One range of Walmart underwear now comes in bundles rather than boxes, reducing the corrugated paper used last year by 590 tonnes.

WPP did pro bono work for an organisation that fights eating disorders. The communications group designed copies of famous paintings, replacing the female figures with skeletal nudes, and hung them in galleries alongside the originals.

BHP Billiton, the mining company, built a paediatric ward at King Edward Hospital in Durban.

We know all this from the tomes the companies have published, outlining their commitment to sustainability or corporate responsibility.

The Global Reporting Initiative, which provides guidelines for these publications, says the number of companies producing them has increased from 44 in 2000 to 1,849 last year. Many countries now require them, either by law or as a condition of stock exchange listing.

Do the reports do any good? There are three arguments against them. First, that they distract companies from what should be their central task: producing a return for shareholders. If managers want to build hospital wards or support eating-disorder campaigns, they should do so in their own time and with their own money.

The second objection is that companies are simply going through the motions, “box ticking”, and that there is little substance to what they claim to be doing.

The third objection is that, while the reports might reflect real projects, they are there to hide nefarious behaviour and that they are little more than “greenwashing”.

Many companies dismiss the first objection. By cutting out the corrugated paper, Walmart reduces costs and drives up margins while at the same time helping to save the planet. There are other examples in the Walmart report of both shareholders and the environment benefiting, such as a new store design in China that aims to reduce energy consumption by 40 per cent.

Companies also claim attention to sustainability or responsibility assists shareholders by protecting corporate reputations, which helps attract and retain higher-quality employees and makes it less likely that governments will try to impose new regulations.

Businesses can even use their sustainability campaigns to come up with new products: plastic bottles from Walmart stores have been turned into dog beds.

But the evidence that all this translates into superior financial results is thin. George Serafeim of Harvard Business School and Ioannis Ioannou of London Business School say that studies into the link between corporate responsibility and financial performance have produced inconsistent results. A meta-analysis of 167 studies found a positive overall effect, but it was small.

The academics do point to evidence that companies perceived as socially responsible receive more favourable recommendations from stock market analysts. However, they concede this may be because companies in the limelight adopt responsibility policies and these are the same companies that most attract analysts’ admiration.

It is far easier to dismiss the box-ticking allegation. It is not just that these reports are extensive – the Walmart and WPP ones are about 100 pages long and BHP’s is not far behind. It is that their accounts of committees, discussion documents and assessments on everything from ethics to employee health to sustainable supply chains indicate just how much management time and cost has been devoted to the subject.

Is it all greenwash? Profs Serafeim and Ioannou say that in countries where sustainability reporting is mandatory, companies devote more time to training and have better corporate governance and lower levels of corruption. Isn’t this because these are more developed countries? The academics counter that you can track the positive changes back to when sustainability reporting became compulsory.

Nevertheless, BHP has admitted that it has launched an internal investigation into possible violations of anti-corruption laws and has handed information to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Burson-Marsteller, a WPP subsidiary, recently admitted contravening its own policies by secretly working for Facebook to place damaging stories about Google.

Corporate responsibility reporting forces managers to think more clearly about the right thing to do. It doesn’t guarantee they will do it.

michael.skapinker@ft.com

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