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Matter of opinion: Exploring the socio-political nature of materiality disclosures in sustainability reporting

Jenni Puroila (Mistra Center for Sustainable Markets (Misum), Stockholm School of Economics, Stockholm, Sweden)
Hannele Mäkelä (Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University , Tampere, Finland)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 2 May 2019

Issue publication date: 18 June 2019

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Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the socio-political role of materiality assessment in sustainability reporting literature and discuss the potential of materiality assessment to advance more inclusive accounting and reporting practices, in particular critical dialogic accounting.

Design/methodology/approach

Drawing on literature on the concept of materiality together with insights from stakeholder engagement, commensuration and critical dialogic accounting the paper analyses disclosure on materiality in sustainability reports. Empirically, qualitative content analysis is used to analyse 44 sustainability reports from the leading companies.

Findings

The authors argue that, first, the technic-rational approach to materiality portrays the assessment as a neutral and value-free measurement, and second, the materiality matrix presents the multiple stakeholders as having a unified understanding of what is considered important in corporate sustainability. Thus, the technic-rational approach to the materiality assessment, reinforced with the use of the matrix is a value-laden judgement of what matters in corporate sustainability and narrows down rather than opens up the complexity of the assessment of material sustainability issues, stakeholder engagement and the societal pursuit of sustainable development.

Originality/value

The understandings and implications of the concept of materiality are ambiguous and wide-reaching, as, through constituting the legitimised set of claims and information on corporate sustainable performance, it impacts our understanding of sustainable development at large, and affects the corporate and policy-level transition towards sustainability. Exploring insights from critical dialogic accounting help us to elaborate on the conceptions and practical implications of materiality assessment that enhance stakeholder engagement in a democratic, rather than managerial, spirit.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The authors are thankful for the comments provided by the two anonymous reviewers and the participants of the 28th International CSEAR Conference on Social and Environmental Accounting Research; the 33rd Summer Seminar of Finnish Economists; School of Accounting and Finance Seminar, University of Vaasa (2017); and the MISUM seminar (Stockholm, 2017) with discussants Sanne Frandsen and Andreas Rasche. The authors also gratefully acknowledge the comments provided by Eija Vinnari, Mette Morsing and Emilia Cederberg. The work was financially supported by the Stockholm School of Economics, Gunvor Plantings Stiftelse, The Dr H.C. Marcus Wallenberg Foundation for Promoting Research in Business Administration and the Finnish Foundation for Economic Education.

Citation

Puroila, J. and Mäkelä, H. (2019), "Matter of opinion: Exploring the socio-political nature of materiality disclosures in sustainability reporting", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 32 No. 4, pp. 1043-1072. https://doi.org/10.1108/AAAJ-11-2016-2788

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited