Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Would-be Environmental Accountant meets Mother Nature in a Pub: A Dialogue

By Guest Blogger Dr Jack Christian

Life is full of coincidences.  For years, I have been aware that I operate from a different worldview or metatheory than probably most other attendees at the annual CSEAR conferences.  At last week’s conference, I began to wonder how many other people might feel the same, so I asked Colin Dey (editor of the CSEAR blog) if I could publish this dialogue via the blog.  It is actually taken straight from my PhD thesis.  It is one of the chapters in fact.  My PhD was effectively an investigation into the worldviews of people who, in some way or another, account for nature.  My aim in putting it on the blog is to show how my own worldview has been/is being constructed, and maybe get some response about why others choose to work in the SEA paradigm.

The coincidence is that in the last session of the conference, Rob Gray spoke about the various worldviews held by CSEAR attendees, and his concern that these worldviews are never made explicit.  He saw this as a problem, if we did not fully understand each other we could not work together to achieve our generally shared goals.

My hope in attaching my dialogue to the CSEAR blog is that it will encourage others to investigate and share their own worldviews and make for greater understanding among our community.

The whole dialogue is quite long (20,000 words) - however, it is made up of five Acts and so it is possible to dip into each one individually.  Each Act is shown separately on my own blog, the first of which can be found at https://jackchristian4sl.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/would-be-environmental-accountant-meets-mother-nature-in-a-pub-a-dialogue-act-one/.  I also list the writers and thinkers who helped me build my worldview in my blog.


THE CHARACTERS

Mother Nature                                                   Mr Commerce
Professor Science                                              Religious Man
Young Englishman                                             Soren Kierkegaard
Martin Heidegger                                             Unidentified Frenchman
Librarian Lady                                                  Young German
Carl Gustav Jung                                              Friederich Nietzsche
Psychologist Lady                                             Ecopsychologist
Arne Naess                                                        The Romantic
Michel Foucault                                                American Academic 1
American Academic 2                                       Geographern the CSEAR 
Sociologist                                                        Policy Maker
Angry Voice                                                       Reconciliatory Voice


Introduction

Our hero, an ex-management accountant, has recently read stories of environmental management accounting and despite many years in the field of management accounting he has never heard of, let alone witnessed, this phenomenon.  He is now on a journey to find what people mean when they refer to accounting and to the environment and, indeed, what he means.

In the course of this journey he now finds himself in a large dimly-lit hostelry which has one large reception lounge in which guests can congregate.  It is an ‘Open-Mic’ night with a ‘Nature’ theme. Would be minstrels are playing songs, reciting poetry and telling tales.  A fire burns in a hearth to the side of the bar, away from the bar and the hearth the room gets progressively darker.  In the darkness there are an indistinguishable but seemingly large number of tables, most of which are occupied.  


LIST OF ACTS

Act One - Who am I and what can I know?
Act Two - Deep ecology and belief systems
Act Three - Exploring the limitations of science
Act Four - Knocking at the foundations of capitalism
Act Five - The nature of nature

Thursday, 14 January 2016

2015 CSEAR Case Study Competition Award

By guest blogger Christian Herzig, University of Kassel

Suzana Grubnic, Jean-Pascal Gond
and Christian Herzig at the 27th
CSEAR at Royal Holloway
(not on the photo: Jeremy Moon)
My colleagues Dr Suzana Grubnic, University of Loughborough, Professor Jean-Pascal Gond, Cass Business School, and Professor Jeremy Moon, Copenhagen Business School, and I are very grateful to have been awarded the 2015 CSEAR Case Study Competition award. We very much appreciated the invitation to present our teaching case study “A New Era – Moving from Climate Action to a Broader Sustainability Agenda: The Case of Commercial Group” at the 27th International Congress on Social and Environmental Accounting Research, held at Royal Holloway in late August 2015 and to publish the case (including a teaching note) in the latest issue of the Social and Environmental Accountability Journal. The case, we feel, can support lectures dedicated to CSR, sustainability or sustainable development in numerous types of accounting and management modules at different levels.

I still remember when Simon Graham, Environmental Strategist at Commercial Group, delivered his first talk as a guest speaker in my module on ‘Sustainability Accounting and Reporting’ at Nottingham University Business School more than five years ago. Students enjoyed his informative and thought-provoking lecture, his passion for the environment and positive attitude towards the impact business can make towards sustainable development. It was the beginning of a long-term relationship in terms of both welcoming him as a regular guest speaker at Nottingham and deepening our collaboration through case study research initially funded by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (some findings from this research have also been published in our CIMA study ‘Management Control for Sustainability Strategy’).

It was Simon and the sister of a sister-brother team (who together with an old school friend established the business in 1991) who set up the measurement systems at Commercial Group and sought to connect with staff members in order to empower them to make a difference. The success of Commercial Group’s journey towards a more socially responsible business since then has been remarkable and has been recognised in the form of awards including Business in the Community Big Tick 2012, Guardian Sustainable Business Award 2013, and various other prestigious awards. Commercial Group will also celebrate the tenth anniversary of its annual CSR Day next year, which serves to reach out to both customers and suppliers and engender further changes.

What makes Commercial Group an interesting case is the gradual extension of its CSR agenda. Commercial Group has always understood itself as a “caring” company, built strongly upon family principles and paying attention to valuing staff as individuals, then inculcating an impressive green agenda (e.g. achieving carbon neutrality and zero waste status) and most recently concentrating on the creation of corporate sustainable value with investment in a new social agenda four times the financial resource originally put into the environmental cause. An interesting lens through which the case can be looked at in class is the management of tensions, trade-offs and potential contradictions relating to the co-existence of the company’s multiple (economic, social and environmental) sustainability objectives. Managing tensions in corporate sustainability has become an increasingly popular topic in the management literature (see for example Hahn et al.’s recent work published in AMR or JBE). However, what role we should attribute to calculative and control practices for managing tensions appears to be a largely under-researched question. At least for debate in class, we provide some suggestions in our teaching note on how this can be reflected on and discussed together with management and accounting students.

The case, we feel, is also interesting because teaching cases often revolve around ir/responsible practices of large, usually globally operating companies which do (or do not) respond to external expectations of powerful stakeholders such as consumers, NGOs or investors. In contrast, our case is about a medium-sized business services company, independently owned, which is not up there on the high street or in the world of consumer orientated businesses. It is thus neither driven by media nor is it massively on the radar of non-governmental organisations. Instead, a mixture of moral obligations, duty of care for staff, operational efficiency and market positioning in the B2B world has driven Commercial Group’s aspirations to become a leading CSR company in its sector. The case study describes how the company has drawn upon management by measurement and management by inspiration to pursue and implement its sustainability objectives and strategy.

A related topic for discussion with students emerges from the challenges associated with the continuous growth of the organization, the difficulty of maintaining its ‘sustainability competitive advantage’ with the consolidation of its competitors, and the complexity of retaining a relationship with all workers which has largely been based upon informal and personal networks. Whilst management, on the one hand, would like to maintain the inspirational drive that was initially behind the sustainability strategy, it has on the other hand also started to debate the option of formalising and integrating measurement systems to a greater extent in the future. Initiatives that could help maintain both elements are outlined in the case and can be discussed further in class.

We genuinely hope that the case will prove helpful for others as a vehicle to provide students with practical insights into and knowledge about “accounting and control for sustainability”.

We would be grateful to receive your feedback on the case and to what extent it might have helped you in your own teaching to raise critical awareness, for example, of the role and use of management conceptions such as management by measurement and by inspiration to implement sustainability strategies.


Case Report:

Grubnic, S., Herzig, C., Gond, J-P. & Moon, J. 2015) A New Era – Extending Environmental Impact to a Broader Sustainability Agenda: The Case of Commercial Group. Social and Environmental Accountability Journal, 35(3): 176-193.


Links to Other Resources:

Arjaliès, D.-L. & Mundy, J. 2013. The use of management control systems to manage CSR strategy: a levers of control perspective. Management Accounting Research, 24(4): 284-300.


Epstein, M.J., Buhovac, A.R. & Yuthas, K. 2015. Managing social, environmental and financial performance simultaneously. Long Range Planning, 48(1): 35-45.


Gond, J-P., Grubnic, S., Herzig, C. & Moon, J. 2012. Configuring management control systems: theorizing the integration of strategy and sustainability. Management Accounting Research, 23(3): 205-223.


Hahn, T., Preuss, L., Pinkse, J. & Figge, F. 2015. Tensions in Corporate Sustainability: Towards an Integrative Framework. Journal of Business Ethics, 127(2), 297-316.


Hahn, T., Preuss, L., Pinkse, J. & Figge, F. 2014. Cognitive Frames in Corporate Sustainability: Managerial Sensemaking with Paradoxical and Business Case Frames. Academy of Management Review, 39(4): 473-487.


Moon, J., Gond, J.-P., Grubnic, S. & Herzig, C. 2011. Management control for sustainability strategy’, in Research Executive Summary Series 7(12), Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. [online]


Unerman, J. & Chapman, C.S. 2014. Academic Contributions to Accounting for Sustainable Development. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 39(6): 385-394.




Thursday, 22 January 2015

Social & Environmental Accounting for "Consom’actors"

By guest blogger Delphine Gibassier, Toulouse Business School

Green consumer audits started out with two campaigning journals (the New Consumer and the Ethical Consumer) mentioned by Gray et al. (1996). At the time, there was a relative assessment of the performance of corporations made via publically available information. Clearly targeted at the general public, those ratings were the first visible “consumer shadow accounts”. Today, corporate information is more readily accessible, through sustainable reports and websites, and multiple media channels that investigate corporate practices. The new frontier of the consumer “lobby” movement is now targeted to products. Many government-led and privately-led initiatives have started to look beyond eco-labels to try and input environmental accounting directly on the products. Tesco, Casino, Leclerc, and the Sustainability Consortium are examples of privately led initiatives (A recent and smaller initiative is the one of the French company “Bureau Vallée” which rates their office consumer goods with A/B/C/D in their shops). Publically led initiatives include the French experiment “Affichage Environnemental” and the currently in process “PEF” at the European Union level (Product Environmental Footprint).

A new way of empowering consumers with shadow environmental and social accounts is now being processed via external consultancies and their in-house developed applications. A few months ago, I downloaded on my phone the application « Noteo » (application for products notation in France). As both a researcher and a mom of three, I got teased by this application and the easiness of looking at the social and environmental (and health) impacts of products I was intending to buy while shopping.

I have got to say, I never really used it while shopping, first because shopping was a run-run time, and also because we opted out of shopping in person when our third little man entered our life this Summer (Noteo does not work on “drive” websites ;-)). However, I did test out Noteo at home (easy) and also tested the application’s possibility to give in new products that aren’t in.

As a consumer (or “consom’actor” like we say in France), I like the easiness of use and the possibility to interact by acting myself as an enhancer of the application for others (by suggesting products to be added).



I also like the way you can choose what’s most important to you (for example health before the environment, or social..), and also how you can also look at alternatives that are better graded then the one that you are about to choose.

Maybe because my “researcher mind” got the most of me, I however quickly asked myself:
-       how the grades were given, and what was really behind them:



-       how could then so quickly invest in ten of thousands of products’ grading when companies like Tesco opted out of labelling their thousands of products, it took five years to Danone to go through only a few thousands and other companies like Akzo Nobel only talk about having looked at hundreds of products..
-       and why we couldn’t see more one or two “reasons” behind the grades (such as for health, there are 10 products considered dangerous, but only 2 names are given)… not good for transparency (of Noteo)



-       and why there are no more explanations behind the “dangerous” elements (can’t click, can’t see what’s the science behind etc…)

Noteo claims that products are evaluated against 400 criteria (the website says it took five years of work before opening the application with 45,000 products available) and that it uses “IT algorithms” to aggregate raw data, before comparing products between them. The methodology is explained on their website http://www.noteo.info/la-notation/une-methodologie-fiable/, and appeals to scientific wording and describes a very impressive process of scientific rigour to impress the users and generate trust. It makes me think of the “Green Rankings” of Newsweek… Is the grading more “objective” if giving the impression of being ultra complex? Of course, Noteo is also not exempt from criticism on its business model (where the money comes from… the association has a business cousin that gets money from using their data, for example, to “help” companies make better products).

Clearly, although I like the “quick & easy” nature of the solution, the transparency of the methodology and of results are not there… As a consumer I got quickly frustrated. As the Journalist Sophie Caillat suggests in her article in 2012[1], it is easy to try and look for the “perfect” product that does not exist…  or resist to change by “habit”.

I also heard recently about other apps in other countries to become an “aware” shopper such as EarthTouch and GoodGuide (with whom Noteo says it is in contact).

