Toward an Accounting for Sustainability
A New Zealand View
Accounting is a ubiquitous social practice—it touches each of us, every day, in our personal and professional lives. No matter what occupation we take up, there will be no escaping financial responsibility and accountability. Even outside of paid employment, individuals need to be financially responsible and accountable: in families, in social clubs, and in any kind of group activity where resources are acquired and consumed. For centuries, the practice of accounting was limited to providing information relating to the stewardship of financial resources. Increasingly, accountability is expanding beyond that of the stewardship of financial resources to include social and environmental responsibilities. New types of accounting may be needed in the future if we are to guarantee the sustainability of our limited resources for future generations. The nature and extent of these accountings are being widely debated in the academic accounting literature. The study of accounting is sociopolitical in the sense that the way we account both reflects and constitutes the sort of societies we live in. To understand accounting practice is also to understand the nature of the entities for which accounting is performed and the social relations within and between them, that is, who is accountable to whom, for what, and why.
In this chapter, I provide an understanding of accounting that goes beyond technique and that explicitly recognizes the sociopolitical. The first part of the chapter concerns how accountants contribute to the perception of objective reality through their universally applied measurement techniques. The possibility of expanding the representations beyond financial considerations to those of social and environmental concerns is then discussed. It is important to understand the traditional concept of accountability and how this concept is being challenged. The underpinning theoretical models are examined as a precursor to identifying the potential role of accountants and their objectifying techniques in moving toward sustainable development. A change of consciousness from the maximizing “self” with all its attendant calculus to an outward-looking concern for “the Other” may be a precursor to sustainable practices.
Accountants have long been acknowledged as experts in creating a sense of order. Their view of the world is generally accepted as objective, true, and fair and is indeed a skilled accomplishment. The accountant's job has traditionally been viewed as that of providing an objective and truthful representation of some underlying reality. Traditional mainstream accounting practice and research took for granted that there was an externally existing reality (Chua, 1986). Both practice and research