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Sustainability Assurance in Different Institutional Contexts: Evidence from the UK and China

HE, XINWU (2022) Sustainability Assurance in Different Institutional Contexts: Evidence from the UK and China. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Author-imposed embargo until 15 August 2025.


The literature on sustainability assurance calls for an extension of current theorising, more engagement in research exploring sustainability assurance practice within organisations, and a more nuanced understanding of sustainability assurance within different national contexts. This thesis contributes to this field and develops theoretical extensions of institutional theory by exploring the adoption, pattern, and quality of sustainability assurance in the UK and China. The principal objective of the thesis is to interpret how different institutional contexts influence sustainability assurance practice. A conceptual framework is formulated, built upon neo-institutional theory, a framework by Smith et al. (2011) and previous literature, to capture relevant factors explaining the institutionalisation of sustainability assurance within a certain organisational field.

Empirically, this thesis consists of three components. First is a qualitative content analysis of 118 UK and 40 Chinese sustainability assurance statements (158 in total) issued in the years 2008, 2012, and 2016; Second is survey research strategy with two questionnaires; third is 33 semi-structured interviews with CSR reporting directors/managers, CSR consultants, sustainability assurance providers, and sustainability/CSR experts in the UK and China. The key findings indicate that the development of CSR reporting influences the adoption of sustainability assurance at the country level. Increased reporting regulations and societal expectations cause coercive isomorphism in the CSR reporting field over time and further drive UK companies to seek sustainability assurance even though they are not required. In comparison, the limited adoption of sustainability assurance in China is related to the formative phase of CSR reporting. The Chinese government plays an essential role in promoting CSR reporting and awareness. Chinese companies publish CSR reports in response to relevant governmental and listing requirements (an element of coercive isomorphism). However, most Chinese companies are reluctant to adopt sustainability assurance due to the absence of relevant regulatory requirements. Notably, some Chinese companies adopt a Chinese CSR report rating service as a substitute for sustainability assurance, revealing how they ceremonially use a (so-called) credibility-enhancing mechanism of CSR reporting while decoupling themselves by a more economically efficient practice. The empirical evidence also highlights the role of CSR consultancy firms in educating reporting companies and influencing their decision to seek sustainability assurance.

The findings further reveal that the type of assurance provider influences the quality of sustainability assurance. Non-accounting assurance providers are associated with higher assurance quality. However, accounting assurance providers (Big-four firms) dominate the sustainability assurance market in both the UK and China contexts. Their assurance approach features considerable influence from financial auditing methodology, which tends to undermine the quality of sustainability assurance. Moreover, the findings indicate a significant degree of managerial capture during the assurance process in both the UK and Chinese contexts, which also undermines the assurance quality. Sustainability assurance largely remains an exercise of legitimation for CSR reporting companies and fails to enhance organisational transparency and stakeholder accountability.

The initial conceptual framework was revisited and applied to the Chinese context based on the empirical evidence. This ex-post revisit produced a novel framework conceptualising the institutionalisation of sustainability assurance practice in China, which is suitable for the formative phase of Chinese CSR reporting. Future research investigating sustainability assurance in China can apply and improve this conceptual framework. This thesis further contributes to the extant literature by providing evidence of the under-researched sustainability assurance practice in China, comparing the sustainability assurance practice within different institutional contexts, and responding to the call for engagement research. Moreover, this thesis expands neo-institutional theory framing of sustainability assurance. The proposed conceptual framework improves Smith et al. (2011)’s framework and adds “the qualities of completeness and thoroughness to theoretical work” (Whetten, 1989, p. 493). Elements adding little additional value to our understanding were deleted. Several elements were added to ensure that the proposed conceptual framework fully captures the relevant factors explaining the institutionalisation of sustainability assurance. Particularly, the addition of the CSR reporting process reorganised causal maps while investigating the dynamics of the interactions between the various field participants in the sustainability assurance field. The sustainability assurance engagement should not be viewed as a separate practice but as part of the reporting process. Further, unlike Smith et al. (2011)’s framework which is limited to the UK context, the proposed conceptual framework can be applied to the UK, Chinese, and other national contexts. The novel framework exemplifies the Chinese context by specifying field participants and isomorphic forces. Thus, this thesis offers the prospect of revealing insights into sustainability assurance in different institutional contexts.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Business > Accounting, Department of
Thesis Date:2022
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:17 Aug 2022 11:39

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