EarthTouch tells us on its website that the “The Universal Ecolabel® provides an accounting method (Earth Accounting®) for monitoring the finite planetary resources used by humanity in a manner not possible with the current financial accounting system.” The universal ecolabel is described on their website http://earthaccounting.com/ecolabel.html, also no information is given on how this methodology was designed, and where the numbers come from.

GoodGuide say they combine product and company level information to characterize a product's health, environmental and social impacts. They also describe their own methodology on http://www.goodguide.com/about/ratings and explain what composes the ratings.



Good Guide
Earth Touch
Noteo
250 000 products
Not available yet
60 000 products
Social, Health, Environment
Social, Human, Environment, Animal, Manufacture, Use, Post-Use
Social, Health, Environment, Economic
American
American
French
Founded at Berkeley
Founded by a doctor
Former CSR consultant
Looks at company information
Looks at existing eco-labels

Proposes alternatives
n/a
Proposes alternatives


As SEA tools and methodologies have the “power” to make some things visible and others invisible for corporations, what about social and environmental accountings for consumers? 

What about what is being told with those applications to the consumer? And back to the supply chain?

What about the “industrialisation” of product accounting? (see also Greenext, the Casino and Leclerc tentatives in France…)

What’s the link (or non-link) with environmental labelling experiments ongoing in France, EU and the work done at the Sustainability Consortium?

So what should we make of “social and environmental accountings” behind those gradings to “empower” shoppers to be come “smart” shoppers? Have you used them?

Are the ratings impaired by the same problem the early ones had in the 90s, that is, is corporate management still reluctant to acknowledge accountability and supply information to them on each and every product (Gray et al. 1996)?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Emerging Scholars Colloquium - A Response to Questions Posed by Participants

By guest blogger Professor Robin Roberts, University of Central Florida and Member of the CSEAR Executive Council

I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the CSEAR Emerging Scholars Colloquium and look forward to being there in 2015. Thanks to the organizers and other participants. It was a great event. I appreciate the questions that are being asked here and I did my best to answer them satisfactorily. Each question deserves a lot more space and a lot more discussion. Hopefully, we can continue the conversation here and also next time we see each other.  Here goes:

  • In a field such as social and environmental accounting there must be periods where you feel deflated by the issues we write about. How do you avoid losing your passion?

I think passion is a necessary ingredient in my journey to lead a happy and productive life. I see this as especially true in my work as an SEA researcher. Sustaining a passionate engagement with my research is sometimes difficult because work and life in general pull me in many directions. Because research requires a lot of energy, it is tempting to just do what is necessary, to procrastinate, or just “phone it in”. Research also can be a very lonely exercise. For me, sustaining passion requires an engagement with other researchers who share my concerns and interests about the environment and social justice. We encourage and challenge each other to do our best work.

I can get overwhelmed by the bombardment of depressing news in the popular press, the struggles of others, or our poor stewardship of the natural environment. I like how Paul Hawken answers this question:
“When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.”


  • This is a stupid question, but in my whole academic career I've never heard anyone explain it. How does academia fit in society? Does it influence society, and, if so, how? It´s a question that could provide more meaning to the academic pursuit of knowledge.

This is not a stupid question; it is an extremely important question. People much smarter than me have written about this from many different philosophical and political perspectives. So, I will just provide a very brief and personal response. Yes, academia influences society. Its noble purpose is the pursuit of knowledge, especially knowledge that can help solve major problems, improve the lives of others, and therefore improve civil society. Through creating and disseminating knowledge we, as SEA scholars, hope to educate others in ways that improve how individuals, organizations, and institutions view and conduct their relationship with the natural environment and with others. When at its best, academia provides individuals with the tools they need to think freely and independently. As David Foster Wallace wrote in This is Water:
“…the real value of a real education…has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us that we have to keep reminding ourselves [of it]…the freedom of real education…the really important kind of freedom involves attention, awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”  
If academia provides members of society with a real education and real freedom, then society will be able to seriously confront the severe environmental and social challenges it faces.    


  • What can be the contribution of research in promoting the correct use of social and environmental reporting instruments?

As an academic researcher, I am privileged to be able to conduct research that I view as important in better understanding the world we live in. As an SEA researcher, I focus much of my research efforts on trying to better understand why corporations and other organizations make voluntary disclosures of their social and environmental activities. The more we learn about SEA reporting, the more we are able to engage in debates over what should be reported. Our collective research efforts inform other researchers, activists, and policy makers of relevant theoretical and practical considerations when seeking to establish SEA reporting guidelines. We also can use research findings to advocate for more complete and transparent SEA reporting.  
 

