Professor Carol Adams is professor of accounting and sustainable development strategy at La Trobe University, Australia. She is also director of sustainability and acting dean of the Faculty of Law and Management.
She qualified as an accountant with KPMG in the UK, and has worked in the manufacturing sector as a financial controller and company secretary. She gained her MSc and PhD from the London School of Economics and the University of Glasgow respectively. Adams holds many advisory positions in the area of sustainability, and her research is motivated by a desire to reduce the negative environmental and social effects of organizations in both the public and private sectors. Her full profile can be read on the University website, and she can be contacted at email@example.com.
The Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal (SAMPJ) is a new journal for 2010, the aim of which is to bring together a range of disciplinary perspectives to explore ways of improving social and environmental sustainability.
Sustainable development was defined in 1987 by the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) as:
" ... development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs."
SAMPJ provides a forum for quality research from differing socio-economic and political backgrounds, and is especially concerned with practice and policy implications. It will look at organizations from the private and public sector, and within the public sector, at both governmental and non-governmental bodies.
You have carried out a huge amount of research and consulting in the field of social and environmental sustainability: you are one of the most often-cited authors, you have done consultancy all over the world. How did you first become interested in the field, and what motivates your continuing interest?
I have had a long-standing interest in social justice, for example in racism, which was a big issue when I was a student in the UK. To me, sustainability is part of social justice: the social and the environmental are all bundled together. Environmental issues have a big impact on poorer countries, and corporations are major perpetrators of environmental damage.
The journal's mission is to publish research in the areas of social and environmental sustainability. Can you elaborate on this?
We have a problem around climate change and sustainability. And there are a whole range of related environmental and social issues: the environmental issues our planet is facing have social consequences.
So the journal's mission is to explore that link, but with a multidisciplinary focus. A lot of research has been done in different, discipline-based silos without much reference to other silos. I've looked quite a bit at the literature on social responsibility – from both the accounting and the management perspectives – and that in the management journals tends to have quite a different focus. You can't solve problems in disciplinary silos.
Can you comment on the genesis of the journal, which I believe arose out of your special issue in the Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal (AAAJ): "Engagement: ethical, social and environmental accounting and accountability from the inside" (Vol. 20 No. 3, 2007)?
The special issue of AAAJ was one of the most, if not the most, successful in terms of downloads, so that really convinced me the approach we were taking in that special issue was one which was attractive to authors and readers. The special issue was about qualitative research with practice policy implications that attempted to solve real-world problems.
Quite a few journals also cover articles on sustainability issues: Business Society and the Environment and the Journal of Business Ethics, for example. Where do you fit in the market and what is unique about SAMPJ?
Few of these journals are both multidisciplinary and aimed at making an impact on policy and practice, while also being high quality, which is what we aim to do. We start from a problem, not a discipline, and work out how we can bring the different research strands together to solve that problem.
Many journals are discipline based: you can see how entrenched this idea is from the way in which journals in Australia are given codes depending on their discipline. By contrast, we start with a problem and look at a whole range of interconnected issues. For example, climate change has an impact on health issues around the world. We want to move away from a single discipline approach and take a holistic view of sustainability and its interaction with society and the environment, with the object of resolving problems and obtaining a good outcome.
In your AAAJ special issue (mentioned above), you criticize the way in which sustainability accounting research is poorly integrated with practice, and call for more "engaged research". That is, research which looks specifically at organizations through theoretical perspectives drawn from other fields such as organizational change, and employs methodologies such as action research and ethnography. Is this the philosophy of the journal?
Many researchers now want to conduct more "engaged research". The problems are getting bigger, they're not going away. Much of the research that has been done in the area, particularly from the accounting perspective, has not made any difference "on the ground". For example, there is an increasing volume of research on social and environmental accounting and reporting which itself has had very little impact, because the researchers haven't been engaging with practice.
When I first started going into organizations to do research, I was absolutely horrified at how remote all the research I had read was from what was actually happening. It was completely divorced from reality, without any understanding of what the practical issues were. For example, there were a lot of theories about why companies report what they do, but no one had thought to go and ask them: it was a real waste of time.
I want to seek out what the issues are for organizations – what are the things that are not being done as well as they could? – and find out how researchers can contribute towards informing better practice.
You particularly want to broaden the field from an accountancy perspective and bring in other disciplines. How will you encourage this and what sort of inter- and multidisciplinary contributions do you expect to see forthcoming? In particular, how will you overcome the tendency towards a single disciplinary perspective?
