planet is to be achieved. This will require a transition and transformative change by all sectors of society. Companies have a critical role to play in this transition and will require a shift to stronger action orientated practices and reporting.

(Gorissen et al., 2016) note that the grand challenges that face the globe require system innovation, changing the logic of value creation and developing a mindset of systemic transformation. They note that this applies to developing sustainable business model innovation through the introduction of inter-organizational networks and even wider societal systems. This system innovation requires mutual reinforcing dynamics between entrepreneurial businesses. These dynamics should promote transformative ways of value creation and create opportunities to overcome important barriers such as business rules, behavioural norms, and success metrics. This systemic oriented and networking approach is what appears to be missing from the current business model innovation and corporate social reporting thinking (Gorissen et al., 2016).

Evolution of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental social governance (ESG)

The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) emerged in the early 1900s as corporations grew in importance because of the industrial revolution. This marked a pivotal shift in the economic and social landscape. Corporations became the driving force of economic growth and job and wealth creation, but it was also a period in which working conditions in factories and the plight of workers began to gain attention. This resulted in some industrialists beginning philanthropic activities to address the poor working conditions. This era is recognized as the beginning of welfare capitalism and the concept of corporate paternalism (Dolan & Zalles, 2022). As some corporations started to realize the human costs of solely focusing on profit-seeking practices, a notion of corporate responsibility and social welfare policies began to develop. During this period these types of activities were implemented in a spontaneous and unstructured manner, primarily as a tactical approach to curb labour activism and discourage union formation (Dolan & Zalles, 2022).

Howard Bowen’s 1953 book “Social Responsibilities of the Businessman” is often cited as the birth of modern CSR. Bowen (1953) defined CSR as decision-making based on societal values, while Carroll (1979) expanded the definition to include legal, economic, ethical, and discretionary expectations. This model has since been a foundational reference in the study and implementation of CSR. Environmental reports arose in the 1980s as a response to environmental disasters, while social reports gained prominence in the 1990s following ethical scandals (Landrum & Ohsowski 2018). Companies recognized that communicating their environmentally and socially responsible actions would enhance their reputation and generate economic advantages (Christofi et al., 2012). This led to the global expansion of voluntary reporting on environmental and social activities, culminating in the establishment of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) in the late 1990s by the United Nations Environment Programme and the non-profit Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (Brockett & Rezaee, 2012; Christofi et al., 2012).

Since the 2000’s the focus has shifted to transform CSR into a strategic requirement, highlighting its integration into day-to-day operations (Werther & Chandler 2006). This has incorporated framing CSR as a long-term strategy for integrating universal values into business practices (Aguilera et al., 2007; Chandler, 2019). Schwartz & Carroll (2008) note that CSR should move beyond charity and rather requires fundamental changes in strategy, management and culture which needs to translate into accountability for actions. Garriga & Mele (2004) classify CSR theories and approaches in four groups: (1) instrumental theories, which focus on the corporation as an instrument for wealth creation and achieving economic results; (2) political theories, which focus on the power of corporations in society and the responsible use of this power; (3) integrative theories, wherein corporation set out to meet the satisfaction of social demands; and finally (4) ethical theories, which focus on the ethical responsibilities of corporate practices. They suggest that there is scope for new theory development that integrates these four identified dimensions in relation to business and society. The work of Hamann (2006) adds to this discussion by suggesting that a research agenda should be developed, which examines business’s ability and willingness to contribute to sustainable development through CSR. Crane and Glozer (2016) identify six purposes of sustainability and CSR communication:

  1. 1.

    Stakeholder management for building relationships and influencing behaviour,

  2. 2.

    Image enhancement for portraying a positive company image,

  3. 3.

    Legitimacy and accountability to signal desirable activities,

  4. 4.

    Attitude and behavioural change of consumers,

  5. 5.

    Sensemaking to communicate how the company and stakeholders perceive their world,

  6. 6.

    Identity and meaning creation with stakeholders to establish company identity.

Despite this evolution in CSR there is still much debate in the literature around the terminology used, the theoretical grounding, the purpose and finally its impact. The terms corporate social responsibility (CSR); corporate sustainability and responsibility; corporate responsibility; corporate citizenship, environmental management; sustainable development; corporate sustainability and the triple bottom line are often used interchangeably despite ongoing debate regarding their differentiation (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018b).

