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Gray (2010) claimed that “most business reporting on sustainability and much business representative activity around sustainability have little, if anything, to do with sustainability” (p. 48). Gray insinuated that sustainability reporting in many contemporary corporations only reflect how enterprise wish to comprehend sustainability rather than what sustainability accounting entails. This way, the accounts fail to comply with globally accepted sustainability guidelines. This essay draws on relevant academic literature to address three specific areas for a case for examining this claim in Starbucks’ context. The first area explores the degree to which Starbucks’ sustainability reporting complies with the sustainability reporting guidelines provided by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The second area compares what academic literature says and what Starbucks’ sustainability reporting entails to establish the theoretical framework for explaining the company’s sustainability accounting. The last section examines alternative accounting models to determine which addresses Starbucks’ environmental and social performance adequately, hence overcoming traditional accounting limitations.

Starbucks’ Sustainability Reporting within the Lens of GRI’s Guidelines and Principles

A sustainability report itemises the environmental, economic, and social governance matters at the local, regional, and international levels (Bini and Bellucci 2019. It also outlines how an enterprise plans to augment its commitment to developing corporate sustainability practices that influence stakeholders. So, the company should ensure the transparency, compliance, and traceability of its sustainability accounting (Mol 2015; Van Zyl 2013). Attaining such sustainability reporting requires firms to adhere to sustainability reporting guidelines and principles provided by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). GRI provides the most widely recognised and accepted sustainability reporting standard characterised by numerous comprehensive guidelines (Bergman, Henriksson, and Taheri 2010; Traxler, Greiling, and Hebesberger 2018). The G4 guidelines ensure that sustainability accounting reflects accountability by offering a holistic framework for broad performance reporting to stakeholders. So, sustainability reporting that adheres to these guidelines disapprove of Gray’s argument. These guiding principles are addressed below in Starbucks’ context.


This guiding principle advocate that sustainability reporting should cover aspects reflecting the firm’s significant social, economic, and environmental impacts, along with other organisation-specific factors that have substantive influences on stakeholders’ assessments, values, decisions, needs, and interests (GRI 2015; Van Zyl 2013; Zsóka and Vajkai 2018). While Starbucks has several areas on which it should report, it majorly focuses its sustainability reporting on areas showing its environmental, economic, and social outcomes (Ardisa 2017). Starbucks generates the benefits of materiality by adopting an integrated materiality matrix through which it identifies and prioritises environmental and social issues and utilises its materiality assessments to allocate resources, set goals and indicators, focus its strategy, and track progress (Mosher 2016). Starbuck views materiality as an indispensable element influencing stakeholders’ financial choices.

Stakeholder Inclusiveness

This principle emphasises identifying stakeholders, engaging their effective and equitable participation in environmental governance, and establishing specifications for responding to their expectations and interests (Van Zyl 2013; GRI 2015; Zsóka and Vajkai 2018). Starbucks adheres to this principle because it identifies and engages different stakeholders in its sustainability initiatives. As evident in the 2017 and 2018 global social impact reports, these stakeholders include employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers, environmental agencies, governments, partners, and investors (Starbucks 2017; 2018). These stakeholders are also captured in the firm’s global supply-value chain as shown below.

Figure SEQ Figure * ARABIC 1: Starbucks’ global supply-value chain

Source: Adapted from Ardisa (2017)

However, in-depth insights into stakeholder engagement levels sustained by Starbucks are not captured in these reports. Even so, Starbucks knows that its activities and offerings affect these stakeholders directly and recognises that stakeholders’ actions reasonably affect its strategic objectives and outcomes. That is why it observes stakeholder inclusiveness closely.

Sustainability Context

This guideline requires sustainability reporting to be representative of the enterprise’s performance in broader sustainability contexts (Diouf and Boiral 2017; GRI 2015; Zsóka and Vajkai 2018). So, sustainability accounting must address achievements and failures in the social, economic, and environmental domains of a company’s operations. As Starbucks strives to enhance the future of its sustainability using its present framework of practices, its sustainability accounting must capture its performance, outcomes, competencies, and capabilities in these domains to represent the broader picture of the corporation’s sustainability. Currently, Starbucks’ sustainability context highlights its activities in green retailing, ethical sourcing, community empowerment, eco-efficiency climate change strategies, and greener energy utilisation (Ardisa 2017; Starbucks Coffee Company 2019).


