Sustainability research in need of a multi-disciplinary approach and a practice and policy focus?

Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal

ISSN: 2040-8021

Article publication date: 3 July 2010


Adams, C.A. (2010), "Sustainability research in need of a multi-disciplinary approach and a practice and policy focus?", Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Sustainability research in need of a multi-disciplinary approach and a practice and policy focus?

Article Type: Editorial From: Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1

A personal journey

My first taste of research in social and environmental accounting was at a summer school organised by Professor Rob Gray, Director of the Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting Research. He had attracted some notable speakers including Professors Keith Maunders, Dave Owen, Lee Parker and Tony Tinker who mentored junior researchers as they developed some interesting projects. For me, it was the start of several years of work looking at why companies report what they do and do not report what they do not on social and environmental impacts and activities. The first project was on equal opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and disabled persons with George Harte and some funding from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). We looked at the popular theories (legitimacy theory, political economy theory and stakeholder theory) and concluded as some prior, and many subsequent studies have done, that none of them had gone very far to explain why companies reported what they do. We drew on published work outside our discipline, but we were a relatively homogenous team, looking at an issue from a not too dissimilar perspective. It was fun, it resulted in quality journal publications (Adams and Harte, 1998), a couple of radio interviews, professional journal publications and public presentations, but perhaps did not achieve a great deal in terms of changing practice until, perhaps, years later when I was invited to speak to female audiences and had the opportunity to empower them to seek greater accountability. Perhaps, with more impact, I was also invited to take part in an advisory group for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) (2010) who were developing a toolkit on gender and sustainability.

The early years of my efforts to understand the motivations for reporting also included quantitative analysis of disclosures and looking at what a range of NGOs, media sources and published academic work said about the social and environmental impacts of chemical companies (Adams and Kuasirikun, 2000). Not until the late 1990s did I get around to asking companies themselves about their internal decision-making processes about reporting. I was shocked by how irrelevant much of the academic literature was (particularly those much used theories used to explain corporate sustainability reporting) to practice and dismayed at its resultant inability to effect change (Adams, 2002). And it did need to be changed, as I found when comparing the portrayal of one particular MNC in the chemical industry’s performance with the portrayal of its performance derived from a range of sources external to the company (Adams, 2004). More case study work followed, digging deeper (Adams and McNicholas, 2007) and looking at the interactions (or lack of them) between the organisations’ reporting process, environmental management, stakeholder engagement and performance (Adams et al., 2008).

It became clear to me that academic research could make an important contribution to the ongoing development of practice and policy on sustainability issues and I was struck by a quote dating back to Lewin (1947, pp. 150-1 quoted in Adams and McNicholas (2007)):

Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice. This by no means implies that the research needed is in any respect less scientific or “lower” than what would be required for pure science in the field of social events. I am inclined to hold the opposite is true.

I was not alone in trying to effect changes and using a qualitative approach to do so and I particularly liked the work of Carlos Larrinaga-Gonzalez (Larrinaga-González et al., 2001; Larrinaga-González and Bebbington, 2001). We co-edited a special issue of Accounting Auditing and Accountability Journal published in 2007 on “Engagement: ethical, social and environmental accounting and accountability from the inside”. It called for engagement research in sustainability accounting and reporting arguing that it has the potential to improve theorizing, practice and the sustainability performance of organisations and must have hit a chord because the latest download statistics from Emerald show that it is the fifth most downloaded special issue despite being published only recently.

The first time I worked with someone really outside my discipline area was with Glen Whelan on Adams and Whelan (2009). It was challenging, we talked a different language, reflecting our different discipline backgrounds, but together we made a more meaningful contribution to considering how future changes in corporate social disclosure to increase accountability might be brought about than I could have alone.

It has become clear to me over recent years, as the media has focussed more on the social and environmental sustainability issues facing the planet and its people, that not only do we need research which makes a difference and could facilitate change by focusing on real practice and policy issues, but we also need research which finds solutions to these problems using multi-disciplinary perspectives. Hence, the proposal for the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal (SAMPJ).

Editorial policy

The SAMPJ will publish papers of interest to all those of us who are concerned with the state of our planet and society regardless of our discipline background or chosen vocation. SAMPJ papers will challenge our narrow thinking, encourage us to see the bigger picture and work together to solve real and significant problems.