The idea of the triple bottom line in sustainability reporting, which considers the connection between the economy, environment, and society, has been criticized for obscuring the relationship between these elements and the interaction between micro-organizational and macro-systemic aspects of sustainable development, (Milne & Gray, 2013). Due to the cross-boundary nature of environmental and sustainability issues, it is difficult to establish the parameters of indicators and reports that can be used to evaluate the sustainability contributions of companies.

The late 2000’s has also seen the development and integration of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria into corporate reporting practices. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environment Social and Governance (ESG) are related concepts, with ESG gaining prominence recently, especially concerning reporting initiatives. CSR focuses on a company’s internal objectives, while ESG assesses its external impact. Costa & Fonseca (2022) note that ESG, CSR and environmental management are interconnected however the focus of ESG is to provide tools and metrics to measure performance. This is especially concerning the finance industry as there is increasing demand from investors for sustainable investment options, linked to ESG performance of companies. ESG factors are increasingly being integrated into investment decision-making processes by asset managers, pension funds, and other institutional investors and are forming the basis of company reporting.

Up until the present CSR and ESG reporting has been done voluntarily, with there being a plethora of different reporting frameworks that companies can choose from to report.

As stakeholder expectations change, there is a growing recognition that CSR reporting should be mandatory for companies. The rise of CSR reporting, and more recently ESG reporting has largely arisen because of the growth of responsible investing practices. This has led to pressure being placed on listed companies to include ESG reporting into their traditional investment analyses to highlight their performances on a corporate governance level. Hamann (2006) notes that on an international level ESG reporting has been influenced by the following initiatives:

  • Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).

  • The United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI).

  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).

  • The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).

  • The Dow Jones Sustainability Index series.

  • FTSE4Good Index Series.

  • MSCI SRI Index.

The link to investment practices and corporate governance could be an explanation that the uptake of ESG/CSR reporting has primarily been in the listed company context. Figures 2 and 3 shows a timeline of the evolution of CSR towards ESG in present day, with Fig. 3 particularly depicting the noise and the complexity that has been involved in trying to institutionalise ESG frameworks. Examining Fig. 2 more closely reveals that the reporting frameworks have largely arisen out of the developed world context, and arguably have created an industry of consultants that report on behalf of multinational companies for compliance purposes.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Evolution of corporate social responsibility and environment social and governance. Source: Author’s own construct

Fig. 3
figure 3

ESG reporting frameworks timeline. Source: Johannesburg Stock Exchange (2021)

Landrum & Ohsowksi (2018) indicate that the field is in a continual state of emergence and evolution. At the heart of the debate is if companies see it purely as a communication strategy, as implementing it as incremental improvements, or purely as a new means to increase brand image and financial returns (Du et al., 2010). Adams (2017) notes that ESG or integrated reporting does address the issues of creating value beyond financial profit in companies.

The debates regarding the motives and theories around CSR and ESG reporting and the overarching purpose for companies communicating sustainability activities are evident. Much of the literature notes that this is largely still driven by the perceived linkage between sustainability, intangible asset value in the form of brand value and increased financial return possibilities. The broader list of purposes mentioned by Crane and Glozer (2016) & Chandler (2019) appears to take a broader systemic view, however, on re-examination, it is evident that these purposes are still very corporate centric and ultimately to bring about positive return for the corporate itself. This is in keeping with the work of Schillebeeckx et al. (2020); Sharma (2017); Ioannou & Serafeim’s (2012) who highlight that firms respond to external pressures concerning sustainability to improve their value creation ability.

This is particularly the case for multinational corporations, who operate across many legislative and governance environments. One of the central debates in multinational corporate social responsibility revolves around the authenticity of CSR initiatives. Critics argue that many multinational corporations use CSR as a strategic tool to enhance their reputation, access new markets, and appease stakeholders, rather than out of a genuine commitment to ethical practices and social welfare. This would be supported by the view of Friedman (1970) who posited that the primary duty of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the maximization of shareholder value, constrained only by legal and ethical standards. He argued that corporate management should prioritize the interests of owners and shareholders who expect maximum profits. This approach underscores the utilization of CSR as a tool to bolster efficiency and financial performance.

Further to the view that multinationals are set on maximising returns, they often operate in countries with varying environmental regulations, labour standards, and social norms, leading to challenges in implementing uniform CSR policies. Reddy and Hamann (2018) examine the complex challenges multinational enterprises face when implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) across different global and local contexts. Multinational enterprises are influenced by a need to adhere to both universal CSR standards like those advocated by the United Nations and specific local requirements that may include unique cultural, societal, and legal demands. A major issue highlighted is that while MNEs may exhibit a strong global commitment to CSR, they often struggle to adapt these commitments to local contexts effectively. The article posits that the institutional complexity of balancing these global and local demands often leads to a standardization of CSR approaches that do not fully engage with local specificities. The relationship between global CSR commitments and local responsiveness appears to be moderated by the regulatory distance—the disparities in regulations between the home country of an MNE and the host country. They suggest that when regulatory distance is smaller, MNEs may find it easier to align their global CSR strategies with local expectations. Conversely, a larger regulatory distance might hinder this alignment.

This research adds to the literature on global-local CSR dynamics by suggesting that the responsiveness of multinationals to local CSR demands is not only a function of their global CSR policies but also of the regulatory environments between their home and host countries. What it also highlights is that CSR for many multinationals is still very much driven as a response to regulatory and policy pressures, rather than the strategic prioritisation and internalisation of CSR priorities into business models.


Content analysis is a research method used to analyse and interpret the meaning of text-based data. It involves systematic and objective coding of the content to identify patterns and themes (Guthrie & Abeysekera, 2006). (Zhang & Wildemuth, 2005) define qualitative content analysis as an integrated qualitative data reduction and sense-making strategy that uses qualitative material as its dataset and attempts to identify the core constructs and meanings. Although defined as qualitative, it makes use of systematic classification to identify themes or patterns. This approach allows researchers to understand a subject matter in a subjective but scientific manner. Thematic content analysis has been widely used to review Corporate Social Responsibility Reports, including by the following authors (Antonini & Larrinaga, 2017); (Baral & Pokharel, 2017); (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018b; Aggarwal & Singh, 2019; Guthrie & Abeysekera, 2006). This method is utilized as it enables the identification of recurring themes and patterns. It provides a structured and systematic approach to analyzing the data and identifying relevant information. By using thematic content analysis, researchers can identify the frequency and prominence of certain themes, assess the tone and language used to discuss social responsibility issues and identify any areas of strength or weakness in the company’s social responsibility practices.

Figure 4 captures the four worto identify patterns and themesldviews along the sustainability spectrum

Fig. 4
figure 4

Four worldviews along the sustainability spectrum

Further exploring the underlying terminologies found entrenched in these worldviews, reveals the following:

Environmental managerialism

refers to a management approach that integrates environmental considerations into business practices and decision-making processes. This is a management approach that emphasizes technical solutions and market-based mechanisms for addressing environmental challenges (Schaltegger et al., 2015). It is a practice that prioritizes efficiency and finding the least cost solution to balancing environmental protection and economic growth (Bansal & Roth, 2000). Proponents see it as a pragmatic solution, bridging the gap between environmental protection and economic development. Critics, however, argue that it prioritizes economic profit over ecological sustainability, perpetuating existing power structures and masking underlying environmental problems (Luke, 2003; Gray & Bebbington, 2007).

The cornucopian view

is a perspective that posits technological innovation and free markets will eventually provide solutions to environmental and resource scarcity challenges. This view is characterized by an optimistic belief in human ingenuity and the ability of technological advancement to continually improve living standards while overcoming any environmental or resource-based limitations. Cornucopians generally argue that concerns about overpopulation, resource depletion, and environmental degradation are overstated and that human creativity and economic growth will lead to sustainable solutions. Critics of this viewpoint argue that this approach ignores the finite nature of Earth’s resources or planetary boundaries and that it leads to an underestimation of environmental challenges (Jackson, 2009).

Deep ecology

is an environmental philosophy and social movement that emphasizes the intrinsic value of all living beings, regardless of their utility to human needs. This philosophy advocates for a profound rethinking of the relationship between humans and the natural world, promoting the idea that humans should live in harmony with, rather than in dominance over, the natural environment. Deep ecology argues for a systemic change in societal values and behaviors, emphasizing ecological balance and the interdependence of all forms of life (Naess, 1989). This worldview has been criticized for its proposals being unrealistic and difficult to implement, especially in relation to making difficult decisions around resource use and conflicting interests (Dryzek, 2022).

Environmental stewardship

refers to the responsible use and protection of the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practices. It also refers to the responsibility we hold to care for and protect the natural environment. It encompasses a broad range of activities including the management of natural resources, preservation of ecosystems, reduction of pollution, and advocacy for environmentally responsible policies and practices. The concept is based on the understanding that humans have an ethical obligation to maintain and improve the health of the environment for future generations (Worrell & Appelby 2000). It is argued that this viewpoint can lead to the possibility of ‘greenwashing’ under the umbrella of stewardship, or the misrepresentation of superficial actions as meaningful stewardship. There is also the emphasis of the systemic view to be lost if too much emphasis is placed on individual action (Agyeman et al., 2003).

Table 1 describes the different stages identified in the sustainability model regarding firm activity (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018):

Table 1 Stages of sustainability model

Table 2 is adapted from (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018a) five-stage corporate sustainability model and lists the keywords that were used for coding the sample size reports. For this study the ten companies integrated financial reports and their sustainability or CSR/ESG reports were coded, to allow for comparison. A total of 254 reports were assessed. The date range for each company was guided by the earliest publishable sustainability report for that company available in the public domain, which in this study was around 2016.

Table 2 Keywords from stages of corporate sustainability model

To assess if reporting has changed over time in relation to planetary boundaries the work of (Rockström et al., 2009); and (O’Neill et al., 2018); was used to develop the keywords listed in Table 4. This work was used, as it was shown in Sect. 1 that the planetary boundaries are essential for sustaining life on earth. Key words were chosen in relation to the nine planetary boundaries (Rockström et al., 2009) and the eleven social boundaries (O’Neill et al., 2018) The choice of social indicators is guided by Raworth’s framework for a safe and just space (SJS). Raworth’s framework identifies 11 social issues that were mentioned in at least 50% of the submissions to Rio + 20, which together form the basis of the social foundation necessary for a safe and just space (Raworth, 2017). The two groups of documents were searched according to the code words below using Atlas TI as a tool.

Table 3 Keyword from the planetary boundaries framework

Data collection method and sample size

The sample size for this longitudinal content analysis was the sustainability and financial reports of the top 10 companies of the South African JSE/FTSE top 40 index. This index was chosen as the companies listed in the top 40 represent 80% of the value on the JSE (JSE 2020). The link to the FTSE as well as the selection of multinationals within the top 40, gives this study a South African and global context. The top 10 companies of the top 40 index were selected as combined they make up 60% of the total value of the top 40 index at the time at which this study was undertaken which was in 2022. This is illustrated in Table 4, showing the ten companies selected, the sector, net market capitalisation (total rand value of a company’s outstanding shares) and percentage value weighting to the JSE/FTSE. The selected sample size also provided a good mix of sectors for comparison purposes.

Table 4 Top 10 constituents of JSE/FTSE top 40

Descriptive statistics of companies in sample size

Although the intention of this study was not to assess actual sustainability performance, this descriptive statistics section provides a snapshot from the year 2022 on what the sample companies reported on in their annual and sustainability reports, for economic, governance, environmental, labour and CSI expenditures. The data for economic indicators shown in Table 5, expose a stark income disparity within companies, particularly significant when long-term incentive plans (LTIP) are included. The ratios indicate that executive directors earn exponentially more than the average employee, with some ratios exceeding 100 times. This disparity may contribute to internal organizational tensions and external criticisms, potentially impacting the social sustainability of these companies. High income disparity ratios create a complex web of challenges that undermine efforts toward achieving strong sustainability, especially concerning social boundaries.

Table 5 Economic indicators of samples of companies

Income Disparity Ratio: Average Compensation paid to Executive Directors relative to Average Compensation Paid to Employees (LTIP: Long-term incentive plans).

The governance data in Table 6 highlights a lack of gender parity and diversity on company boards, with few companies achieving 50% representation of women. The limited reporting on potential conflicts of interest and shareholder rights to vote on sustainability resolutions suggests gaps in transparency and stakeholder engagement, which are critical for effective governance and accountability.

Table 6 Governance indicators of sample companies

The labour statistics in Table 7 reflect a significant gender gap in managerial positions and overall employment, alongside a lack of substantial representation of historically disadvantaged social groups (HDSA) in top management across most companies. This indicates ongoing challenges in achieving diversity and inclusion, which are essential for fostering innovation and reflecting societal values within corporate structures.