This principle underscores that sustainability reporting should reflect a comprehensive and adequate coverage of material aspects and their associated limits that reflect all social, economic, and environmental impacts while enabling stakeholders to assess the enterprise’s performance (GRI 2015; Zsóka and Vajkai 2018). So, sustainability reports must define the reporting scope, boundary, and timeline to provide sufficient information needed for impact assessment, establishing measures of prioritisation, and accounting for data gathering practices (Wanner and Janiesch 2019). Starbucks sustainability reporting is reflective of this principle in that human rights, climate change, environmental impact, recycling and lifecycle management, supply-value chain, customer privacy, and energy efficiency are comprehensively addressed (Mosher 2016; Starbucks 2018).


This principle maintains that sustainability reporting should reflect both the positives and negatives of the firm’s performance in the social, economic, and environmental domains to allow for reasonable assessments of its overall performance (GRI 2015; Zsóka and Vajkai 2018). Essentially, this principle requires firms to exercise full and standard disclosure to deliver an unbiased image of their performance without omissions, selections, and presentations that inappropriately influence stakeholders’ decisions or judgments. Recent Starbucks’ sustainability reports majorly capture the positive achievements and overlook challenges in transparency, which might indicate failures in observing this principle.


The GRI suggests that indicators provide information on an organisation’s economic, social, and environmental performance and impacts (GRI 2015). Starbucks demonstrates adherence to this principle by maintaining 188 indicators relating to social responsibility, economic accountability, and environmental leadership (Ardisa 2017).

Accuracy, Timeliness, Clarity, and Reliability

These principles underscore that sustainability reporting should display acceptable levels of accuracy, clarity, correctness, and reliability. Accordingly, the information gathered, compiled recorded, analysed, and disclosed in preparing the reports and processes involved should be reliable, clear, accurate, and appropriate (Diouf and Boiral 2017; GRI, 2015). At Starbucks, the materiality of sustainability reporting remains undisclosed (Ardisa 2017) but other types of information needed for reporting are adequately, accurately, and openly disclosed, meaning that its sustainability accounting is reliable.

How Starbucks’ Sustainability Reporting Compares to What Academic Literature Alludes

Academic literature has established that the triple bottom line (TBL) provides the best theoretical framework for conceptualising sustainability reporting. Using TBL in sustainability reporting refutes Gray’s statement because this framework provides a framework that addresses an enterprise’s social, economic, and environmental dimensions within the margins of a single sustainability report (Bergman, Henriksson, and Taheri 2010; Zsóka and Vajkai 2018). This way, TBL allows for the equal weighting of environmental protection, economic growth, and social welfare within a company’s context, ensuring greater accountability and transparency in sustainability reporting contrary to what Gray (2010) suggests. In other terms, this framework reflects the triple context that prompts organisations to establish new and independent forms of corporate reporting (Van Zyl 2013). Understanding the dynamics of triple-bottom-line reporting, the meaning of sustainable development, and the interactions between these concepts has been instrumental in reinventing and operationalizing sustainability accounting for institutional purposes (Menzies (2015). The TBL framework measures the benefits (profits) and the impacts of a corporation’s activities on people and the planet (Onyali 2014). It gauges commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the impact of CSR on the environment, economy, and society. TBL is also the basis upon which the GRI guidelines were established. This is because the guidelines require sustainability reporting to captures the economic, social, and environmental impacts emanating from a firm’s everyday activities, the enterprise’s governance model and values, and the connection between an organisation’s strategy and its commitment to global economy sustainability (Menzies 2015). At Starbucks, the triple bottom line approach to reporting is strategically employed to ensure that sustainability accounts reflect the impact of the three domains, namely, the economic, social, and environmental. Mukhlis (2012) confirms that Starbucks’ TBL is the tool for measuring the corporation’s economic value, planet account (environmental responsibility), and people account (social responsibility).