It can be tricky to get researchers to move out of their own discipline and feed on what's happening elsewhere. But I think that the nature of the problems around sustainability, and the fact that they are getting bigger, will make a difference. If you look at grant-funding bodies, they are looking for multidisciplinary perspectives to try and solve these problems.
One of the difficulties is that we go to conferences in disciplinary silos: we have accounting conferences, science conferences, etc., but we don't have conferences around a particular issue bringing lots of people from different disciplines together. So the people I know on the conference circuit tend to be mostly accounting academics, with some from management studies and economics. From my own university I know people from a range of disciplines working on this issue, so I can draw on them and encourage them to submit to the journal, and some of them are reviewers. That's easy because we're all here, but it's hard to meet people internationally. However, I've made links with the different disciplines through my own university, and that's a start.
I have a special issue currently being co-edited by Jesse Dillard, one of my regional editors, which draws from a conference that he's organizing at Portland State University, which will involve people from different disciplines at his university and their colleagues from elsewhere. One of the main themes of this conference is supply chain management, and some papers will look at sustainability in the supply chain. Having conferences like that based in a particular university and drawing in people from a range of disciplines is a good way of establishing a network around the problem.
All Emerald journals seek practical and policy relevance. In the case of SAMPJ, the lack of a crossover would be particularly tragic as we are all affected by sustainability issues. How will you ensure that the journal is read by practitioners and policymakers, and that the research percolates through to practice and policy?
We have a unique feature in the form of a news section. This will have short pieces contributed by practitioners with both a practitioner and an academic readership in mind. It's a way of informing academics about what's happening in practice, and will hopefully also be read by practitioners. Large professional and standard-setting bodies are already submitting articles to the journal.
What sort of research methodologies do you expect to be employed?
I wouldn't want to stipulate methods; I'm open to different methodologies. I have one paper coming out in the first issue which is quantitative based, but I guess that, on the whole, more articles will draw on qualitative methods, as befits the organizational research which will inevitably predominate.
What do you consider to be the main indicators (e.g. rankings lists, media coverage, etc.) that will demonstrate you have had an impact?
I think the work will get cited. My own work in AAAJ, which has lots of practice and policy implications and is not heavily theoretical, is very heavily cited. Five of my papers are in one of the top 20 lists of downloads. To me, that means people are interested in reading this sort of research. Not only because of the practice and policy implications, but also because of the growing interest in this area, where a lot of young researchers are developing their careers. So, the demand for this kind of research is going to increase, more people will be doing it, and will need somewhere to publish.
When do you intend to launch, and what are your plans for the first couple of years (number of papers, frequency, any special issues, etc.)?
I'm submitting the first issue in April; the second will be the special issue that Jesse Dillard is co-editing. My efforts have been concentrated on these two because getting the first couple of issues up and running, with good quality work, is always tricky with a new journal. However, I'm very happy with the quality of papers we've got for the first issue, all of which have very well known authors.
Roughly half of your editorial board, and all your associate editors, come from Australia and New Zealand. Have these countries made a particular contribution to sustainability research?
I don't think that the contribution has been greater than anywhere else. It's where I have a lot of links, along with the UK where I used to be based. It will take time to get a good geographical spread. However, I've got a deputy editor from the USA [Den Patten] and I also have regional editors [for the UK, USA and China], to develop the network in other areas and internationalize the journal. My associate editors are discipline based: I have an economist [Lin Crase], a management person [Juliet Roper], and a philosopher who specializes in environmental issues [Andrew Brennan].
In addition to your research and consultancy, you also hold an important leadership position at La Trobe University as acting dean. Do you think that senior academics who get promoted to management roles face a conflict between the responsibilities entailed by the latter and their research?
Well, it is a bit harder to do it, I guess. I'm acting dean at the moment, so I'm very busy. Doing the journal is fine, because you can do that as and when you need to. Research is more difficult because you need longer spells at it. Trying to do everything is difficult, but I'm probably not the only person who has felt that way!
I try and block out days for my own research, it doesn't always work, sometimes I get sidetracked by other things. But I guess I'm just a highly organized person.
Brundtland, G. (Ed.) (1987), Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, United Nations, NY.
Margaret Adolphus interviewed Carol Adams in February 2010.
Visit the information page for: Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal