Since the turn of the century, social accounting has become one growth area in the field of business ethics (Gray 2002, 2001; O’Dwyer 2001; Rasche/Esser 2006; Unerman/Bennett 2004). Particularly in the international context there has been a proliferation of different concepts providing multinational corporations (MNCs) with ways to systematically assess and communicate their social and ethical performance (Donaldson 2003; Göbbels/Jonker 2003; Mathews 1997; McIntosh et al. 2003; Rasche/Esser 2007; Tulder/Kolk 2001). Especially so-called social accountability standards have gained momentum over the last couple of years. In her latest review, Leipziger (2003) identifies 32 tools that help firms to cope with the increasing demand for transparency and ethical performance measurement. Well-known examples of such standards are the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the Fair Labor Association (FLA), AccountAbility 1000 (AA 1000), and Social Accountability 8000 (SA 8000).
The objectives of this paper are twofold. First, we like to contribute to the discussion of SA 8000 in particular and social accountability standards in general, which, from our perspective, are still not adequately represented in the business ethics literature. We primarily focus on a critical evaluation of SA 8000 because this standard seems to be one of the most important initiatives when it comes to the institutionalization of business ethics. The standard is currently used by over 1.300 production facilities in 51 countries, whereas only 200 MNCs report in accordance with the GRI and 20 leading companies are participating in the FLA (all data as of October 2007). Besides, SA 8000 seems to be representative for other accountability standards as it provides a verification system for ethical performance and understandable guidelines to comply with (McIntosh et al. 2003; SAI 2005). Insights gained from a critical examination of SA 8000 can thus be applied to other initiatives. Second, we wish to highlight meaningful linkages between the current literature on social accounting practices (i.e. accountability standards) and discourse ethics. Based on the main lines of discourse ethics, we illustrate theoretical deficits and resulting practical problems of SA 8000 to be able to make suggestions to advance the standard and to learn more about how to further develop other internationally valid social accountability standards.