Accounts of Sustainable Development: The Construction of Meaning Within Environmental Reporting
University of Aberdeen - Business School
University of Glasgow - Department of Accounting and Finance
December 23, 2000
Aberdeen Papers in Acct, Finance and Mgmt Working Paper No. 00-18
This paper seeks to explore how the concept of sustainable development has been written about by United Kingdom corporations in their environmental reports. This paper draws on the accounting literature which characterises explores how an account of a phenomena socially constructs our understanding of the phenomena. In addition, how such accounts emerge from an interplay of social forces is also considered. A semiotic based analysis is used attempt to categorise and explain disclosures regarding sustainable development found in UK corporate environmental reports for the period 1991 to 1996. Four areas are focused on in order to dissect the nature of the accounts constructed: (i) what definitions of sustainability are visible and which bodies champion the concept in environmental report disclosures? (ii) what detailed statements are corporations making with regard to sustainability? (iii) what longer term requirements for sustainability are highlighted in environmental reports? and (iv) to what extent are corporations expressing views on the implementation of sustainable development which suggests that radical changes need to be made to business activities? Broadly speaking, the results of the analysis suggest that corporate disclosures are heavily influenced by the ICC's Business Charter for Sustainable Development and that the conceptions of sustainability which emerge in the reports are partial. In particular, environmental elements of sustainability are being emphasised at the expense of its social elements and there is very limited recognition of the radical nature of sustainable development. There are, however, some organisations who provide more radical accounts of what sustainability may entail and these accounts are in stark contrast to the mainstream picture of sustainability. Further, implicit within the accounts of sustainability examined are a range of ideological commitments which provide an insight into the assumptions business makes when it considered the implications of sustainable development as a policy goal. We conclude this paper by suggesting that these are commitments which will require further consideration if business is to engage with the sustainable development agenda.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 62
Keywords: Environmental accounting; Sustainability; Development
JEL Classification: M41, O10, Q20working papers series
Date posted: February 11, 2001
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