Beyond Legitimacy: A Case Study in BP’s “Green Lashing”

Journal of Business Ethics 120 (4):571-584 (2014)
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Abstract

This paper discusses the issue of legitimacy and, in particular the processes of building, losing, and repairing environmental legitimacy in the context of the Deepwater Horizon case. Following the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010, BP plc. was accused of having set new records in the degree of divergence between its actual operations and what it had been communicating with regard to corporate responsibility. Its legitimacy crisis is here to be appraised as a case study in the discrepancy between symbolic and substantive strategies in corporate greening and its communication. A narrative analysis of BP’s “beyond petroleum”-rebranding and the “making this right”-campaign issued in response to the Gulf of Mexico disaster discusses their respective implications for corporate change. Further, the question is addressed why BP’s green image endeavors were so widely accepted at first, only to find themselves dismissed as corporate greenwashing now. The study concludes that where a corporation’s “green narrative” consistently evokes established narratives, its legitimacy will be judged against narrative, rather than empirical truth. Thus, the narrative will be more willingly accepted as speaking for the issuing company’s legitimacy, irrespective of whether it reflects substantive greening or not.

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