  • Is it too ambitious to think that accountants will play a central role in saving the world from environmental disaster?

I think it is good and healthy to dream big! An important aspect of SEA research is that it is, at its core, political. Rob Gray and others have said this many times. I think accountants play a relatively central role in all of modern society. We are much more than recorders and reporters of neutral, technical facts. As work by many critical accounting researchers have stressed, accounting plays an ideological role that legitimates corporate activities and many other actions that systematically threaten the health and safety of the environment and society. Accountants have the potential to help save the world from environmental disaster by refusing to privilege a narrow economic view of the role of accounting and by advocating for a more complete and transparent reporting of environmental and societal damage (caused by the unbridled pursuit of corporate profits).  
 

  • How can you give your time as a PhD student?

At this point in your academic career, I think that the best way to give of your time is to focus intently on becoming the very best scholar you can be. You have an entire career ahead of you to give back to the SEA discipline and our related organizations such as CSEAR. First and foremost CSEAR is a research community. By becoming the best scholar you can be you will soon find yourself in a better position to make lasting contributions. This advice does not mean to imply that you should pursue this path too selfishly—right now you can volunteer to read colleagues’ papers, participate actively and intently in research workshops, strive to gain the confidence to challenge conventional wisdom, share your experiences and failures with others less senior than yourself, etc.


  • How can we have publish work out of this colloquium as PhDs? 

The CSEAR emerging scholar colloquiums try to help new researchers learn more about SEA research, meet new colleagues, find help with their specific research program, and improve their chances to develop and complete a research project. The path toward publication for any specific research project depends on a variety of factors. I certainly hope the colloquium helps a paper along that path. I will add some advice that is critical and that new researchers seem to have trouble understanding. I think one of most important lessons for new researchers is for them to learn the importance of targeting their research to a specific audience. Don’t write your paper as if you are communicating a new idea to the whole world or even to the SEA research community. In developing your research project and in writing your paper, make sure you are very clear about your audience. Some of the rule-of-thumb advice is simple—when you decide the journal you are submitting your paper to for publication, you have decided what conversation you want to contribute to and you should be relying on work that has been published in that journal. Also, if you are not building fairly directly on prior theory and empirical work, then your project is not well-defined. Dean Neu calls this something like the “kitchen table” test. Your intended audience, that critical group of scholars who you are trying to engage in intellectual conversation, should be small enough to sit around your kitchen table. A colleague once suggested that I literally pretend that the authors are seated at the table with me, maybe physically placing their papers out in front of me while I write. If the scholars “sitting at the table” are not interested in the sentence I just wrote, because it is obvious or taken for granted or sloppy, then I should go ahead and delete it now and try again. This advice has done more for me than any other in helping me become a more disciplined writer. Chances that you will make a significant contribution to a particular area of SEA research will be much improved if you have a clear idea of the scholars you are trying to engage in conversation and discipline your writing towards that conversation.  


  • Do you think it is necessary to defend social and environment accounting against mainstream accounting? Why or why not?

A group of SEA and critical accounting scholars, which includes me, tackled a similar question in a special forum that will be published in Critical Perspectives on Accounting. You may want to be on the lookout for that issue. Academic freedom gives us the privilege to undertake SEA research how we deem fit. We don’t need to defend our research choices beyond the critical group of scholars we are trying to engage in a public, published intellectual conversation. I don’t mean this as a naive answer though. There is politics in academic accounting just like there is politics everywhere. SEA scholars often want their ideas to reach the broadest possible audience and have their work widely read and cited. Also, there are career issues that are natural to consider—performance evaluations, promotions, tenure, and remuneration are usually tied to the perceived quality of one’s research. Elite mainstream accounting journals are often perceived as publishing the “highest quality” accounting research. As opposed to framing the question as defending SEA research against mainstream accounting, I would frame it as whether it is important for SEA research to engage with other streams of accounting research. The answer for you depends on the community of scholars you are trying to engage with and their willingness to engage.  Social and environmental accounting issues are extremely important areas of accounting practice. Instead of defending SEA research, I try to persuade non-SEA accounting researchers to recognize and accept its importance, and invite them to participate in the intellectual conversation.  


  • As a PhD student without a funding grant, how can we avoid the lack of financing to endanger our passion?

