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Debating accounting and sustainability: from incompatibility to rapprochement in the pursuit of corporate sustainability

Max Baker (University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)
Rob Gray (School of Management, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, UK)
Stefan Schaltegger (Centre for Sustainability Management, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 24 August 2022

Issue publication date: 27 March 2023

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Abstract

Purpose

This article explores and contrasts the views of two influential research projects within the social and environmental accounting space. Both projects advocate for sustainability. The first here referred to as the Critical Social and Environmental Accounting Project (CSEAP), was developed and championed by Rob Gray and calls for immediate radical structural change. The second one is called the Pragmatic Sustainability Management Accounting Project (PSMAP), championed by Stefan Schaltegger, and advocates for an entrepreneurial process of creating radical solutions in joint stakeholder collaboration over time.

Design/methodology/approach

The paper is the culmination of a decade-long debate between Gray and Schaltegger as advocates of CSEAP and PSMAP, respectively. Specifically, the paper explores the differences and agreements between CSEAP and PSMAP on whether and how companies should pursue sustainability and the role of accounting in these efforts. The paper focusses on critical issues that exemplify the tension in their views: general goals, the role of structure and agency and how to creating change and transformation.

Findings

The article contrasts CSEAP's uncompromising antagonising approach to accountability and fundamental systemic change with PSMAP's pragmatic approach to sustainability accounting with its management and entrepreneurship-orientated approach to change and unwavering support for transformative managers on the front lines. Despite their apparent differences, the paper also outlines areas of agreement between these two positions and how accounting and sustainability can move forward.

Research limitations/implications

The debate tries to reconcile language and conceptional differences in the social and environmental accounting (SEA) and sustainability management accounting (SMA) communities to reduce confusion in the research space over what sustainability is for organisations and what role accounting plays in this. The authors hope that the tension between the different positions outlined in this paper generates new insights and positions on the topic.

Practical implications

While the two views explored in this paper are primarily incompatible, each generates implications for practice, research and education. Debates like this are crucial to moving from discursive disagreement to creating a tolerant and robust foundation for moving forward and achieving much-needed sustainable transitions in the economy and society.

Originality/value

The authors offer shared understandings, points of continuing disagreement and alternative views on the nature of sustainability. The debate forges a bridge of understanding where both sides can learn from each other.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

Rob Gray has passed away.

Citation

Baker, M., Gray, R. and Schaltegger, S. (2023), "Debating accounting and sustainability: from incompatibility to rapprochement in the pursuit of corporate sustainability", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 36 No. 2, pp. 591-619. https://doi.org/10.1108/AAAJ-04-2022-5773

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited

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