Over the last 2 decades, the literature on corporate governance and sustainability has increased substantially. In this study, we analyze 468 research studies published between 1999 and 2019 by employing three clustering analysis visualization techniques, namely keyword network clustering, co-citation network clustering, and overlay visualization. In addition, we provide a brief review of each cluster. We find that the number of published items that fall under our search criteria has grown over the years, having surged at various times including 2014. We identified three main thematic clusters, which we have called (1) corporate social responsibility and reporting, (2) corporate governance strategies, and (3) board composition. The weighted average years that major keywords appear in the literature published over the last 2 decades fall into a period of 4 years between 2014 and 2017. This is due to the massive increase in the number of publications on corporate governance and sustainability in recent years. By means of chronological analysis, we observe a transition from more abstract concepts—such as ‘society,’ ‘ethics,’ and ‘responsibility’—to more tangible and actionable terms such as ‘female director,’ ‘board size,’ and ‘independent director.’ Our review suggests that corporate governance and sustainability literature is evolving from quite a conceptual approach to rather more strategic and practical studies, while its theoretical roots can be traced back to a number of foundational studies in stakeholder theory, agency theory and socio-political theories of voluntary disclosure.
Corporate governance (CG) is a set of rules and organizational structures that are the basis for correct business operation, understood as compensation for the interests—sometimes divergent—of stakeholders (Du Plessis et al. 2018). CG encompasses diferent areas in a company. It can refer as much to a series of activities and rules aimed at making companies follow specifc codes, as to the processes through which companies are directed and controlled; rules include both the laws of the country in which the company operates and internal company processes (Scherer et al. 2016). Therefore, the concept of the CG of a company includes all those rules and processes through which decisions are made; it also indicates the path to follow to achieve corporate objectives and consequently the means of achieving them as well as measuring results achieved.
Traditionally, corporate governance has been intended as a model designed to protect shareholder investments from the “claws” of opportunistic managers (Roberts and Van den Steen 2000). In recent years, however, governance has been increasingly applied to a more extensive form of monitoring of corporate activities, including the impact on society and the environment. This additional aspect related to corporate sustainability often arises in response to stakeholder requests. Indeed, sustainability is increasingly becoming an integral and decisive part of the strategies pursued by companies (Iansiti and Levien 2004), and of relationships they establish with various partners in the value chain.
Discussion and conclusion
This paper reviews the literature on corporate governance and sustainability by means of a bibliographic analysis based on keyword co-occurrence and co-citation networks. We selected 468 single publications from the Web of Science database addressing both “Corporate Governance” and “Sustainability” published between 1999 and 2019. Such publications were analyzed by using three visualization techniques: keyword co-occurrence network clustering, chronological evolution of keywords, and co-citation network clustering. Moreover, we conducted a brief review of the literature for each of the major keyword network clusters identifed.
We observed that the number of publications that fall under our screening criteria increased over time; about half of the 468 items selected from the period between 1999 and 2019 were published in the last 3 years. We believe that the increasing volume of literature on corporate governance and sustainability refects not only the growing attention to sustainability in general, but also the growing recognition of the role to be played by corporates in sustainability. Such a trend can also be observed from corporate commitments under (among other policy instruments) the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework, where corporate leaders are committed to addressing such issues as safety and environmental protection, climate change, innovative solutions to community needs as well as sustainable value creation approaches (UN 2015). We also believe that the increasing awareness of problems related to climate change—such as the Paris climate agreement reached in 2015 by 195 countries and the last Conference of the Parties (COP25) held in Madrid in 2019—provides further impetus for corporate governance literature to focus on sustainability (Rogelj et al. 2016). Under the Paris agreement, countries have committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions following Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), many of these involve corporate participation (UNFCC 2008).