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Subpolitics and sustainability reporting boundaries. The case of working conditions in global supply chains

Carla Antonini (Department of Economics and Management, University of Trento, Trento, Italy) (Department of Accounting, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Madrid, Spain)
Cornelia Beck (Department of Accounting, University of Sydney Business School, Sydney, Australia)
Carlos Larrinaga (Facultad de Ciencias Economicas y Empresariales, Universidad de Burgos, Burgos, Spain)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 1 July 2020

Issue publication date: 20 October 2020




This paper explores the subpolitical role and main characteristics of a specific accounting technique, sustainability reporting boundaries. Its focus is on how the sett2ing of sustainability reporting boundaries affects the definition and distribution of social risks along the supply chain, particularly the risks related to working condition and human rights.


The paper draws on Beck's (1986) exploration of the ways in which techno-economic spheres offer opportunities for the politicisation of new areas. It is argued that the sphere of sustainability reporting offers that opportunity for the politicisation of supply chains. Using the case of Inditex, the historical context of initiatives relating to the ready-made garment (RMG) industry at global, European and industry level as well as media coverage on the entity are analysed; this is correlated with the analysis of boundary setting in relation to sustainability reports, focusing specifically on working conditions.


The analysis suggests that accounting technologies that set contested boundaries are subpolitical, that is, defined outside traditional political processes. The paper finds that the way social risks are framed along the supply chain renders them invisible and impersonal and that the framing of these risks becomes endless as they are contested by different groups of experts. Setting sustainability reporting boundaries has subpolitical properties in producing and framing those risks, whilst is simultaneously limited by the inherent politicisation of such an exercise. The questionable legitimacy of sustainability reporting boundaries calls for the construction not only of discursive justifications but also of new possibilities for political participation.

Research limitations/implications

The analysis is limited to working conditions along one organisation's supply chain.


The contribution of this paper is threefold: (1) It studies in-depth how working conditions in global supply chains are portrayed in sustainability reports. (2) It answers the call to study accounting technologies themselves, in this case sustainability reporting boundaries. (3) It extends Beck's work on global ecological dangers to working conditions in global supply chains to explore how sustainability reporting boundaries are subpolitically involved in the definition and distribution of social risks along the supply chain.



This paper forms part of a special section Accounting for modern slavery, employees and work conditions in business, Guest edited by Katherine Christ, Roger Burritt and Stefan Schaltegger. The authors would like to thank the reviewers and the editors of the special issue for their helpful comments to earlier versions of this paper. The Spanish Ministry of Science & Innovation provided financial support to Carla Antonini (Grant PID2019-104163RA-I00) and Carlos Larrinaga (Grant RTI2018-099920-B-I00). Carlos Larrinaga is also grateful to the support of FEDER and Junta de Castilla y León (Grant BU058P17). Last but not least, we are specially indebted to the University of Sydney for sponsoring the research visits that stimulated the reflections for this paper.


Antonini, C., Beck, C. and Larrinaga, C. (2020), "Subpolitics and sustainability reporting boundaries. The case of working conditions in global supply chains", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 33 No. 7, pp. 1535-1567.



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