Table 7 Labour indicators of sample companies

The indicators that reveal a lot of nonreporting gaps are those relating to environmental indicators in Table 8. The environmental data presented for these companies reveals significant areas for improvement, particularly in enhancing energy efficiency, increasing the use of renewable energy sources, and investing more in carbon and waste management strategies. The reported data illustrates a stark contrast in the use of renewable versus non-renewable energy sources among the companies. Notably, British American Tobacco and Compagnie Financière Richemont report some usage of renewable energy, though the overall percentage remains low compared to non-renewable sources. Sasol shows significant reliance on non-renewable energy, with over 341 million gigajoules consumed. The efficiency of energy use, measured as energy consumed per person-hour worked, is sporadically reported, with only a few companies providing data. This metric is crucial for understanding how effectively energy is utilized within operations. Sasol, for example, shows a high energy consumption rate per person-hour, which may indicate less efficient energy use. Very few companies report on carbon offsets or specific expenditures on carbon mitigation projects, which raises questions about the commitment to offsetting or reducing their carbon footprint. Data on investments in waste efficiency improvements is notably absent, indicating a potential lack of focus or reporting in this area.

The reporting gaps and inconsistencies also suggest a need for standardized environmental reporting to better compare and assess environmental performance across companies. The data underscores the importance of integrating sustainable practices into core business strategies to mitigate environmental impacts and align with global sustainability goals.

Table 8 Environmental indicators of sample companies

Finally, the data on the companies’ CSI spend in Table 9, reveal that some don’t report on it and those that do, show that they all spend less than 1% of total revenue generated on CSI. This again speaks to the creation of a safe and just operating space and is perhaps indicative of an under performance on the social pillar of sustainability.

Table 9 CSI expenditures of sample companies

These descriptive statistics above seem to validate the need for a change in paradigms and practices if meeting the basic human needs of the population with processes of production and consumption that honour the ecological limits of the planet is to be achieved.

Data analysis method

A total of 254 reports were analysed for this research, 127 sustainability reports and 127 annual reports were downloaded from the above-mentioned companies’ websites, from the date from which they started reporting on sustainability. The rationale for choosing to analyse both reports is that one of the key critiques of sustainability reporting is that it is kept separate from conventional financial reporting. This has often resulted in a situation where conventional financial reporting continues to carry the most weight in decision making, rather than sustainability issues being integrated into the core decision making processes. In all cases, the complete text for each report was used for the analysis. Atlas TI was used as a tool to code for the key words and search the text documents. This software allowed for key words identified in Tables 1 and 2 to be searched for in each document. Keyword counts were standardized by total word count in each document to remove any biases presented in the data relating to document length. Each data point is therefore represented as the key word count divided by the total word count of the document.


The results section presents the key findings from the coding of the 254 documents.

Figure 5 shows the count for the number of times the key words (listed in Table 2) occurred across all the 254 documents. It is clear from the data that key words that came up the most in the documents fell into stage 2- business centred and stage 1- compliance. The numeric gap between these two categories and the other three is significant.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Occurrence of the keywords searched for

Figure 6 further expands on the keyword findings by showing the occurrence of individual words searched for in the different stages. It is evident that the word risk, dominated across all the 254 documents followed by the words market; cost; growth, and strategy.

Fig. 6
figure 6

Frequencies of individual key word

Table 10 shows the list of key words that were not mentioned across all the 254 documents. It is noted that all the words that received zero counts were from stages 4 and 5 of the sustainability spectrum model. These are the two stages associated with strong sustainability.

Table 10 Key words not mentioned in the documents

Figure 7 shows the frequency of the highest co-occuring words that featured across the 254 documents. It is interesting to note that the market and risk featured the strongest and that risk was not at all associated with any environmental or social issues but predominantly spoken about concerning the market, strategy, and compliance.

Fig. 7
figure 7

Highest co-occuring words

Table 11 presents a longitudinal analysis of the top three occurring words in both the sustainability reports and annual reports of the selected sample from 2008 to 2021. There has been very little change in the top three occurring words in both the annual reports and sustainability reports. The words risk and market have dominated the sustainability and annual reports, with profit and cost also featuring strongly in the annual reports.

Table 11 Longitudinal analysis of top three occurring words 2008–2021

Turning to the keywords searched for from the table to concerning the planetary boundaries framework, Figs. 8 and 9 show the following results. Figure 8 provides a longitudinal analysis of the keywords found in the annual reports from 2008 to 2021. The words employment, education and climate change dominate these reports. Concerning climate change, it is noted that it has started to feature significantly from 2017 onwards.

