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Management accounting and sustainability

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Throughout my professional and academic career as a management accountant/teacher of same, the issue of sustainability has always been something with just made intuitive sense to me. This may be due to my rural background which has instilled an appreciation of all things around me into my ways of working and thinking.

Of course, sustainability is a key issue for business and us all. I recently stumbled upon a CIMA Research Insight report on sustainable development which I had not read previously. The report focuses on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development
Goals (SDGs) and the role of management accounting. Rather than summarise it here, it may be best to read the report yourself, but one quote from within the report really captures the important relationship between business and sustainability. The quote is:

“If business isn’t sustainable then society is at risk. And if society isn’t sustainable then business is at risk.” – Mark Wilson, Group Chief Executive Officer, AVIVA

What a clear and simple quote!


Solar PV – the costs and benefits

Last month, I got 2Kw of solar photovoltaic panels installed on our home. The install was seamless, so thanks to the provider

Image from

A 2Kw installation equates to six panels. Our roof already has solar water heating panels, so I guess a standard install might be 3Kw or more. So how is it going you might ask? As I am an accountant, of course I want to do the numbers. Before I do, lest you need reminding, Ireland is not the sunniest of places, but we do have good daylight – which is key to solar PV. Since the install, the lowest we have generated is 3Kw in one day, the most 13Kw. In terms of daily usage, this equates to a range of about 20% of our needs to more than 100% – depends on the day, as some days we use more energy than others.

So, to the numbers. I am making the following assumptions 1) no revenue from sale of extra power to the grid, 2) a cost of 0.17c per Kw – this is my current costs, 3) 5% annual increase in energy cost and 4) an average of 5Kw generated by the panels each day. I think these are all quite conservative. The cost of the install was about €6,500 net of a government grant, so the question from an accounting view is when do I get my money back? Using a simple Excel sheet and the above assumptions, it takes about 16 years. This is reasonable, given the average life of PV panels is 20-25 years.

There is more to it of course. I will probably save the planet 1.5 tons of CO2 per annum, which is not at all considered in the above numbers. And of course, I will have power for a while in case of a power cut, and can always expand the system to have more batteries. So overall, I am happy as an accountant, but also happy that I am doing my bit for the planet.

Accounting numbers and Irish Water

I have written before about Irish Water, and the role of accounting in the on-going debate on domestic water charges in Ireland. Here is link to a recent blog post  by a good colleague, Desmond Gibney at National College of Ireland.


Accounting for water usage

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Image from wikipedia

In recent years,  I have become interested in the broader role and use of accounting in society. In particular, accounting for water has caught my eye and in Ireland it’s been great fun in the past two years or so.

As you may know, one of the things we need in accounting is measurement. In business accounting, it’s relatively easy, as the unit of measurement is rather simple – it’s the unit of currency normally. Currencies are broken into various units – euro and cent for example – and we can use the decimal system easily communicate and measure larger numbers.

In accounting for water, the measurement unit is normally cubic metres, or 1000 litres. To measure  (or account) for our water usage, we need a measurement device – a meter. Once a meter is in place, we can see how much water we use and take measures to reduce it if necessary – as water is a precious resource.

In Ireland, there has been much debate about billing for water. A recent (December 2016) expert commission report on domestic water billing has within its remit to explore if metering should occur. This, in my view, was/is a completely daft request. The report itself is full of statistics on water usage – none of which are possible with a meter. For example, it suggests usage on average of 111 litres per person per day or 20.8 cubic metres per person per year. In my own house, we have used on average 11 cubic metres per month for 4 people. Annually this is 33 cubic meters, so we are quite above average. And like any management accounting scenario, now that I have some information (on water usage) I can now take corrective action, or pay extra for my somewhat excessive usage. The latter is the subject of much debate in Ireland of course.



Food waste – in numbers

Stop ugly vegetable discrimination!

You have probably heard about the amount of fruit and vegetables wasted in the food supply chain. This waste “occurs” for three main reasons. First, in less developed countries, poor transport and storage can result in waste. This also happens in larger developed countries, where distances mean fruit/veg cannot survive the trip. Second, the exacting standards imposed by retailers as to the size and shape of fresh fruit and vegetables causes growers to simply dump large quantities each year. Third, end consumers throw away perfectly good food.

Personally, I grow some fruit in a small suburban garden. We never but jam, as I make enough for the household for the whole year. We have 2-3 months worth of pears and apples, and some years the “leftover” fruit become wine – blackcurrant wine is quite nice. So, from a small say 10m2 plot, I can do all this and have zero waste. On a  commercial scale, things are different. The waste is immorally high, primarily due to the exacting standards of retailers. I can tell you that the apples and pears I grow may be all shapes and sizes, but they taste so much better than anything I can buy in the supermarket – and my neighbours all agree.

