Environmental accounting can be an important tool to help in control organizations in search of sustainability. Among other factors, environmental accounting records and controls the actions of companies that affect the environment, in addition to point the financial the benefits, the losses and the results of the environmental exploration.
For a long time, companies had generally been concerned only with productive efficiency, but more recently, this proved to be wrong due to the growth of ecological awareness, and companies began to use this idea in their strategy. The world’s concern with environment comes from the fact that protecting it means preserving one’s own human species.
In this context, the search for sustainable development is evidenced as a means to guarantee the conservation of the environment and in this way the survival of humanity. Ferreira (2006) explains that sustainable development is one that meets current needs without compromising future needs, suggesting an idea of quantity with quality, which implies a use of renewable resources without eliminating them, degrading them, or even reducing them its usefulness for future generations.
Sustainability is related to governmental, nongovernmental initiatives and different social actors that seek to transform the reality in which they live by promoting a balance between social, economic, and ecological factors. Considering this perspective, it is important to highlight the role of companies in the implementation of practices that can contribute to the promotion of sustainability.
According to Vellani and Ribeiro (2009), societies are born and developed through organizations, institutions, and companies that operate to meet the needs of people. In this environment, sustainable development can mean organizations, institutions, and companies working in their regions to meet the needs of the present population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The authors mention that for this, changes in the culture, paradigms, and business of humanity are necessary, and one of these changes is the insertion of sustainability in the decision-making processes of organizations, institutions, and, above all, companies.
Ribeiro (2010) states that reduction of environmental aggression means cost reduction in organizations, and that reducing waste production implies in less environmental damage, optimization of raw materials use, avoiding penalties from environmental legislation, and preserving company’s image before society, as there is a steady increase in the number of people seeking environmentally friendly products.
In this way, companies can rely on accounting as a source of information useful for decision-making considering the sustainability tripod, that is, economic, social, and environmental aspects (Vellani and Ribeiro 2009). Bebbington and Gray (2000) reinforce this view by mentioning that accounting can collect, analyze, measure, and disseminate information about the company’s relationship with sustainability, thus contributing as a fundamental source of information for sustainable development.
According to Barbieri (2011), the company that works with the value of sustainability is concerned with reducing pollution at source, through cleaner production, and knows how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by this more conscious market for example by using products and even packaging that offers low impact on environment. It also considers aspects of the entire production chain, from raw materials and suppliers to after sales.
Therefore, companies in general should position themselves on environmental and social aspects in order to implement the sustainable development objectives set out in 2030 Agenda, as this seeks to bring about changes in the way societies produce and consume assets and services. This project outlined a set of actions and guidelines that will guide the work of the United Nations members in pursuit of sustainable development. It is composed of 17 objectives and 169 goals agreed upon by the UN member states (United Nations 2015).
Achieving the sustainable development proposed in Agenda 30 will require transformations in the fields of management, finance, planning, and investments in the public and private spheres. Will also be necessary measurement tools to track progress and verify that the goals for sustainable development are being achieved, for both environmental accounting theme of this work, plays a key role.
Environmental Accounting, Indicators and Tools for Sustainability
In recent years, the pressure exerted by society on companies that do not respect the environment has increased. For this reason, combined with market demand, these companies are being forced to adopt a policy of control, environmental preservation, and recovery in order to ensure its continuity (Santos et al. 2001).
The tools of environmental management are extremely important nowadays, in view of the limitation and scarcity of natural resources, in addition to the environmental pollution that increases with each passing day. Environmental impacts could be minimized if it is possible to unite sustainability and profitability, and accounting can assist in the preparation of reports and demonstrations needed to make decisions.
Actually, it is not possible to reverse or stop industrial progress, given the need to meet the demand of the planet’s population. Therefore, the importance of development concerned with environmental issues that have existed for decades is well known. Accounting, as a science, represents a crucial tool to assist management in the economic assessment of environmental and social policies.
Vellani (2011) mentions that environmental accounting is not something to be created, that is, it is not a new accounting, but a matter to be improved. Actually, it is enough to give necessary treatment to information and to transform environmental actions into economic terms and later in equity.
Queiroz and Queiroz (2000) indicate that environmental accounting began around 1970, when companies started to give greater importance to the environmental impacts they caused. At the beginning, however, it was a localized responsibility, but it must be is a global. He also emphasizes that in designing a project, there should be a set of planned practices that take into account not only economic aspects but also ecological aspects.
According to Marion and Iudícibus (2000, p. 53), accounting must “[…] provide structured information of economic, financial, productivity and social nature, to internal and external users of accounting entities.”
Thus, it is possible to define as environmental accounting the study of environmental patrimony, assets, rights, and environmental obligations of entities. Its purpose is to provide users, internal and external, with information about environmental events that cause changes in the equity situation (Costa 2012).
In Barbieri’s perspective (2011), the most advanced business management takes into account environmental aspects, from the competitive perspective of the company, to obtain costs reduction. Evidently, that is important; however, a conscious company should not be restricted to it.
In this sense, mention should be made of the indicators that perform the function of, through quantitative and qualitative information, determining the efficiency and effectiveness of the company from the environmental point of view. They are indicators of processes, systems, and financial economics and are essential for decision-making, at different levels and areas.
According to Tinoco and Kraemer (2008), several initiatives and projects are emerging with the intention of defining indicators of sustainable development, for different administrative figures, be it local, regional, or national. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) is a pioneer in the development of works that stimulate the systematization and comparability of information in several countries, while also seeking to interact with other organizations, such as Eurostat and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Another important example with regard to the Environmental Performance Evaluation (EPE) indicators in organizations is norm 14031 developed by International Standards Organization (ISO) in which the main objective is to define a process for evaluating environmental performance of organizations’ systems. This norm also assists in the conversion of data into accurate information in relation to environmental performance (ISO 2013).
Classification and examples of Environmental Performance Indicators (EPI): ISO 14031
Environmental performance indicators (EPI)
Operational performance indicators (OPI)
Relative power consumption
Relative water consumption
Relative generation of solid waste
Raw material relative consumption
Management performance indicators (MPI)
Quality of environmental occurrences
Percentage of goals reached
Environmental condition indicators (ECI)
Concentration of a specific contaminant in water, air, or soil
Total number of fauna species in a defined area
Elements and indicators – GRI
It includes, for example, spending and benefits, labor productivity, job creation, expenditure on external services, expenditure on research and development, investment in education and other forms of human capital. The economic aspect includes, but is not limited to, financial information and related statements
It includes, for example, the impact of processes, products, services on air, water, soil, biodiversity, and human health
It includes, for example, treatment of minority groups and women, work done on behalf of minors, occupational health and safety, employee stability, labor rights, human rights, wages, and working conditions in external relations
Considering its proposal for an international standard for sustainability reporting, the use of the GRI model has grown worldwide. By providing nonskewed indicators, the model is considered the least susceptible to trends and, therefore, is providing additional user credibility (Castro et al. 2010).
GRI has developed a sustainability reporting framework that has the practice of measuring, disclosing, and reporting to internal and external stakeholders on organizational performance for sustainable development.
“The GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards are the first and most widely adopted global standards for sustainability reporting. Since GRI’s inception in 1997, we have transformed it from a niche practice to one now adopted by a growing majority of organizations. In fact, 93% of the world’s largest 250 corporations report on their sustainability performance” (GRI 2018).
In view of the above, it is important to note that environmental indicators are fundamental when it comes to promoting sustainable development and understanding, monitoring, evaluating, and disseminating the role of companies in this context. Pinheiro et al. (2013) emphasize the importance of indicators in the generation of quantitative and qualitative information to evaluate the environmental performance of the organization. For the authors, there is a need for information systems of organizations, especially accounting, to be adequate to provide environmental information that allows the construction of such indicators, helping managers to evaluate the performance of organizations and establish new goals and targets for sustainability.
It should also be noted that the Agenda 30 for Sustainable Development mentions, in the item monitoring and evaluation that indicators are being developed to accompany the work of implementing the objectives and targets proposed in the document. Such indicators should promote quality, accessible, up-to-date, and reliable data that will be needed to assist decision-making, measure progress towards sustainable development, and ensure that no one is left behind (United Nations 2015).
Indicators are fundamental regarding the role of accounting for sustainability, as among its activities environmental accounting is responsible for producing reports and demonstrations that present the actions of different organizations related to their commitment to sustainable development. Such commitment can only be assessed in the light of indicators. For this, there are fundamental concepts and instruments in environmental accounting, such as the examples presented below.
Costs, Expenses, Revenues, Environmental Assets, and Liabilities
The goal for sustainable development (SDG) number 12 of 2030 Agenda seeks to ensure sustainable production and consumption patterns through sustainable management and the conscious use of natural resources, in addition to reducing waste. It also deals with reduction of waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse. It seeks to encourage integration of sustainability information into the set of reports (United Nations 2015). This way, it is necessary to classify environment accounts into cost, expense, revenue, asset, and liability, to issue sound statements and identify possible resource reduction and waste.
Environmental costs and expenditures are resource consumption related to environment. Cost refers to the production process in order to monitor or prevent damages, and expenses do not refer to production process.
Classifications of environmental costs are internal and external. The external can result from production or existence of the company. They are difficult to quantify, monetarily speaking, and in general are outside the limit of the company. Nevertheless, it is important to motivate the company to internalize the externalities because of market imposition. They also include damages paid to others due to environmental damages either economic or affecting natural resources. Internal costs refer to the company, including prevention and maintenance. Their identification is simpler; normally, they appear throughout the production process and determine the products selling price (Santos et al. 2001).
The classification is also possible as direct, indirect, and contingent or intangible. The direct ones in the product, as, for example, a type of contamination. The indirect do not have direct bond with the product nor with the environmental management. It is the case of environmental training and, therefore, is associated with cost centers. Contingent or intangible assets are potential future domestic costs that may jeopardize actual operations, such as market perception of the product or service (Tinoco and Kraemer 2008).
The environmental assets are the ones acquired or obtained by the company and aim to control, preserve, or even recover the environment.
Ribeiro (2010) defines environmental assets as: economic resources controlled by an entity resulting from past transactions or events, expected to obtain future economic benefits, to control, preserve, and recover the environment.
However, there are some controversies regarding the recognition of environmental assets, since the development of clean technologies have started. These technologies are forms of production that have mechanisms for nongeneration of waste classified as operational and not environmental assets (Ribeiro and Gratão 2000).
According to Vellani (2011), the characteristics of environmental assets vary from company to company, because of their operational activity, since they must include all assets used in the process of protection, control, preservation, and conservation of the environment.
[…] an acquisition that has a specific purpose to treat polluting waste is environmental in nature. However, another acquisition, used directly in the operational process, reducing or eliminating pollution, is operational, because there is the obligation of clean production.
Another important concept in adapted demonstrations is Environmental liability that represents economic sacrifice that will be used in the preservation, recovery, or protection of environment, in order to compare the economic development with environmental or by inadequate posture with environment (Bertoli and Ribeiro 2006).
The companies with these liabilities in their balance sheet caused impact on environment and will have to identify the affected people. The same is true if the recognition was due to fines, because they will have to defray the areas degraded. They can also have been originated from environmentally responsible attitudes, such as maintenance of the environmental management system, because this requires acquisition of inputs, machinery, equipment, and installation. These expenses can be financed by suppliers or even by the banks themselves (Ribeiro and Gratão 2000).
