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An account of sustainability: Failure, success and a reconceptualization

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1/10/2001
<mark>Journal</mark>Critical Perspectives on Accounting
Issue number5
Number of pages32
Pages (from-to)557-588
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The concept of sustainable development (SD) has a pre-eminent place in the environmental policy agenda where it is defined as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromizing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (United Nations World Conference Environment and Development, 1987, p. 8). Within the accounting literature, research activity has focused on what SD may mean for business and accounting activity (see, for example, Batley & Tozer, 1993; Canadian Institute Chartered Accountants, 1993; Gray, et al., 1993; Gray, 1994; Rubenstein, 1994; Geno, 1995; Stone, 1995; Gray & Bebbington, 1996; Milne, 1996; and Bebbington & Thomson, 1996). As part of this literature Gray (1992) proposes the construction of an “account of sustainability" utilizing the idea of a sustainable cost calculation (SCC) which attempts to measure the additional costs which would be borne by the organization if the organization’s activities were not to leave the planet worse off at the end of an accounting period. This paper reports on an attempt to construct a SCC for Manaaki Whenua, Landcare Research New Zealand Ltd. The paper explains why such an account was attempted, outlines the SCC, reviews the attempt to perform the calculations and reflects on the tensions which emerged from the case. The case, while being unsuccessful because it failed to produce the numbers expected, was successful in that it highlighted conceptual mis-specifications of the SCC. This paper builds on this insight and attempts to theorize the research process and reconceptualize the SCC in a manner which seeks to avoid the pitfalls of the original SCC.