Fig. 8
figure 8

Planetary boundaries keywords in annual reports 2008–2021

Figure 9 indicates the longitudinal analysis of of the keywords found in the sustainability reports from 2008 to 2021. Climate change, biodiversity and CO2 were the keywords that were found the most frequently. It is evident that from 2015 onwards climate change and CO2 has outstripped the other planetary boundaries keywords. It is also evident that from 2019 onwards biodiversity has started to feature more strongly in the sustainability reports but not in the annual reports.

Fig. 9
figure 9

Planetary boundaries keywords in sustainability reports 2008–2021

Table 12 indicates what words the planetary boundaries key words were most used in conjunction with. The first finding to highlight is like the keywords from the stages of sustainability model, some keywords did not occur at all in the 254 documents. These were:


Chemical Pollution

Ocean Acidification

Freshwater Consumption

Land System Change



Democratic Quality

Income Equality

Table 12 Planetary boundaries key words and co-occurrence words

It is also interesting to note that when examining the top keywords found in the annual and sustainability reports, they are all co-occuring with words from stages 1 & 2 of the stages of sustainability model. That is compliance and business centered words indicating weak sustainability worldviews. Except for the keyword biodiversity where it is evident it features together with the word partnerships and ecosystems which are from stages 4 of the sustainability model, which is classified as regenerative.


By conducting a content analysis of corporate sustainability and annual reports, this study aimed to uncover to what extent multinational corporations listed on the JSE/FTSE have transitioned towards stronger sustainability worldviews in their reporting practices. Through the communication and language used of activities documented in sustainability and annual reports, a company’s perspective on the meaning of corporate sustainability can be revealed (Landrum & Ohsowski, 2018a) five-stage corporate sustainability model and the work of (Rockström et al., 2009); and (O’Neill et al., 2018); was used to assess if companies have transitioned to stronger sustainability reporting practices. The results provided several significant findings for analysis.

The first key finding is that the dominant focus of the reporting processes is on stage 2, which centres around business objectives, followed by stage 1, which emphasizes compliance. This pattern has remained unchanged over time, with risk, market, cost, and growth consistently identified as the prevailing themes across all 254 reports. This indicates that sustainability is still being approached from a perspective of weak sustainability, where the dominant paradigm is “business as usual” and sustainability is primarily understood as compliance with regulations or activities that can enhance market and financial value. According to Humphreys and Brown (2008), sensemaking involves the use of narratives as a means of control and power, shedding light on power dynamics within organizations. Large and influential organizations employ narratives to shape the interpretation of sustainability, both internally and externally. In this analysis, the most common sensemaking process observed is the business case for sustainability, which prioritizes incremental improvements without requiring significant changes from the current state.

This is in keeping with the work of Schillebeeckx et al. (2020); Sharma (2017); Ioannou & Serafeim’s (2012) who highlight that environmental performance is viewed as a response to a threat. They argue that firms respond to external pressures to improve their value creation ability. This response is placed on a continuum of conformance to regulation to voluntary action or it is seen as ranging from reactive to proactive.

The second finding is that the primary emphasis on business, as indicated by the frequent use of words like market and growth, demonstrates a lack of awareness regarding the interconnection between human activities and the ecological, economic, and social systems that have their own limits and capacities (Sharma & Henriques, 2005). This is supported by Table 3 which shows that words such as carrying capacity, natural systems and planetary boundaries were not mentioned at all in the 254 reports. The absence of changes in worldviews in sustainability reporting over time (Table 4) within the sample studied may also indicate that multinational companies are trapped in established patterns and ways of thinking- path dependencies (Unruh 2000). In line with the discussions on the MLP and transitions in the conceptual framework, Geels (2005) highlighted the importance of supporting the development of innovative ideas to facilitate technological and socio-technological transitions. The apparent lack of progress towards adopting sustainability mindsets focused on regenerative co-evolution suggests that the creation of protective and supportive environments for fostering niches is not occurring, thus perpetuating entrenched patterns and the continuation of business-as-usual mentalities.