Academic literature also reveals that four theories explain the triple bottom line concept in sustainability reporting. The first is the stakeholder theory, which posits that sustainability reports must focus on the most significant company stakeholders. This theory, which draws on market-based and resource-based theories, highlight business ethics, organisation practices, and socio-political aspects of an enterprise relating to morals and values of managing the firm (Harrison, Freeman, and Abreu 2015). The second theory is the principal-agency theory that postulates that sustainability reports should be focused on investors because their contractual relationship with the enterprise is imperative (Menzies 2015). The third is the legitimacy theory, which posits that a firm’s management should utilise sustainability reports to support the corporation’s agenda, hence offering positive branding for the company to the public and upholding the organisation’s contract with the larger society (Traxler, Greiling, and Hebesberger 2018). The last theory is the signalling theory, and it suggests that sustainability reporting should be a disclosure tool for influencing perceptions of a firm’s sustainability performance by offering information about its commitment to sustainability, TBL performance, and sustainability activities as a good citizen (Traxler, Greiling, and Hebesberger 2018). At Starbucks, triple-bottom-line sustainability reporting classifies several individuals and groups as important stakeholders. Also, it reflects the company’s ethical approach to reporting, captures emphases placed on the community, and clarifies the firm’s commitment to sustainability. Furthermore, legitimacy is an imperative resource for Starbucks, evinced by the legitimacy and decency of its sourcing practices. All these aspects show that Starbucks’ sustainability reporting is consistent with these four theories.

Alternative Sustainability Accounting Models for Starbucks

Lamberton (2005) suggests that the traditional accounting model and its principles can be employed in creating a sustainability accounting framework. Even so, this author acknowledges that one limitation of using the traditional model in sustainability reporting is that it stifles the creative development of sustainability reports while reinforcing the accounting sources of environmental problems. Management Association (2015) also outlines several limitations of using traditional accounting models in sustainability reporting, highlighting the failure to depict accountability in sustainability reports as a key limitation. So, using the traditional accounting model in sustainability reporting justifies the statement by Gray (2010) that sustainability reporting has little to do with sustainability. Starbucks realises this limitation and uses a model of sustainability accounting that is based on TBL (Mukhlis 2012). Other alternative models adopted for sustainability reporting include voluntary CSR disclosure and rule-based reporting. The voluntary sustainability accounting model involves disclosing CSR information voluntarily to enhance the reports’ average quality level (Hąbek and Wolniak 2016). Rules-based sustainability accounting is mandatory reporting that compels organisations to disclose their CSR information. Among these models, the TBL-based model used at Starbucks is the best because it takes into account the firm’s social, environmental, and economic performance comprehensively. Adopting TBL reporting ensures that corporate reporting on sustainability captures the all-inclusive impact of all business activities on enterprise sustainability, showing that sustainability reporting has everything to do with sustainability contrary to Gray’s claim.


Sustainability reporting should be representative of all business activities around sustainability. Starbucks ensures that its sustainability accounting aligns with the sustainability accounting principles and guidelines provided by GRI. Also, the company designs its sustainability reporting framework based on TBL to ensure that its sustainability accounting model captures social, economic, and environmental performance in sustainability. The TBL-based reporting accounts for how Starbucks’s corporate engagements influence people, profits, and the planet. Within the TBL-centred sustainability reporting, the stakeholder and legitimacy theories are the most significant because they emphasise the importance of stakeholder inclusiveness and upholding Starbucks’ corporate agenda to the entire society. Starbucks continues to establish its legitimacy through ethical sourcing, responsiveness to climate change, greener energy adoption, green retailing, and, community empowerment. Since Starbucks’ sustainability accounting adheres to GRI guidelines and TBL provisions, it is comprehensive and representative of what sustainability entails. This means that while Gray’s statement could apply elsewhere, the comprehensiveness of Starbucks’ sustainability accounting shows the irrelevance of this statement at Starbucks.

Reference List

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