Tinoco and Kraemer (2008) argue that recognition of a liability should occur when there is an obligation that has resulted in environmental cost and that meets all criteria necessary to be recognized as obligation.
Environmental liabilities are also classified as normal and abnormal. The normal can be detected by the company, for example, a by-product generated within the productive process that is toxic or contaminating, or even when at the end of its useful life they are discarded inadequately, causing problems to environment and population.
The abnormal are out of control by the company and do not occur within the productive process. They are usually caused by natural disasters such as lightning, earthquake, and drilling. These are inevitable events and are always contingent (Paiva 2003).
On environmental revenues, Carvalho (2008) states that this can be obtained through the sale of by-products or even of products that have been recycled.
Tinoco and Kraemer (2008) affirm that environmental revenues come from: provision of specialized services in environmental management; sale of processed products from raw materials waste; sale of recycled products; utilization of gas and heat; and reduction in consumption of raw material, energy, and water.
In addition to the above, the company that performs all these practices can obtain a conservationist image and thus can reach new clients or even new markets, which will prefer more sustainable products.
Decrease in expenses:
In insurance premiums, maintenance, and medical care
Improved waste management:
Savings in use of materials or recycling of waste, decrease in storage and transport costs
Reduction of indemnities:
By reducing the risk of contamination and destruction
Reduction in operating costs:
Lower consumption of inputs
Increase in sales due to image improvement:
Use of eco-labels, eco-audits, logo and favorable company’s image
From sales of studies, diagnostics, waste treatment services, clean technologies, awards, etc.
Thus, there are several ways for companies to assisting environmental preservation, to be sustainable and to make revenues, either in the conquest of new markets, in expense reduction, in image improvement, in the sale of by-products, reduction of fines, among others.
Income statement in the period adapted to the environment
Statement of income for the year adapted to the environment
1. Gross operating revenue
(−) deduction of sale
2. Net operating revenue
3. (−) costs (expenses) of the products and services sold
4. Gross profit
5. (−) operating expenses
6. (+/−) other operating revenues and expenses
7. (+) environmental cost savings
8. Operating profit
9. Nonoperating income
10. (+/−) profit for the year before taxes, contributions, and shareholdings
(−) provision for income tax
(−) participation and contributions
11. (=) environmental profit (loss) for the year
12. TOTAL profit (loss) for the year
Balance sheet adapted to environment
Loans and financing
Cashier and banks with movement
Immediate liquidity applications
Fines for environmental damages
(−) duplicates discounts
Compensation for environmental damages
Environmental grants receivable
Credits for environmental assessment
Fines for environmental damages
Compensation for environmental damages
Acquisitions of environmental goods and services
Products in process
Recycled products and by-products
Loans and financing
Fines for environmental damages
Permanent participation in other companies
Compensation for environmental damages
Other permanent investments
Investments in Environmental Investment Funds
Fines for environmental damages
Assets in operation
Compensation for environmental damages
Machines and equipment installations
Acquisitions of environmental goods and services
Furniture and utensils
Result of future years
Assets in environmental operation
(−) accumulated depreciation, amortization, and exhaustion
Fines for environmental damages
Deployment and preoperating expenses
Expenditures on research and product development
Environmental management projects
Costs of environmental reorganization
(−) accumulated amortization
Total liabilities + liquid heritage
In view of the foregoing, it should be mentioned that for companies in which the environmental variable is relevant, the correct disclosure of environmental aspects is fundamental for choosing the best alternatives for their results. In order to meet the informational needs of managers, accounting is capable of providing economic-financial information that assists the decision-making process of the organization’s managers, fundamentally with respect to sustainability (Pinheiro et al. 2013).
In this case, in addition to the instruments and concepts presented previously, adaptations in the generation of organizational information reports are also important, such as the social balance sheet and added value demonstration, which will allow the elaboration of environmental performance indicators, instruments of great power for decision-making that involves the use of financial resources in the preservation of the environment. Thus, the organization will, for example, reduce both the consumption of resources that are unnecessary or irrelevant to the productive process and the generation of waste, fundamental aspects of sustainable development.