The SAMPJ provides a forum for quality research contributions with practice and policy implications concerning the interactions between social and environmental sustainability, accounting, management and policy. The contributions will be drawn from differing socio-economic and political environments with an international, national or organisation specific analysis taking a single, inter- or multi-disciplinary perspective. They need not be qualitative, indeed Guidry and Patten (2010) is a quantitative piece, still with the ability to influence practice.

This first issue includes papers which take a more single or inter-disciplinary perspective on topics important to researchers/practitioners/policy makers/etc. in the field, regardless of their main discipline. I encourage submissions from other disciplinary perspectives. I also encourage authors from different disciplines to work together to promote a multi-disciplinary perspective to developing practical and policy solutions to sustainability issues and problems facing organisations and societies.

To date (April 2010), the journal has received 31 papers to the main issue. Of these, only four have been accepted and 11 have been rejected representing an acceptance rate of 27 per cent. The remaining 16 papers are still in process. SAMPJ policy is to send each research paper to three reviewers and each news section article to two reviewers. This does not include submissions to a special issue currently being co-edited by Jesse Dillard and Mellie Pullman on Re-generation.

This issue includes a call for papers for a special issue on Sustainable Decision-making in a Time of Crisis: Public and Private Perspectives with Guest Editors Professor Malcolm McIntosh, Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise, Griffith University; Dr Vesselin Popovski, UN University, Tokyo, Japan; and Professor Yasunobu Sato, Tokyo University.

Research papers in this issue

I am appreciative of Gray (2010), the world’s most cited accounting author (Wikipedia, 2010), writing for the first issue of the first volume of the SAMPJ. He explores whether social accounting might become a multi-disciplinary field acknowledging that accountability may not be enough to achieve sustainability and noting the lack of any evidence of a link between sustainability reporting and the state of the planet. Somewhat sceptical perhaps, he suggests that SAMPJ serves to remind social accounting researchers “that sustainability can never be understood or productively addressed through the lens of a single discipline”. I encourage submissions to SAMPJ of similar explorations of the possibilities of, or problems with, multi-disciplinary work from the perspectives of economists, social scientists, philosophers, management scholars and more.

As I have mentioned, a large volume of work has considered what influences corporate reporting on social and environmental performance, but little consideration has been given in the prior literature as to whether market participants see any value in the publication of sustainability reports. Guidry and Patten (2010) address this gap in the prior literature finding that quality matters. This is an important finding with significant practice and policy implications. The authors suggest how this line of research might be further developed.

Stohl and Stohl (2010) examine how three generations of human rights values embedded within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights influence the development of corporate social responsibility practice. The authors draw out the parallels between the growth of the global human rights regime and developments in corporate social responsibility and sustainability, through the communicative processes associated with the UN Global Compact. Corporate social responsibility has evolved from a narrow focus on the protection of individuals and support for local communities to one, more fitting of a globalised world, embracing ethical behaviour and addressing negative environmental impacts.

Solving the world’s problems, as Stohl and Stohl (2010) indicate, requires a diverse range of stakeholders working together, often with very different expectations and perspectives. In contrast to Stohl and Stohl, Arunachalam and Lawrence (2010) examine these issues at a local level. They use communitarian theory and Agenda 21 to analyse the interactions between the local community and local authorities in the Taupo district of New Zealand where the Maori and non-Maori community group interests are diverse, yet they are bonded as a community by shared environmental values and goals in relation to Lake Taupo. The paper provides valuable insights to the role of local authorities in their interactions with local communities in order to address environmental sustainability issues.

News section articles in this issue

The news section contains articles of between 1,000 and 2,000 words which are of interest to practitioners, policy makers and researchers. They will identify areas of research which are needed to assist practice and policy development, thus assisting those researchers who wish to direct their work to effect practice and policy changes.

McIntosh (2010) is somewhat less sceptical than Gray (2010) about the contribution that companies are making and can make to address the serious issues facing the planet. He puts forward some Earth-centric “principles” of a “sustainable enterprise economy” emphasising equity, conflict resolution and co-creation.

Adams (2010), Executive Director – Policy at the ACCA and member of the Technical Advisory Committee of the GRI considers regulatory changes required to improve corporate accountability on sustainability performance, corporate responsibility and its impact on stakeholders. He identifies a number of avenues of research to assist policy development and ensure its effectiveness.

Young (2010) considers the complexities and challenges in greenhouse gas accounting highlighting the need for further research to inform the development of greenhouse gas accounting methodologies. She addresses questions as to who owns and who is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions with particular reference to the coal industry.

