Accountants, accountability and sustainability

Mar 01, 2021
The drive towards new sustainable habits and behaviours within organisations might be a big task, but it can and should start at an individual level.

In keeping up with the general developments within the accounting realm, I feel the area of sustainability and accounting is already becoming saturated with thought leadership on governance, regulations and compliance regarding climate change, the UN sustainability development goals, and even various reports on market share loses against greener competitors.

While well-intentioned, these articles don’t necessarily motivate intrinsic change and, instead, turns something that should be a priority into another tick box exercise.

Rather than focusing on how accountants can use their analytical and communications skills to show the falling cost of renewables, I feel that is passing the baton. I want to focus on what sustainability means to me:  accountability, one of the core values of Chartered Accountants Ireland, and responsibility, a core element of our day-to-day lives as accountants.

One of the main concerns that stood out in reviewing past Institute reports regarding sustainability was the concern that the topic is so large, it’s hard to know where to begin. Clearly, we need a behavioural and attitude shift to realise that yes, the topic is huge and all-encompassing, with most parts of our lives adding to our carbon footprint. However, the fact that the topic touches on all aspects of our lives should make it easier to change behaviours and find ways to make our lives that little bit greener. 

While the cost of renewables is dramatically falling, our foundations regarding climate change in Ireland are still weak and we need to hold ourselves accountable before paying for the rise of renewables.

Getting the basics right should be a priority. We need to hold ourselves accountable individually to build greener habits into our lives, including simple tasks like recycling, watching our food waste, choosing reusables and avoiding driving when unnecessary. Recent reports state our rate of recycling (ROR) has dramatically fallen from 74% in 2015 to 62% in 2020.

By ‘auditing’ our own lives, we can make a profound difference. By choosing to cycle or walk to the shops daily for groceries can save over 265kg of carbon emissions per annum, based on a 5km round trip journey via car. The benefits of shopping every day is shown to greatly reduce food waste, another major source of emissions. Even each email we send contributes to roughly 50g of carbon emissions. Assuming the average firm has 100 employees sending 50 emails per day, you get the equivalent of 250kg of carbon emissions per day – similar to the same emissions of flying a round trip to London! While reducing our email activity is extreme (and probably not recommended by your employer!), it’s easy to see how you can make a little change to have a big impact.

As Peter Drucker once said, “What gets measured, gets managed” so as accountable and responsible Chartered Accountants who love KPIs, cost savings and efficiencies, let’s start auditing our individual impact before we start worrying about anything else. If we can’t hold ourselves accountable, how can we expect large multinationals to change?

Similar to how we approach the ACA exams, you can start your own sustainability journey: start small, plan ahead, don’t panic and keep moving forward while taking pride in your progress. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, CFOs will report to Chief Sustainable Officers. These two roles can work together to achieve cost savings while also promoting and supporting sustainable travel, heating, electricity, etc., which reduces our organisations’ carbon footprints. 

Needless to say, the future of the accounting profession will most certainly be shaped by sustainability. It shouldn’t be seen solely as a business goal, but more of a guiding principle. As the old focus for businesses was ‘survival of the fittest’; the new norm could potentially be ‘survival of the most sustainable’.

Cathal O’Reilly is the Founder of Narcissips, which highlights the benefits that reusables have for our health, the environment and, as a stereotypical accountant, our pockets.