Department of Management

“Walking the environmental responsibility talk” in the automobile industry: An ethics case study of the Volkswagen environmental scandal

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review

  • Chiara Valentini
  • ,
  • Dean Kruckeberg, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, United States

Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to discuss the corporate behavior of Volkswagen in its emissions scandal. It describes and analyzes a complex ethics dilemma within the purview of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate sustainability (CS) and examines how this dilemma impacts critical stakeholders, thus offering several “opportunities to learn” for professionals. Design/methodology/approach: The case takes a stakeholder perspective, applying Cavanagh et al. (1981) and Gao’s (2008) ethical judgement framework. It is situated within a qualitative approach to textual analysis. Social actors, topics and evaluative statements were identified and grouped into broader categories. Findings: Six major stakeholders were directly affected by Volkswagen’s behavior: customers, investors and shareholders, the US Environmental Protection Agency, German authorities, European institutions and society-at-large. Stakeholder concerns were condensed into three dominant themes: economic, legal and environmental. According to the ethical judgment framework, Volkswagen corporate behavior showed ethical problems, theoretically demonstrating that under no ethical principle was Volkswagen’s actions justifiable, even under instrumental justifications. Research limitations/implications: The analysis was primarily based on corporate material and news media reporting. Consequently, diverse managers’ prospectives and opinions are not entirely captured. Practical implications: This paper offers several “opportunities to learn” for corporate communication professionals. Originality/value: The focus on stakeholder perspectives allows professionals to take an outside-in approach when evaluating the impact of corporate actions on stakeholders’ interests. The case analysis through Cavanagh et al. (1981) and Gao’s (2008) ethical judgment framework provides a practical theoretical instrument to assess corporate behaviors that can be used both as pre- and post-evaluations of corporate actions on CSR and CS issues.

Original languageEnglish
JournalCorporate Communications
Pages (from-to)528-543
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2018

    Research areas

  • Automobile industry, Case study, Corporate behaviours, Corporate social responsibility, Environmental scandal, Ethics

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