The impact of accounting and accountability in identifying and mitigating social and environmental grand challenges
Background to the AAAJ special issue
What impact can accounting and accountability have in identifying and mitigating social and environmental grand challenges?
Can accountants save the planet?
If reporting was going to save the world, surely it should have done so by now.
Dumay et al. (2019, p.22)
The above question and statement highlight the plight of accounting and accountability practices and research in having an impact on identifying and mitigating environmental and social grand challenges. Accounting practice and research often explore sustainability accounting and reporting initiatives that provide some benefits at an organisational level but have little or no impact on social and environmental ecosystems (Bebbington et al., 2020; Hsiao et al., 2022; Guthrie, Ball & Farneti, 2010; Gray, 2006; 2010). Grand challenges are perhaps best summarised by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including issues such as poverty, water consumption and social disruption, refugee crises, or natural disasters, are not finite and cannot be embraced within a situated understanding of organisations’ accountability (Frey-Heger & Barret, 2021; Vollmer, 2020), as organisations’ impacts affect present and future ecosystems of stakeholders (Kosmala & McKernan, 2011).
For example, the Covid-19 outbreak raised unexpected social and environmental challenges that threatened the survival of people and companies on a global scale. Further, the pandemic revealed that trade-offs exist between positive impacts on climate change (for instance, due to the decline in air traffic) and negative impacts on decent work and economic growth, poverty, hunger, modern slavery and other major social issues at a systemic level (Voegtlin, Sherer, Stahl & Hawn, 2022; Muzio & Doh, 2020). In dealing with these trade-offs, policymakers, intergovernmental institutions, businesses, and academics recognise the need to understand better how to identify, mitigate and disclose their social and environmental impacts (Serafeim, 2020; Busco, 2023; Busco, Grana, Achilli, 2020), especially considering the mounting evidence that organisations do not employ systematic due diligence processes to identify these challenges and their impacts (Korca, Ericka, & Federica., 2021).
Grand challenges have also been referred to as wicked problems (Bebbington & Unerman, 2018; Guthrie & Dumay, 2021) and problems of the commons (Hardin, 1968). These complex and multi-vocal problems extend beyond a single discipline, social, institutional, or organisational context (Chakhovic & Virtanen, 2022; Frey-Heger & Barret, 2021; Kosmala & McKernan, 2011; Vollmer, 2021; Campbel, McHugh & Ennis, 2019).
According to Ferraro et al. (2015, p. 36), grand challenges typically display three characteristics:
- Complexity - grand challenges affect and are affected by multiple actors, multiple locations and multiple time frames;
- Uncertainty, non-linearity and dynamicity (actors cannot identify their root, causes and cannot forecast the consequences of their present actions or whether future others will appreciate them; and
- Incalculability - implying multiple criteria of worth and revealing new concerns even as they are being tackled.
Given the complexity, uncertainty, and incalculability of grand challenges, recent accounting studies emphasised the need to deepen the understanding of the connections between organisations’ actions, decisions and responsibilities on current and systemic social and environmental challenges (see, for example, the recent ‘Opening accounting’ manifesto by Alawattage et al., 2021).
Although research increasingly calls for a broadened understanding of organisations’ accountability with particular reference to sustainability (see, among others, Bebbington, Brown, Frame, & Thomson, 2007; Brown, Dillard, & Hopper, 2015; Cooper & Owen, 2007; Busco, Giovannoni, Granà & Izzo, 2018), studies have not adequately responded to the continuing failures of organisations in making themselves responsible for social and environmental impacts that span beyond their current and situated temporal structures (Dillard & Vinnari, 2019; Kingston, Furneaux, de Zwaan, & Alderman, 2019). If contemporary accounting and accountability practices were the answer, we would not need more legislation and standards to entice organisations to become more socially and environmentally responsible for their impacts.
Requiring an organisation to be responsible for the social and environmental impacts beyond its current and situated temporal structures does not address matters beyond its boundaries. However, we should not hold organisations less accountable, but we should involve other actors within the organisation’s ecosystem. Thus, a focus on the interactions between governments, companies, civil society, academia, and other actors is urgently needed (Guthrie et al., forthcoming).
Call for papers
This AAAJ special issue aims to explore the impact accounting and accountability have in identifying and mitigating social and environmental grand challenges. The special issue will prioritise papers that take a systemic approach, for example, examining ecosystems of organisations, such as the impact of entire industries, regions, approaches, etc. while analysing specific accounting and accountability-related questions.
We welcome the submission of full papers that address the following and related areas:
- How can organisations deal with the multivocality of grand challenges and systemic impacts?
- How can governments, companies, civil society, academia, and other actors play a role in enhancing accountability and ensuring systemic social and environmental sustainability?
- How can organizations be accountable and account for their social and environmental impacts at a systemic level?
- How can organizations ensure they, or be forced to, identify the social and environmental impacts they are accountable for?
- How can organizations ensure they, or be forced to, mitigate the social and environmental impacts they are accountable for?
- How can organizations ensure they, or be forced to, disclose the social and environmental impacts they are accountable for?
- How can accounting and reporting practices support organisations’ accountability to future social and environmental impacts?
- How can impact measurement systems increase managers’ understanding of the causality and materiality of certain strategic objectives and decisions towards a broader portfolio of stakeholders?
- How can organisations move beyond the “now” dominant conception of accountability and be responsible for the future social and environmental impacts of their current decisions?
We welcome research applying a wide range of methodological approaches, including qualitative, interpretive, theoretical, and interdisciplinary, and collaboration between researchers working in different research paradigms. We encourage authors interested in submitting a contribution to focus their attention on the above list of potential topics or closely related themes.
Please submit full papers, following AAAJ author guidelines, on the journal’s ScholarOne site. Special issue submissions will be open on 1 March 2024.
Full paper submission deadline: 30 April 2024
AAAJ Special Issue Workshop
To help authors prepare their manuscripts for submission, a Special Issue Workshop will be held on 9-10 June 2023 in Rome. Please be aware that the presentation at the workshop does not guarantee acceptance of the paper for publication in the Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal. Also, participating in the workshop is not a precondition for submitting a manuscript to the Special Issue. If you are interested in participating in the workshop, please email your draft paper to the co-editors by 1 May 2023.
If you would like to discuss the special issue and your potential contribution, please contact the guest editors by email:
- Fabrizio Granà, ESCP Business School, Turin Campus ([email protected])
- Cristiano Busco, University College London & Luiss Business School ([email protected])
- Charl de Villiers, The University of Auckland ([email protected])
- Ruth Dimes, The University of Auckland ([email protected])
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