Social Balance Sheet and Added Value Demonstration (AVD)
The word balance comes from Latin and means dishes. It brings the idea of balance of dishes. Therefore, the term social balance would, actually, be incorrect, given that this report aims to demonstrate the company’s social actions without having the obligation of equalizing.
The social balance sheet is also tool that demonstrates, in a simple and clear way, not only social but also economic and financial information, social interests, structuring information regarding company’s achievements with the internal and external environment.
[…] a report that contains data, which allow identifying the profile of the company’s social performance during the year, quality of relations with employees, employees’ participation in the company’s economic results and possibilities of personal development, as well as the way they interact with community and finally, relationship with environment.
Accounting as a science has the mission of providing information, be it accounting, financial, economic, social, with quality and clarity, to all who need it. The social balance has different types of users, such as customers, employees, suppliers, investors, shareholders, financiers, government, among others. Despite its wide use, publication is not mandatory in many countries (Dalmácio and Paulo 2004). Three countries have anticipated and have already set standards at the national level: France, Portugal, and Belgium.
In France in the 1970s, researchers began to get interested in data on socioeconomic problems. They were the first country to regulate the need of information from human resources, by law, and this has been mandatory since 1979 (Instituto Brasileiro de Análises Sociais e Econômicas – IBASE 2008).
Development of the norm on social balance was effective through Law 77,769 of July 12, 1977, which obliged all French companies, public and private, that had more than 229 employees, to prepare the annual balance sheet (IBASE 2008).
The model established by France is composed of seven parts: employment, remuneration and social charges, hygiene and safety conditions, other working conditions, professional training, professional relations, and other conditions of life dependent on the company (Carvalho and Siqueira 2012). Although the French merit is unquestionable regarding actions and initiatives, it ends up not informing the gross benefit generated by the company, contemplating only aspects directed to human resources.
The Portuguese social balance was regulated by Law No. 141 of 1985, but only after Decree No. 9/92, more emphasis was placed on company’s social actions. The Portuguese model was mirrored in the French model and is divided into five parts: employment, personnel costs, hygiene and safety, professional formation, and complementary social protection. The law requires all companies with more than 100 employees to publish their balance sheets, and the main user is Ministry of Employment and Social Security (Cunha and Ribeiro 2004). A criticism made by Freire and Rebouças (2001) is that the Portuguese balance sheet does not contain information such as participation of companies in social projects or environmental projects.
In Belgium, it was established by a decree on August 4, 1996, which regulated and divided the balance sheet into four parts: status of employed personnel, movement of staff during the year, information on job creation and maintenance, and training during the year. Despite its mandatory nature, the model presents extremely low information on economic and social indicators (Freire and Rebouças 2001).
Structure of the social balance in Brazil
Composed of net revenue, operating income, and gross payroll, to demonstrate the impact that these investments have on company’s accounts.
Internal social indicators
Encompasses all investment with the company’s functional structure, whether voluntary or mandatory. This is the case of social charges, food, health, safety, education, culture, crèches or childcare, training, investment in training, among others
External social indicators
Any investment made voluntarily for the population as a whole. They are projects in the area of culture, education, health, hygiene, basic sanitation, sports, among others
Composed by company’s investment in environment, in order to compensate for impacts caused on environment and those investments that only seek to contribute to environmental quality
Indicators of functional structure
Refers to information about the relationship between company and employees, or outsourced personnel, regarding number of interns, women, blacks, physically disabled persons and participation in managerial positions, of historically discriminated groups, such as women and black people
Information regarding the exercise of citizenship
Deals with all actions of the company related to people that interact with it, in general the internal public, showing benefits distribution and even policies and practices of socially responsible management
Other information, if any
IBASE ( 2008) idealized this structure, which, in a simple way, seeks to stimulate companies to disclose their social balance sheets, as a way of showing organizational actions. Thus, the social balance sheet is an accounting statement, which covers a set of information that expresses the fulfillment of social actions carried out by the company with employees, government, and the community.
In addition to the social balance, it is important to mention the added value demonstration (AVD) as one of the environmental accounting tools. AVD is the accounting report that discloses the generation of value produced by the company and the redistribution to economic components that formed this benefit (Consenza 2003).
Marques (2004) states that the purpose of the value-added demonstration is to present the value of wealth generated by the company in a given period, and its distribution among its stakeholders, that is, its beneficiaries, among others. The information must be clear and simple in order to provide understanding for everyone, even those who do not have access to accounting skills.
Ribeiro and Lisboa (1999) point out that value added is given by sales revenue, excluding material and service costs from third parties, such as raw materials, merchandise for resale, third-party services, electricity, all resources acquired and consumed in the production process. The result shows how much the company added to the inputs or services, until reaching the final product, and this is gross value added. However, the company uses asset resources to add value to the products and, therefore, deduct this consumption resulting in net benefit.
[…] The benefit of a company represents the amount of value it aggregates to the inputs it acquires in a given period and is obtained in accounting by the difference between sales and the total of inputs purchased from third parties. This amount will also be equal to the sum of all the remuneration from the efforts consumed by company’s activities.
Therefore, the distribution of this benefit demonstrates how much the company contributed to society and to sectors prioritized. The purpose is to demonstrate the ability of the company to generate wealth but also to distribute it. For multinationals, there is a considerable advantage, since this is the way to demonstrate their contributions to the country. For Consenza (2003), the importance of this demonstration is due to changes in the business environment that increasingly demand the usefulness and quality of information. Today, only economic and financial information is not enough to aid decision-making, and relations with productive chains are extremely important.
The relationship between AVD and the social balance sheet is narrow, given that many data are common and complementary. AVD is a supplement to the social statement, but it is often presented separately. The social balance emphasizes social and environmental responsibility, while the added value demonstration shows the generation of wealth and its distribution.
The publication of these statements is also important for the implementation of Agenda 2030 for sustainable development, which in item 27 of the subtitle New Agenda, where the proposal of this document is explained, discusses the sharing of wealth, which can be observed in the AVD, accounting instrument in which the potential of wealth generation and its distribution is evidenced. Also in item 27, the economic development aimed at people is addressed through the inclusion of young people and the empowerment of women, factors that must be highlighted in the social balance sheet.
Accounting as a science has a specific aspect that deals with social and environmental information, which together with sustainable management make it possible to generate demonstrations and reports. Accounting coupled with business engagement can help conscious development, transforming in economic terms the sustainable actions. It is a fact that the continuity of human existence depends on a healthy environment.
It is important to emphasize that several institutions from all over the world are manifesting in relation to sustainable development, encouraging various environmentally and socially correct actions. There is no escape from the importance of assuming this corporate responsibility.
Several tools appeared to enable its use in the business environment, such as environmental indicators, accounts classification and generation of statements and demonstrations developed to enable dissemination of positive actions in a sustainable manner.
Agenda 30 expresses its concern about continuity of the way natural resources are used, how they are produced and consumed, and when they are wasted. Change is necessary, and we must transform our world. As stated in the Agenda, many changes are simple, but it is necessary to transform the consciousness of business society (United Nations 2015).
In this sense, organizations need to change substantially when they respond to the environmental agenda; otherwise it will not be possible to promote real benefits in terms of sustainability considering social, economic, and ecological aspects (González et al. 2000). Environmental accounting is part of the process of activating these organizational changes, but for that the commitment of organizations, civil society and public power is indispensable.
To conclude, it is important to mention that there is much to study in this field. Conducting new research and disseminating this knowledge is extremely important so that accounting can contribute more representatively and efficiently to the promotion of sustainable development.
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