This is a tough question. It is hard to maintain passion about your research program when you are struggling financially. PhD programs are chronically underfunded and PhD students are often also underappreciated. It is a shame because the vitality of our discipline depends on the production of new, passionate SEA scholars. I will make two personal comments. First, a lot of PhD students face these tough financial circumstances, but some much more seriously than others. That said, know that others have struggled through and hopefully draw strength from that knowledge. Being in a PhD program does not last forever, even if it feels like it will. Second, and I am just speaking from my own personal experience, my years as a struggling PhD student are now some of the most cherished years of my life. I know I was lucky because I had some fellow PhD students to face the financial dilemmas with me. I smile thinking about the creative ways we made ends meet, the ways we entertained ourselves without dipping into the rent money, and the lifelong friendships we formed because we took turns helping each other out.  Hopefully, you can find friends and ways to help cope with the financial hardship. Please know that your struggles and your commitment are truly acknowledged and appreciated. Also, let me buy the beer next time we meet—my thesis advisors did that for me and it was always appreciated.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Emerging Scholars Colloquium - Questions Posed by Participants

Prior to the 26th International Congress on Social & Environmental Accounting Research, CSEAR organised a very successful one-day Emerging Scholars Colloquium which aimed to introducing emerging scholars into the social and environmental accounting research community, and provide them an opportunity to present and discuss their research projects alongside a cohort of distinguished international faculty.

At this event, a number of important questions were raised by emerging scholars. CSEAR's council members felt it would be helpful to use the blog to explore these questions and generate some dialogue around the issued arising from them.

The questions were:

  • In a field such as social and environmental accounting there must be periods where you feel deflated by the issues we write about. How do you avoid losing your passion?
  • This is a stupid question, but in my whole academic career I've never heard anyone explain it. How does academia fit in society? Does it influence society, and, if so, how? It´s a question that could provide more meaning to the academic pursuit of knowledge.
  • What can be the contribution of research in promoting the correct use of social and environmental reporting instruments?
  • Is it too ambitious to think that accountants will play a central role in saving the world from environmental disaster?
  • How can you give your time as a PhD student?
  • How can we have publish work out of this colloquium as PhDs? 
  • Do you think it is necessary to defend social and environment accounting against mainstream accounting? Why or why not?
  • As a PhD student without a funding grant, how can we avoid the lack of financing to endanger our passion?

Over the coming days, members of CSEAR's executive council and others will offer their perspective on these questions. However, if you have your own views, we would welcome these too, either by commenting on the blog, or via CSEAR's facebook page. Please join in the conversation!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Responsible sustainability accounting educators and transformative educational practices

By guest blogger Professor Ian Thomson, CSEAR Executive Council Convenor


Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.
(Nelson Mandela)

Unfortunately we live in a world that is in urgent need of change. The sustainability accounting research community has long recognised the importance of effective social and environmental accounting learning, and many members of that community have been involved in the delivery of social and environmental accounting education to students across the world. The CSEAR network consider education to be an effective engagement strategy to transform our collective intellectual capital into knowledge that is useful, usable and used by others in order to make the world a more sustainable place.

This blog was inspired by a recent article in Accounting Forum by Gray, Brennan and Malpas (2014), which argued for a reframing of social accounting and the construction of a more responsible social accounting academic community. Writing in a commentary piece in response to Gray et al., I reflected on the potential value of involving the student population in the co-production of sustainable accounting knowledge and in collective, targeted educational programmes of sustainable transformation. These reflections were designed to complement the efforts of dedicated individuals delivering high quality sustainable accounting educational experience to fragmented groups of students and to consider the potential of more organised, integrated and coherent programmes of sustainable accounting education. There does appear to be a need to consider reframing sustainable accounting education in a way that facilitates effective learning in sustainability and accounting for sustainability.

This blog is intended to encourage others to join in thinking about designing a collaborative educational infrastructure, creating effective learning opportunities, alternative assessments, enhanced research capacity in order to collectively leverage the sustainability accounting community’s transformative potential. I would argue that we are guilty of ignoring or under-estimating the transformative potential of our students. For example, consider the ‘waste’ of hundreds/thousands of hours of student effort producing insightful essays, projects, dissertations that remain largely unread (other than markers) sitting rotting in cupboards or taking up space in computer servers. We need to consider how to better harness the impact of the collective efforts of our students.

