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Unerman, J., Bebbington, J. and O Dwyer, B. (Eds.

) (2007),
Introduction, Sustainability Accounting and Accountability.
Routledge, London, pp. 1-4.
Even though future social, ecological and economic scenarios are often portrayed
in a headline-grabbing manner characterized by stark images of doom and
gloom should not prevent us from acknowledging that current human activities
will almost inevitably have a future impact on the shape of society, the ecosphere
and the economy. Some may argue that one or more of these future impacts will
be beneficial, while others may argue that one, or possible all, of these impacts
will be negative. Perhaps others may argue that negative impacts will not be as
detrimental as suggested by the scenarios of social collapse, an exosphere
unable to sustain life, and/ or an economy in long-term deep recession. It seems
incontrovertible, however, that the negative consequences of our current way of
life will cause a station where social relations and social justice and the economy
are all in a worse state than at present.
Many people argue that the growing social injustice experienced by even larger
numbers of people and the growing damage to the ecosphere, are a result of a
dominant and almost unquestioned objective of maximizing economic growth. In
these terms economic growth is socially and environmentally unsustainable. One
way to look at these ussues is in terms of the long-term need to ensure that
economic activity is socially and environmentally sustainable. In the short term it
might be possible to have economic growth, while damaging society and the
environment. In the long term this is impossible. Thus, if the quest for economic
growth causes significant damage to both society and the environment, such
economic growth is not economically, socially or environmentally sustainable in
the longer term.
Previous points might seem obvious, but what might be less immediately obvious
is how thse points relate to issues of accounting and accountability. Accounting is
a powerful tool which has conventionally been used iin optimizing the economic
performance of organizations. A range of management accounting techniques
have helped managers plan and control their activities in a manner,for
commercial organizations, designed to maximize their profits. A range of financial
accounting techniques have helped communicate aspects of the economic
performance of the organizations to a range of stakeholders who are not involved
in the day-to-day running of the business. As such, these financial accounting
techniques have provided the mechanisms through which managers have been
able to discharge duties of accountability to non-managerial stakeholders.
Just as conventional management and financial accounting has been a powerful
tool in the management, planning, control and accountability of the economic
aspects of an organization, broader techniques of sustainability of accounting and
accountability have the potential to be powerful tools in the management,
planning control and accountability of organizations for their social and
environmental impacts. Or, for the social and environmental in addition to the
more conventional economic sustainability of the organization.

More broadly, the concept of sustainable development has become a central

organizing theme within contemporary society, which in many ways is an
astonishing achievement for an idea that is usually though to have arrived on the
public policy scene in 1987 with the publication of the Brundtland Report.
Sustainability development concerns tend to focus on how to organize and
manage human activities in such a way that they meet physical and
psychological needs without compromising the ecological, social or economic
base which enables these needs to be met. The role of organizations in this
process is significant in most countries around the globe, and especially so in the
industrialized West
In public statements on their sustainable development policies and practices,
many organizations claim that they recognize their social and environmental, in
addition to their economic, responsibilities, and are seeking to manage and
account for these activities in an appropriate manner. Some of their critics, argue
that many business are simply using sustainability accounting techniques as a
public relations tool to win the approval of those stakeholders whose continued
support is crucial for the survival and profitability of the business. In this latter
case, the social and environmental reporting practices adopted will have little to
do with genuine sustainability, and will merely be addressing the interest of the
most powerful stakeholders in any particular organization, while leaving the
interests and needs of the less powerful stakeholders marginalized.
An understanding of the basis of these techniques, and the ability to critically
evaluate them, is therefore important because, given the central role of
accounting in the management and accountability of organizations, forms of
accounting and reporting will affect our ability, at a societal level, to pursue
sustainable development. Furthermore, the sustainable development agenda is
likely to impact on how accounts are created and the ends to which they are