Lane (2010) argues that reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the Asia Pacific regions requires policy change and spending on environmental protection to halt energy production induced emissions. Rather than hindering economic development, the author argues for an approach will aid sustainable economic development.

The final news section article presents insights into the development of ISO 26000 for social responsibility by the Chair of the UK Committee on ISO 26000, Adrian Henriques. Henriques (2010) discusses some of the issues arising from the multi-stakeholder approach, a theme also discussed in this issue by Stohl and Stohl (2010), Arunachalam and Lawrence (2010) and McIntosh (2010).

Carol A. Adams


Adams, C.A. (2002), “Internal organisational factors influencing corporate social and ethical reporting: beyond current theorising”, Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 223–50

Adams, C.A. (2004), “The ethical, social and environmental reporting – performance portrayal gap”, Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 17 No. 5, pp. 731–57

Adams, C.A. and Harte, G.F. (1998), “The changing portrayal of the employment of women in British banks’ and retail companies’ corporate annual reports”, Accounting, Organizations and Society, Vol. 23 No. 8, pp. 781–812

Adams, C.A. and Kuasirikun, N. (2000), “A comparative analysis of corporate reporting on ethical issues by UK and German chemical and pharmaceutical companies”, The European Accounting Review, Vol. 9 No. 1, pp. 53–80

Adams, C.A. and McNicholas, P. (2007), “Making a difference: sustainability reporting, accountability and organisational change”, Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 382–402

Adams, C.A. and Whelan, G. (2009), “Conceptualising future change in corporate sustainability reporting”, Accounting Auditing and Accountability Journal, Vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 118–43

Adams, C.A., Burritt, R. and Frost, G. (2008), “Integrating environmental management systems, environmental performance and stakeholder engagement”, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants Research Monograph, ACCA, London

Adams, R. (2010), “It’s (already) beginning to look a bit like Christmas”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 85–8

Arunachalam, M. and Lawrence, S. (2010), “Constructing strategies for sustainable development the communitarian way”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 66–80

Gray, R.H. (2010), “A re-evaluation of social, environmental and sustainability accounting: an exploration of an emerging trans-disciplinary field?”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 11–32

GRI (2010), “Gender Advisory Board”, available at:

Guidry, R.P. and Patten, D.M. (2010), “Market reactions to the first-time issuance of corporate sustainability reports: evidence that quality matters”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 33–50

Henriques, A. (2010), “ISO 26000: a standard for human rights?”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 103–5

Lane, J. (2010), “Economic catch-up and emission reductions”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 96–102

Larrinaga-González, C. and Bebbington, J. (2001), “Accounting change or institutional appropriation? A case study of the implementation of environmental accounting”, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, Vol. 12 No. 3, pp. 269–92

Larrinaga-González, C., Carrasco-Fenech, F., Caro-Gonzalez, F.J., Correa-Ruiz, C. and Paez-Sandubete, J.M. (2001), “The role of environmental accounting in organizational change: an exploration of Spanish companies”, Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 213–39

Lewin, K. (1947), “Frontiers in group dynamics”, in Catwright, D. (Ed.), Field Theory in Social Science, Social Science Paperbacks, London, pp. 143–53

McIntosh, M. (2010), “Re-visiting the world and co-creating a future”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 81–4

Stohl, M. and Stohl, C. (2010), “Human rights and corporate social responsibility: parallel processes and global opportunities for states, corporations and NGOs”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 51–65

Wikipedia (2010), “Rob Gray (accountancy academic)”, available at:

Young, A. (2010), “Greenhouse gas accounting: global problem, national policy, local fugitives”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 89–95

Further Reading

Adams, C.A. and Harte, G.F. (2000), “Making discrimination visible: the potential for social accounting”, Accounting Forum, Vol. 24 No. 1, pp. 56–79

Adams, C. and Larrinaga González, C. (2007), “Engaging with organisations in pursuit of improved sustainability accountability and performance”, Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 333–55

Adams, C.A. and McPhail, K. (2004), “Reporting and the politics of difference: (non)disclosure on ethnic minorities”, Abacus, Vol. 40 No. 3, pp. 405–35

Kendall, K. (2010), “Book review: Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge – improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 106–12

Olynyk, M. (2010), “ACCA Research Report 106 – Pension Fund Trustees and Climate Change; and Discussion Paper – Pension Fund Trustees and Climate Change: One Year On”, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 113–16