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A history of SEA in France: government, engineers and mathematics

Nicolas Antheaume (LEMNA, IAE Nantes - Economie & Management, Universite de Nantes, Nantes, France)

Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal

ISSN: 2040-8021

Article publication date: 29 May 2018

Issue publication date: 21 August 2018



The purpose of this paper is to present a history of social and environmental accounting (SEA) in France.


The choice is made to select and analyze three important breakthroughs in the development of SEA in France, at different periods. Three case studies are presented, based on secondary sources for two of them and on the author’s own research for the third one. The author choses the concept of organizational field, defined through its actors, how they interact, what they do, what tools and practices are being developed and what regulations are being enacted.


If each case is different in terms of context and outcome, all three present common characteristics which characterize the underlying forces which shaped SEA in France: mainly the role played by elites both in government and industry, an ability for industry to present its interests as the interests of France with an impact on the international standardization of some tools and regulatory issues such as product labeling. The French scene is dominated by engineers, characterized by quantitative tools which “measure” environmental performance, in line with the culture of the French elite for which mathematics are a tool for action and problem-solving. In a certain way this “depoliticized” environmental questions and made them a question of optimization more than a question of politics.

Practical implications

Because of the specific context in which some tools emerge, they may not be transferable to other countries without important changes.

Social implications

The focus on problem solving through quantitative tools to make the most rational decision, and the claim by the engineering profession to be in the best position to do so, is not a focus on accountability. This may be part of the reason why the accounting profession is not as involved as in other countries.


This paper also shows how France has been both a local field of SEA production, when it comes to developing quantitative tools, with occasional global reach, and an importer of global standards and SEA concepts which originated from the Anglo-Saxon word, when it comes to reporting. More generally, it is also a good illustration of how the development of a “local” organizational field is congruent with the characteristic of its national environment.



Antheaume, N. (2018), "A history of SEA in France: government, engineers and mathematics", Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 207-228.



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