Accounts of Sustainable Development: The Construction of Meaning within Environmental Reporting

Aberdeen Papers in Acct, Finance and Mgmt Working Paper No. 00-18

62 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2001

See all articles by Jan Bebbington

Jan Bebbington

University of Aberdeen - Business School

Rob Gray

University of Glasgow - Department of Accounting and Finance

Date Written: December 23, 2000

Abstract

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.

Keywords: Environmental accounting; Sustainability; Development

JEL Classification: M41, O10, Q20

Suggested Citation

Bebbington, Jan and Gray, Rob, Accounts of Sustainable Development: The Construction of Meaning within Environmental Reporting (December 23, 2000). Aberdeen Papers in Acct, Finance and Mgmt Working Paper No. 00-18. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=257438 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.257438

Jan Bebbington (Contact Author)

University of Aberdeen - Business School ( email )

Edward Wright Building Dunbar Street
Aberdeen AB24 3QY, Scotland
United Kingdom
+44 0 1224 273590 (Phone)
+44 0 1224 272214 (Fax)

Rob Gray

University of Glasgow - Department of Accounting and Finance ( email )

65-71 Southpark Avenue
Glasgow, Scotland G12 8LE
United Kingdom

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