Gatekeepers of Sustainability Information: Exploring the Roles of Accountants

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Purpose-This paper aims to, with the continuous take-up of sustainability issues by companies and with the growing experience companies gain in dealing with this topic, raise the question of whether accountants are involved in the corporate practice of managing sustainability information, and if yes, what their role is. The actual involvement of accountants in corporate environmental and sustainability management has merely been investigated to date. Design/methodology/approach-Based on 58 in-depth interviews with corporate practitioners, this paper, first, explores the roles in the sustainability accounting practice in companies which are considered to be leading in sustainability reporting in the UK and Germany. Second, the role of accountants is analysed from a power theory perspective. Findings-The main findings suggest that accountants are partially involved in sustainability accounting practice but mainly exert a gate-keeping role between sustainability managers and higher management. The findings raise questions of how to better involve accountants in earlier steps of the sustainability management accounting process. Research limitations/implications-The explorative research is based on interviews in European companies considered to be among the leaders in sustainability reporting. Practical implications-Empirically investigating the role of accountants can help improve sustainability accounting practice and education. Should it turn out that the accountants have no other option but to act as gatekeepers, accounting education will play a major role in overcoming this deficiency in the pursuit of improved sustainability knowledge and performance. If, on the other hand, it is the defensive stance of accountants and the fear of losing power in corporate structures which motivates them to act as gatekeepers, mechanisms to motivate them to cooperate should be researched. Social implications-The paper empirically investigates and discusses the accountants contribution to sustainability information management. This can help overcome organizational challenges impeding companies to successfully implement sustainability measures. Originality/value-The paper investigates and discusses the accountants contribution to sustainability information management. The empirical analysis is based on a framework to identify different roles in sustainability accounting. Two possible development paths for a stronger constructive involvement of accountants are identified-to improve sustainability education for accountants if lack of sustainability knowledge is a major obstacle, and/or to improve incentives and structures motivating accountants to contribute with their information management expertise on all steps of the sustainability accounting process.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Accounting and Organizational Change
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)333-361
Number of pages29
Publication statusPublished - 07.09.2015