Here are some ideas to start this process of integrating student learning and our research in order to co-produce usable knowledge for change. The underlying concept is to co-ordinate aspects of the accounting education of all students studying sustainability accounting and share their work with others.

For example:
  • Students researching and submitting responses to consultations on new social accounting standards and/or sustainability regulations as part of their assessment. 
  • Students monitoring the human rights impact of selected organisations and submitting their findings into an open-access database of corporate human rights abuse. 
  • Students undertaking shadow accounts of the same multinational corporations and compiling these into a global library of shadow accounts.
  • Students creating a global crowd sourced map of carbon emissions/water shortages or participating in a collaborative programme of public accountability (see www.ushahidi.com
  • Students participating in a scenario planning exercise engaging in a shared dialogue on the future of social accounts.
  • Students participating in alternative reality games dealing with issues such as a world without oil, mass human migration, climate catastrophes or the collapse of capitalism (see also http://janemcgonigal.com/)

I am sure that others will have other ideas and hope you will share them with the wider sustainability accounting community. This post is a call to join in the next wave of sustainable accounting education.

Links to other resources

Bebbington J. (1997) Engagement, education and sustainability: a review essay on environmental accounting Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal 10 (3) 365-381.
Cadiz, M. and Thomson, I. (2013) Sustainability and Accounting Education, Accounting Education: An International Journal, 22(4) 303-308.
Christensen, L., Peirce, Hartman, Hoffman and Carrier (2007)  Ethics, CSR, and Sustainability Education in the Financial Times Top 50 Global Business Schools  Journal of Business Ethics, 73(4), 347-368,
Collison, D., J. Ferguson and L. Stevenson (2007) Sustainability accounting and education in Unerman J., J. Bebbington and B. O’Dwyer (2007) (Eds)  Sustainability Accounting and Accountability (London: Routledge)
Cooper, S. Parkes, C. & Blewitt, J. (2014) Can education help a leopard change its spots? Social accountability and stakeholder engagement in business schools  Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, 27(2), 234-258.
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Monday, 21 July 2014

From counting money to counting CO2 emissions: the role of management accounting

By guest blogger Martin Quinn

As a management accountant and a researcher, what I am going to say here might be quite obvious. I completely appreciate the work of CSEAR members as well as efforts made by some companies to produce some form of environmental or sustainability reports.

I have a rather dull view of financial reporting of any kind to be honest – it is only done because it has to be, primarily to satisfy legal requirements and shareholders. I am in the middle of reading Capital Wars by Daniel Pinto. In the book he notes that the average period of holding a share in US public companies is now 5 months (see also here: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/b0c45128-890c-11e3-9f48-00144feab7de.html ). This give us some idea of the relevance of financial reports. So, yes I would say this, but isn’t management accounting then more important? Perhaps what we need is companies to not only take sustainability and environmental reporting seriously – and it will probably take laws to do this – but also to instil the same issues into their internal accounting. In my experience, it does not take much for a management accountant to change their skills from counting money to counting CO2 emissions, waste or energy consumed for example.

Maybe people like myself should specifically teach such things in a standard management accounting course, but as I said, management accountants are good at counting things and controlling things – we just need to encourage them somehow. For example, over a decade ago I worked for a paper company. Every piece of waste paper was captured, baled, weighed and ultimately sold on for recycling. The primary reason for the relatively complex control system was we could generate about €300,000 per annum in revenue. Then, at some stage we had to join the Green Dot initiative and account for waste to an authority. With the system already in place, the changes needed were easily made. Basically, we had to define the type of waste in more detail – cuttings of paper, waste sheets, and even dust. These changes, along with the fact that the more waste we generated, the more we paid to Green Dot , made managers focus on waste reduction and keep an eye on the reports to see what was happening.

Taking my example above, it would be very easy to report externally on waste generated, recycled or sold. But, in my opinion there is a difference between this example and an externally imposed report. As my example comes from within, it is accepted and used by all and taken seriously. Something imposed from outside might not be as easily accepted – well at least that’s what my research on organisational routines tells me.


Martin Quinn is Lecturer of Accounting at Dublin City University, Ireland, where he teaches at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. He is also a registered Chartered Management Accountant. Martin’s blog on accounting related topics can be found at martinjquinn.com. He is also a co-author of a major new Management Accounting textbook – further details can be found at burnsetal.com.