The lack of transition to ground corporate social reporting in social and ecological reality is also shown in the analysis of the keywords searched for in relation to planetary boundaries. The lack of thought regarding these realities were made conspicuous by their absence. This is seen in relation to the following words that were not mentioned at all:


Chemical Pollution

Ocean Acidification

Freshwater Consumption

Land System Change



Democratic Quality

Income Equality

Upon further examination of this list, it becomes evident that crucial concepts like the biosphere, freshwater consumption, and land system change, among others, are vital for sustaining life on Earth. However, these concepts are not recognized as key parameters that should guide corporate reporting activities and be deeply integrated within them. Rockström et al. (2023) have just released a latest report outlining that the stability and resilience of the earth system and human well being are integrally linked. The key tipping points and boundary parameters that they focus on in this article are they biosphere, water, and aerosol pollutants. The longer corporate sustainability reporting practices take to shift away from a compliance and business mindset, the more the current status quo persists, failing to address urgent social and environmental challenges.

The transition towards acknowledging climate change is apparent in Figs. 8 and 9, as the reports increasingly mention keywords such as climate change, CO2, and biodiversity. However, when considering the co-occurring words in Table 5, it becomes clear that these topics are still being approached primarily from a business-centered and compliance-oriented perspective. Even the topic of employment, which received the most attention in the annual reports, was predominantly discussed in terms of cost and risk rather than recognizing its positive contribution to social embeddedness.

Considering the vulnerability of the planetary boundaries highlighted in the conceptual framework, the failure to transition towards a stronger sustainability worldview instead of a weaker one will lead to insufficient efforts in tackling the environmental and social challenges confronting humanity. This brings us back to the debate between the need for incrementalism or radical change within organisations. Approaching sustainability from a business centred and compliance approach is not going to result in the required deep transitions towards creating safe operating spaces for humanity. It is evident that niche innovations are required within the corporate sector that will result in culture shifts that acknowledge the embeddedness of economic activity within social and natural environments.


It is important to note that this study has the following limitations. Firstly, many reporting standards have specific reporting guidelines to follow when reporting. This could therefore influence what the companies have reported on. Similarly, many companies outsource their sustainability reporting to consultants which develop templates which are then potentially just repeated yearly which could be a reason for a lack of change over time not being evident. However, even if this is the case it does potentially show that sustainability reporting is not central to the business activity but rather seen as a compliance issue, reinforcing the findings of this study. It is crucial to acknowledge that the primary aim of this study was to examine the evolution of sustainability worldviews based on the submitted reports, and it does not provide an assessment of the actual sustainability performance of the companies within the sample size. As a suggestion for future research, it would be valuable to compare the real sustainability performance of the multinational companies in this sample size by analyzing the metrics provided in their corporate reports and correlating them with the narrative presented.


The key findings and contributions of this content analysis can be summarized as follows:

Corporate reporting amongst the sample size for this study is still very focused on compliance with reporting requirements and business centred; (2) There is lack of evidence that there has been a shift of business towards an embedding mindset of their operations; (3) Although there has been an increase in acknowledgement of climate change in their reporting since 2014 onward, this is still being engaged with from a compliance and business centered mindset; (4) The engagement with boundaries and in particular science-based planetary boundaries has not transitioned over time. Based on the four findings, it is evident that a fundamental shift in sustainability mindsets within the multinational and corporate sectors is imperative and urgent to instigate the required transformation in business practices.

Data availability

The data used in this study is all publicly available from the sustainability and annual reports of the companies in the sample size. The tables and analysis of the data are contained in this paper.



Adult Basic Education and Training


All share index


Carbon Disclosure Project


Carbon Dioxide


Carbon Dioxide equivalents


Corporate Social Investment


Corporate Social Responsibility


Environmental Social Governance


Financial Times Stock Exchange




Global Reporting Initiative


Historically disadvantaged


Johannesburg Stock Exchange


Kilowatt hours


Long term incentive plans


Megawatt hours


Sustainable Development Goals


Safe and Just Space


United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment


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I would like to acknowledge Dr Lucy Baker from the Open University and Professor Erika Kraemer Mbula from the College of Business and Economics and Chair of the DST/NRF/Newton Fund Trilateral Research Chair in Transformative Innovation, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Sustainable Development at the University of Johannesburg for their guidance and clarity of input into this paper.


This work is based on the research fully supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grant Number: 118873).

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Kassier, L. Identifying transitions in corporate sustainability reporting: a content analysis of JSE/FTSE multinational sustainability reports from 2016 to 2021. Int J Corporate Soc Responsibility 9, 12 (2024).

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