Thursday, 2 February 2017

A Retrospective Musing on the Textbook in Social and Environmental Accounting

Reflections on Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability: Accounting for Society and the Environment by Rob Gray, Carol Adams and Dave Owen (London, Pearson), 2014
by Professor Rob Gray
I am very grateful to Ian (Thomson) and Colin (Dey) for the invitation to write for Colin’s blog on something that was starting to nibble away at the back of my mind. The “something” was a combination of the hoary old chestnut – whither academic social accounting? – and a related concern over the role(s) of substantive authored books within social accounting (and, in all probability, business and management more widely). Musing on the state of academic social accounting is nothing new but the need to get published in a few selected journals continues, it seems, to drive out wider and more natural curiosity about how the world works (or doesn’t work) and our place within it as social accounting academics and scholars more widely. (Robin Roberts’ contribution on the CSEAR blog touches on this). I worry if the inevitable and very practical advice to younger academics to leave wider reflections until after their PhD really means that they never get around to learning how to indulge in such reflection. Publication trumps pondering? Metrics trump musing? These inchoate firing of the aging synapses were stimulated by some recent chats about textbooks…. and, in particular, by a realisation that there are very few books offering wide-ranging views of social accounting. Moreover, the gap (hiatus perhaps) between Accounting and Accountability (1996) and Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability (2014) of almost 20 years later was filled by neither neophytes nor old lags falling over themselves to make sense of this most wonderful and perplexing subject. (Apologies for the self-absorption that this perhaps reflects).  Of course there are the excellent collections from Jeffrey, Brendan and Jan and the somewhat more focused texts from, for example, Stefan (Schaltegger) or Stuart (Cooper) but none of these seek to offer a contesting and potentially comprehensive world view of the subject (in the way that, for example, Reg Mathews and, coincidentally, Bob Perks did in 1993 and Ralph Estes did in 1976).  Is there now no time for such creations? Is there perhaps no appetite for the production – or even consumption – of such things? Are attempts at overviews of a discipline impossible? over-ambitious? entirely unnecessary? 
These notions are cast into relief by having time to reflect upon the labour of (mostly) love that Dave, Carol and I undertook over far too many years to produce Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability (2014). Whilst far from sitting back and waiting for the accolades, bouquets and plaudits to overwhelm us after the book was published at the start of 2014, we were somewhat puzzled by the apparent lack of response and its relatively low impact on citations. The text had been written for a number of reasons and it is perhaps salutary to suggest that maybe we have misjudged our community. That, as much as anything, promoted the following brief reprise on our collaborations.
In the 1980s when Dave and I were still in short pants and trying to get a grip on what was happening in accounting academe, there was virtually nothing on aspects of social accounting and any commitment to this area was met with howls of derision, fatherly advice to choose other paths and refusals to allow such sedition to take root in departments of “proper” accounting. Dave and I, linking up with Keith Maunders, set out to do two things. First, we wanted to try and satisfy ourselves that there was a thing worthy of the title social accounting and that it did have a substantive relationship with “real” accounting. Secondly, we wanted to show that this stuff could be taught as a (relatively) coherent and important programme. In effect, we want to proselytise and to champion this area as a worthy subject in and of itself.  The result was Corporate Social Reporting in 1987.
We got lucky. Rather to our surprise. there was a reasonable response to the book (reference the open-season that the crits declared on all things social accounting). Perhaps more significantly, (and even more to our surprise), the world also changed in about 1990 and the subject (but especially the “environmental” bit) suddenly became sexy. Environmental issues in accounting became almost ubiquitous and, as Dave remarked elsewhere, seemed to be drowning out the social issues of social accounting. Hence we determined to really try to step things up a bit (helped by Reg Mathews and Bob Perks) and try to produce a more nuanced and wide-ranging text. Accounting and Accountability (1996) was the result.
Accounting and Accountability, much to our delight, became a stalwart of the social accounting literature. It was very widely cited (great news) but very widely relied upon (not such good news it turns out).  The reasons for this uncharacteristic modesty lay in the book’s significant limitations: most notably the limited take on theory and the relatively narrow range of views incorporated and organisations embraced.  A victim of its own success, the book had been the best we had been able to produce at the time – given our still developing understandings - but its frequent citation as the last word on theories of and for social accounting theory was increasingly disturbing.
It took a long time, (for a lot of reasons), to produce Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability (2014). This was our attempt to articulate a view and views of social accounting more substantively. It was even a bit of an apology for having been so naïve in places last time around.  Much wider in its embrace of the business and management literature, more nuanced (we hope) in its treatment of CSR and sustainability, and much more cognisant of both financial and organisational context, the text sought to offer a more comprehensive range of views, theories and understandings of social accounting.
But here’s the nub. The reaction to it has been extremely muted: indifferent even. The reviews, although excellent, have been few and far between. The citations take a while to pick up but remain scarce. Our reaction to this is far from sulky – simply a bit bemused. Has that boat sailed? Did we really miss the point? Or are textbooks of less and less interest perhaps? To repeat, the absence of any substantive texts in the intervening 20 years is perhaps significant.
I get to wondering about other areas of accounting – and, indeed, of business and management more widely.  With the pressure on journal publication and the absence of obvious tangible rewards for textbook writing is academe entering another phase in which shared knowledge and understanding is less important than a localised adherence to something approaching normal science? Are textbooks dead? Do you care? What do you think?
Thanks for reading this.

Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability: Accounting for Society and the Environment
Jan 2014, Paperback, 360 pages
ISBN13: 9780273681380: ISBN10: 0273681389

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  I also list the writers and thinkers who helped me build my worldview in my blog.


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


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.  


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, 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, 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 and explain what composes the ratings.

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

Proposes alternatives
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)?