Sustainability and the business case

The business case for sustainability research and initiatives overemphasises economic growth often associated with a master narrative of the free market. One early example of this trend is The Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987), which in its introduction called for ‘a new era of economic growth -growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable’ (p. xvi). The dominant business case in SEAR shares much in common with The Brundtland Report, justifying an economic approach to increase sustainability of the existing social system. The following sections are committed to exploring the limitations of the business-based discourse of SEAR and suggest some interesting environmental ideas from the works of Gadamer and Taylor.

The current neoliberal agenda legitimised through the business case approach to SEAR (overly) focuses on the corporate form to justify market procedures throughout the global world - often at the expense of local

Markets, the business case, and interpretiuism 43 customs and values that have the potential to reconnect humanity with Nature (Callicott, 1992, 1994, 1996).6 Typical of the business narrative in SEAR is the work of Baker and Schaltegger (2015) to whom ‘our environment, our organisations and our social relations exist as a result of the choices and meanings that we, as individuals and collectives, ascribe to them over time’ (p. 270). As such, the value of Nature emanates from human thoughts associated with mind-dependent representations. This approach to connection with Nature occurs without critical reflection on the supposition that Nature itself contains meaning and intrinsic value. The view is associated with a designative approach to language which perpetuates an anthropocentric (human) approach to Nature.

Such a viewpoint makes it less likely that SEAR can engage the position that many environmentalists, philosophers, and theists take; that is, Nature (actually) contains meaning and intrinsic value independent of human purpose. Nevertheless, SEAR, as committed to existing business structures, maintains that Nature’s value can be ‘linguistically mediated’ in a manner which is said to moderate adverse corporate impacts on the natural environment (Baker & Schaltegger, 2015, p. 271; Gioia & Thomas, 1996). Business case theorists direct attention to Weick’s (1995) work on sense-making. The issue is that sense-making is defined as a human-centred construct allowing ‘people to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity by creating rational accounts of the world, which then enable action’ (Baker & Schaltegger, 2015, p. 270). Like Gray (1989, 2002), Baker and Schaltegger and other proponents of this approach utilise a form of argumentation that seeks to stand outside more pessimistic articulations of dominant business case approaches that emphasise ‘the negative by constructing a counter-image’ of business research (Alvesson & Deetz, 2000, p. 152; also see Deetz, 1982, 1994). However, this approach remains instrumental and procedural in its inability to come into contact with the meaning and intrinsic value that environmentalists such as Callicott, Erhlich, Gadamer, and Taylor ascribe to Nature.

The question that immediately presents itself is whether this focus on neoliberal policy directions leads to contact with Nature’s meaning and intrinsic value which would afford opportunities to citizens to consider the intrinsic value of Nature. Thus, the chapter supports the arguments made by accounting scholars such as Chwastiak (2008) and Fremaux (2019) who rightly point out that the neoliberal agenda at best glosses over and at worst ignores the concepts of meaning that emanate from sources such as Nature. For example, Chwastiak (2008) explains how the military-industrial complex perpetuates a certain vision of the world which pursues capital growth to the detriment of Nature. There is limited analysis within neoliberalism and the narrative of free markets concerning the adverse impacts associated with the primacy of capital growth and its associated conceptions of meaning.

Business case theorists seem to take the view that language is like a map of impersonal facts which correspond to the real. In this vein, accounting is to be seen as an act of cartography, as the work of Solomons (1991a) suggests. These sorts of cartographic views would hold accounting responsible only to represent the literal tracks of the conversion of Nature into capital and thus never approach the hermeneutic, rather than literal, meanings necessary to overcoming ‘the business case’ as the paradigm of accounting’s relation to Nature. All of this suggests the desirability of a transformation in accounting research which would commit to the hermeneutic and interpretivist view that language is a creative force that gives wings to our perceptions and opens us to the mysteries of the natural environment.

Accounting and SEAR can play a role in this transformation if accounting informs organisations through critical reflection where the practice of accounting challenges the public power of global capitalism and neoliberalism. Of course, this is a foreboding task but it is necessary if accounting is to help communities draw upon the hope necessary to overcome the damage of persisting with neoliberal beliefs and practices. Our obligations must now be informed by the meaning in Nature not by the false hope of ‘business-based solutions’, thereby setting accounting on a path to truth where meaning emerges in our interactions with the world (Devall, 1988; Devall & Sessions, 1985; Lehman, 1995, p. 396, 2002, 2004, 2011a, 2017).

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