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    Seeking legitimacy for new assurance forms: The case of...
    research summary posted October 10, 2013 by Jennifer M Mueller-Phillips, last edited October 10, 2013, tagged 01.0 Standard Setting, 01.01 Changes in Reporting Formats, 15.0 International Matters, 15.05 Sustainability Services 
    Seeking legitimacy for new assurance forms: The case of assurance on sustainability reporting
    Practical Implications:

    Corporate sustainability reporting is a growing area due to increased political and social focus on corporations’ actions.  With the development of this reporting area comes the development of the associated assurance service.  Without legitimate assurance, these sustainability reports lack reliability and credibility.  Prior research has not thoroughly examined how audit firms acquire and obtain legitimacy when developing a new area of their professional practice.  This study shows the different strategies employed by audit firms to secure legitimacy with key internal and external stakeholders as it relates to sustainability reporting.   

    For more information on this study, please contact Brendan O’Dwyer.


    O’Dwyer, B., D. Owen, and J. Unerman. 2011. Seeking legitimacy for new assurance forms: The case of assurance on sustainability reporting. Accounting, Organizations and Society 36: 31-52.

    sustainability reporting; legitimacy; assurance reports.
    Purpose of the Study:

    There has been an increased engagement of audit firms to provide assurance services for corporate sustainability reports. This is a new area of assurance with no established standards or reporting formats.  This paper focuses on the strategies practitioners have used to attempt to legitimize sustainability assurance to key constituencies: (1) clients, (2) external users, and (3) audit firms’ internal risk and reporting department.  Establishing legitimacy is crucial to the development and acceptance of sustainable assurance reporting.

    Design/Method/ Approach:

    The authors use a case study to examine the processes undertaken in the sustainability assurance division of a Big 4 firm to legitimize its actions to the three key groups listed above.  Processes of legitimation are key parts of developing new forms of assurance.  There are three types of legitimacy within each of the three key groups the authors study:

    • Pragmatic:  addresses the groups’ focus on its specific self-interests
    • Moral: addresses the groups’ focus on the welfare of society
    • Cognitive: addresses the subconscious attitudes of the group on what is appropriate and proper
    • Audit firms must first acquire pragmatic legitimacy with the audit firm’s internal risk and reporting department.
      • High levels of sustainable reporting can only be obtained if the internal assurance reporting department of the audit firm can increase the information content of assurance statements for external users. 
    • Audit firms must then establish moral legitimacy with external users of the assurance statements.
      • The study finds that when assurors encourage reporting that increases users’ understanding of the assurance process, the assurance statement is viewed as more informative and valuable.
    • Audit firms must then develop pragmatic legitimacy with the clients.
      • By establishing moral legitimacy with external users, audit firms can show clients the external credibility benefits of sustainability reporting.
    International Matters, Standard Setting
    Changes in Reporting Formats, Changes in Reporting Formats, Sustainability ServicesTraining & General Experience