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Virtual issue: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Accounting Research

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have rapidly disrupted ‘business as usual’ attitudes across many sectors since their adoption in 2015 and launch in 2016. They have become a significant catalyst to major changes in policies and practices across governmental, commercial and third sectors.

Accountancy policy-makers and practitioners are no exception to this major influence of the SDGs in shaping policy and practice. This influence spans the SDGs, beyond those focusing specifically on business and accounting (such as target 6 of SDG 12 which “Encourage[s] companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle”)

In recognising how important the SDGs have become to the future shape of accounting, auditing and accountability globally, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal has commissioned a special issue of the journal addressing the theme of Accounting’s contributions to achievement of the SDGs (see the call for papers). While that special issue will provide a focal point for new studies motivated explicitly by the SDGs, Bebbington & Unerman (2018) recognise that much existing research in the accounting literature addresses issues that are of core relevance to the SDGs. To provide a timely example of the potential for existing accounting research to inform progress towards the SDGs, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal has commissioned this ‘virtual special issue’ on contributions of accounting research to the SDGs.

This virtual special issue has been curated and introduced by Professor Jeffery Unerman and Professor Jan Bebbington. The issue curates a collection of ten papers published recently in the journal that provide examples of how research undertaken (largely) before the SDGs were adopted can inform accounting interventions aimed at furthering achievement of the SDGs.

Emerald has made all papers in this virtual special issue free to access until 1st October 2018

Given the large number of papers that have been published in this journal that are of relevance to, and can inform discussions about, the role of accounting in the SDGs, narrowing the selection to just 10 papers involved difficult decisions about just which 10 papers could collectively provide a representation of the breadth of such research. There are therefore many relevant high-quality papers beyond those in this virtual special issue.

The role of accounting in furthering the SDGs

Jeffrey Unerman.Jan Bebbington.To frame the virtual special issue, we start with a paper that explicitly addressed the role of accounting in furthering the SDGs and set out a research agenda in this regard – Bebbington (pictured left) & Unerman (pictured right). This paper provides an overview of some of the many ways in which accounting (and accounting research) can help further achievement of the SDGs. The remainder of the papers provide examples of how accounting research can be of relevance to one or more individual SDGs.

Life on land

Thomas Cuckston.Sanjay V. LankaTwo papers focus on issues of relevance to different aspects of SDG 15 (life on land): Ferger & Mermet (2017) examine management (and accounting) for ecosystems and the focus of these accounts on scales/entities that are not determined by organizational norms; while the focus of Lanka (pictured left), Khadaroo & Böhm (2017) moves from productive landscapes (coffee producers) and back to economic entities to examine the possibilities for agroecological management in micro enterprises choices. Here the desire is for economic models that sustain livelihoods and ecology equally, and encompassing SDG 15 and SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production). Cuckston (pictured right) examines a different accounting entity with accounting being developed around ecological features (in this case a blanket bog) that are affected by climate and land use change.

Peace, justice and strong institutions

Bertrand Malsch.Yves Gendron.Marie-Soleil Tremblay.John McKernan.Moving to SDGs with a social focus, Li & McKernan (pictured 1) provide insights into the dialectic of equality and inequality through accounting and human rights work – covering issues of relevance to SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities). Tremblay (pictured 2), Gendron (pictured 3) & Malsch (pictured 4) also address issues of relevance to SDG 10, but also in the context of SDG 5 (gender equality). They examine how representations of what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ female director might support gender equality and provide empowering as well as disempowering effects. Both papers suggest the pursuit of equality also has other effects and meanings.

Climate action

Lee Moerman.Perkiss & Moerman‘s (pictured) paper spans SDGs with an environmental (SDG 13, climate action) and social focus (SDG 10) in considering future climate change induced displacement effects likely to emerge in the Pacific. Their work doesn’t create a singular account of this likely future setting but highlights the setting’s complexity along with multiple possible accounts that can be provided in this setting.

Multidisciplinary perspectives

Lauwo, Otusanya & Bakre (2016) examine dysfunction that emerges at the societal-biosphere border when economic imperatives have created particular effects. They study issues of primary relevance across SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), and SDG 13 in narrating perennial problems arising from impacts of resource extraction by multinational corporations in vulnerable economies, and impediments to social development arising from poorly executed economic activity. Included in this analysis is the intervening role of NGOs in dealing with these impacts.

Lorne Cummings.James Hazelton.Ian Thomson.Denedo, Thomson (pictured left) & Yonekura (2017) cover issues of core relevance to SDGs 3 and 9, using an arena framing to structure understanding of (and share interventions in) complex operating domains (in this case the Niger Delta). The role of international advocacy NGOs is included in this work, as they use counter accounts to articulate and influence human rights accountability and governance reforms. Tello, Hazelton (pictured centre) & Cummings (pictured right) also narrate biosphere and economic intersections of most relevance to SDG 12 and SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation) through a focus on new forms of natural resource accounting – in this case water reporting. As other papers suggest, a new accounting entity might emerge in this process and this paper illuminates the issues that emerge for some account users as they navigate this process.

All these papers highlight the existing ‘hidden’ literature on the SDGs that exist in Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal.