3 July 2018

Social and environmental accounting

Summary: The idea of social and environmental accounting took many forms in the second half of the 20th century. This trend developed notably in France with the Bilan Sociétal and in the United Kingdom with Social Accounting and Auditing.

Throughout time and cultures, the idea of social accounting has taken many forms. It must therefore be understood as a current of thought that is in line with the notion of measuring social impact rather than as a precise method. For example, some authors refer not only to accounting but also to auditing and reporting (Social Accounting, Reporting and Auditing, SARA) (Gray, 2001; Norman and MacDonald, 2004; Owen and Swift, 2001).

Social accounting began to be put into practice in the 1970s with the aim of documenting and considering the social impact of an organization, in other words, the effects of its action on a wide range of stakeholders (Zappalà and Lyons, 2009, p. 8). According to Gray (2001, p. 9), this notion then fell by the wayside during the 1980s, before resurfacing in the late 1990s.

In France, the Bilan Sociétal was developed by the Centre des jeunes dirigeants de l’économie sociale (CJDES) with the aim of evaluating and promoting the societal responsibility of social economy companies by calling on values other than financial ones: civic, human, democratic, environmental. Its objective was to go beyond the classic requirements of the social balance sheet in France: “the Bilan Sociétal aims to identify the elements of the company’s exchanges with society for the categories not referenced by conventional accounting and social balance sheets” (CJDES, 1996, p. 4, our translation).

According to Zappalà and Lyons (2009, p. 8), social accounting generally uses qualitative data or statistics to describe the organization’s progress in achieving its mission rather than using a model based on formal financial statements. The link between these methods and accounting is therefore relatively tenuous and a matter of language. It is rather from the perspective of discourse, the origin, the “culture” of the bearers of this notion that we notice similarities. This discourse has itself inspired many initiatives in the field of social impact measurement. For example, the Double Bottom Line [1] project, funded by The Rockefeller Foundation in the early 2000s, aimed to standardize methods for measuring social impact (The Rockefeller Foundation and Goldman Sachs Foundation, 2003). In the project’s title, the bottom line refers to the last line of the income statement, where net profits (or losses) can be seen.

Despite a certain decline in interest in the discourse on measuring social impact, the topic of social and environmental accounting is still widely discussed in the literature and debate. We point, as examples, to the SRS guide in Germany (Social Reporting Standard, 2014) or the work of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which aims to understand, evaluate and value the environmental and social dimensions of economic activity (Caron, 2015).

[1] Others even speak of a triple bottom line, which incorporates social and environmental considerations (Elkington, 1997), albeit the contribution of this new conceptualization is contested (Norman and MacDonald, 2004).