Five years on: Research that makes a difference to the relationship between organisations, society and the environment

By Carol A Adams

The Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal (SAMPJ) publishes research and viewpoint pieces which have the potential to influence practice and policy in a way which improves the relationship between organisations, society and the environment. The increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the issues confronting organisations, society and the environment necessitates the bringing together of research from a range of disciplinary approaches and perspectives.

sustainability reporting shutterstock_232764463 (2)Five years of SAMPJ

Professor Rob Gray, University of St Andrews, UK has said of SAMPJ:

‘The journal’s constant exploration of new and challenging perspectives on how accountability and sustainability might play out in organisations ensures a stimulating source of articles, experiences and ideas.’

SAMPJ has been doing this for five years now and was indexed on SCOPUS in its third year.  It has published papers by leading international authors on critical contemporary topics including: accounting and accountability for biofuels; assurance of sustainability and integrated reports; carbon accounting and reporting, corporate community involvement; eco-labelling policy; emissions trading; environmental information systems; human rights and CSR; indicators and indices for sustainability; integrated reporting; governance; microfinance; policy and regulation; stakeholder engagement; sustainable business models; sustainable development; sustainability reporting; and, sustainability transformation in higher education.

Of course, this would not have been possible without the dedication of the senior editorial team, Associate and Regional Editors and the international Editorial Advisory Board. I am deeply grateful for the support the journal has received from all of you, its authors and ad hoc reviewers.

Increasing our impact

We mark the completion of five years with a new Executive Editorial Board whose members –  Henri-Claude de Bettignies, Ed Freeman, Rob Gray, Den Patten, Brendan O’Dwyer and Sandra Waddock  -need no introduction. From their differing discipline perspectives they share a concern about justice and nature and a belief that organisations and academic research have a role in making a difference. They will advise on the journal direction and assist in promoting it to authors and readers.

Over the next two volumes SAMPJ will publish special issues on ‘Exploring Capital and the Notion of Multiple Capitals’, ‘Camouflaging of Corporate (Un)Sustainability’ and ‘Leadership, Sustainability and Well-being’.  I welcome proposals for special issues which fit with the journal’s editorial objectives available here.

In this issue

This issue contains two review papers by senior academics identifying important avenues for or approaches to further research.  They address ‘engagement research’ and integrated reporting and assurance thereof. The other two papers address critical issues in improving organisational responses to and accountability for their relationship with society and the environment.  These are the assurance of sustainability reports and ESG investing by superannuation funds.

In this issue Correa and Larrinaga (2015) revisit engagement research in social and environmental accounting following a call for more of it by Adams and Larrinaga- González (2007) in order to effect change in organisations.  They do this through an examination of the methodological approach adopted in 32 engagement research papers (including a number published in this journal) and the nature of any reflexivity involved.  The authors of these 32 papers engage with corporations in developed and lesser developed nations, small and medium sized enterprises and public sector organisations.  Correa and Larrinaga consider the potential of this body of work to address the unsoundness of sustainability reporting practice. They are critical of method-oriented peer review structures, noting that assessment of research only by academics does not necessarily respond to researchers’ fiduciary responsibility to society.

This responsibility to society is an issue that has concerned me as editor of the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal.  The journal aims to publish work which is practice and policy relevant and it therefore seems appropriate, if not essential, that a third reviewer from practice is generally selected to provide feedback on this. In the context of Correa and Larrinaga’s (2015) desire to see researchers address the unsoundness of sustainability reporting practice, it is worth noting that key innovations in accounting for sustainable development are coming from accounting professional bodies and big accounting consultancy firms rather than academics (see Adams, 2014). This, together with the complexity and gravity of contemporary issues, underlines the importance of  Correa and Larrinaga’s call for more engagement research.

Simnett and Huggins (2015) examine responses to the consultation papers published by the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) identifying practice and policy issues which would benefit from further research.  The authors particularly note the importance of rigorous, evidence based research examining the business case for integrated reporting.  They note the need for research into integrated reporting in non-corporate sectors and the measurement and reporting of the six capitals.  The authors point to a number of challenges with respect to the assurance of integrated reports.

Engagement research (as considered by Correa and Larrinaga, 2015) would perhaps be most appropriate in considering how report content and reporting formats, for example, with respect to the six capitals, might impact on an organisation’s decision making.  In fact, Simnett and Huggins present a number of interesting research questions which could be addressed through engagement research. But it is by no means the only research method which could shed light on the comprehensive list of research questions put forward by Simnett and Huggins.

Kend (2015) sheds light on what influences choice of sustainability report assurance provider and differences between the UK and Australia.  The study examined the sustainability reports of a matched pair sample of 220 companies from both countries, all of which are in the top 200 of each country.  The existence of diligent and active sustainability and audit committees were found to be relevant, amongst other things, but industry sector was not.  Given the widely held view that assurance can add credibility to sustainability reports, the findings have potential to increase the quality and quantity of sustainability reporting by illuminating how this might be done.

The potential of investors, such as superannuation funds, to influence greater corporate attention on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) risk is significant, but only likely to be realised if it is an issue of concern to fund members.  De Zwaan, Brimble and Stewart (2015) conducted a large online survey (549 responses) to determine why more fund members don’t select ESG investment options.  They found that the majority of members are interested in ESG issues and do not see it as a financial impediment.  As such the results point to the low take up of responsible investment options being due to a lack of  information on ESG investment options and their funds approach to ESG investment.  This finding is supported by the significant proportion of members (28.1%) who did not know which investment option their funds were invested in.

Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy JournalReferences

Adams C (2014) Big accounting firms taking the lead on sustainable development, The Conversation, 29th December. Available at

Adams C and Larrinaga-González C (2007) Engaging with organisations in pursuit of improved sustainability accountability and performance Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal 20(3): 333–355.

Correa, C. and Larrinaga, C. (2015) Engagement research in social and environmental accounting, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, pp 5-28.

de Zwaan, L.,  Brimble, M., and  Stewart, J. (2015) Member Perceptions of ESG Investing Through Superannuation, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, pp 79 – 102.

Kend, M. (2015) Governance, Firm-Level Characteristics and Their Impact on the Client’s Voluntary Sustainability Disclosures and Assurance Decisions, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, pp 54 – 78.

Simnett, R. and  Huggins, A. (2015) Integrated Reporting and Assurance: Where Can Research Add Value? Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, pp 29 – 53.

Note: This article is the author’s version of the editorial which will appear in SAMPJ Volume 6, issue 1.

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  1. Thanks for this post, Carol. To complement the research agenda companies also need practical tools to help develop socially beneficial, commercial strategies. I will be releasing a new shared value ‘tool’ shortly, which was a result of collaborating with leading innovation and design-thinking experts, which illustrates the value in diversity too! – Phil

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