To give a snapshot of how much perfectly good fruit and vegetables we waste each year as a race, National Geographic (March 2016) provides some stark numbers. In total, 53% of fruit and vegetables never makes it to the market – 20% is lost at the farm due mainly to exacting standards, 19% is uneaten and discarded at home, 3% lost in transit/storage, 2% lost in processing (canning/baking) and 9% discarded by wholesales and retailers. Add to this the resources used to harvest and prepare what is wasted – 70 times the oil lost in Deep Water Horizon and enough water to fill the Volga, and that’s just one year in the US alone. To add another number, the annual total food waste (all foods) could feed 2 billion people.

From these stark numbers, what can (management) accountants do? Recently, some documentaries on British TV featured vegetable growers saying  the loose perhaps £100,000 per month worth of vegetables – assuming it could be sold at market price. Nowhere is this accounted for, not in their accounts, in supermarket accounts, in our national accounts (GDP). What if these accounts included the cost of waste? I’m sure if they did, we would all stand up and take notice.


What management accountants think about sustainability reporting

I have written before on sustainability, and it is a tricky topic to define and pin down. However, one thing that helps bring any issue to the fore is to measure and/or report on it. Many companies do report on sustainability and environmental issues. Whether such reporting is genuine or “green-washing” is another debate.

CGMA recently conducted a global survey of management accountants, and the report can be found here. A nice infographic of the key points can  be seen here in the December CGMA magazine. One of things that jumped out at me was that the highest perceived benefits of reporting on sustainable issue came from management accountants in Africa. The report/survey suggests that management accountants are very aware of the need to report on sustainability and note it is beneficial. It also surprisingly suggests that the greatest barrier to reporting is no demand from decision makers.

glass globe in the grass

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Plastic bag taxes – and the costs saved

It’s 13 years since Ireland introduced a plastic bag levy of 15c, then 22c. Since then, around €200m has been collected from consumers. England recently introduced a similar scheme and this prompted me to reflect on what the less use of plastic bags has meant for Ireland – with a cost/accounting angle of course.

The first thing that strikes me is the lack of plastic bags stuck in hedges. Not only does this mean a cleaner countryside, but much lower clean up costs for local councils.Second, I would say the packaging industry did not lose out, as paper bags are generally available in stores – cost neutral in terms of employment. This is good too as paper is renewable, but also lost people have a car boot full of reusable bags. I still have some dating back to 2002 believe it or not. Third, as a tax it worked in that it changed our behaviour as a nation – for the good of the exchequer and the environment.


The cost you add to a flight – yes, you.




The April 2015 edition of National Geographic includes a very nice short article which draws on the work of two MIT aeronautical engineers. The article to me is a very nice mix of explaining why airlines charge more for more weight (of bags usually, but some airlines are considering weight of passengers too), and how we as passengers can reduce CO2 emissions as we fly.

For many years now, low-cost carriers in particular have charged more for checked in bags. They also step-up the charges as bags get heavier. The key reason for this is to reduce ground-handling time – less checked bags, less baggage handling, faster turnaround, all of which reduce cost or increase revenue. But, as the National Geographic article also points out, more weight equals more fuel consumption and higher fuel cost. The MIT engineers used a Boeing 737-800 (as used by Ryanair) at 75% capacity as a model to calculate how much extra fuel cost various passenger items incur over a year. A 25kg suitcase increases costs by $3,267 per annum, a 1okg carry on $980, a laptop $291 and a full-bladder $29 – among other examples.  Ryanair currently have 303 aircraft (per their website), so taking just the costs I quote, this is $4,567 per passenger per year x 190 seats x 303 aircraft, this equate to $262,922,190 – and that’s a big potential cost saving. I can already see Ryanair’s next advert 🙂

There are two points to take from the above. It is obvious that airlines may charge more for weighty items as these drive fuel costs up. The second point is look how much cost we could save the environment by taking even small steps like taking a pee before boarding – $29 x 190 seats x 303 = $1,669,530 worth of fuel. This is just one airline, and I have no idea how much CO2 emissions are reduced by, but as Tesco say “every little counts”.





The Pope’s view on accountants

Image from wikipedia

Image from wikipedia

A recent quote from Pope Francis to the World Congress of Accountants captures the broader role of accounting quite well:

” everyone, especially those who practise a profession which deals with the proper functioning of a country’s economic life, is asked to play a positive, constructive role in performing their daily work, knowing that behind every file, there is a story, there are faces.”

This quote reminds us that behind the numbers are real jobs, real people and real effects. It may be easy to forget this as you trawl over a ledger audit trail or provide information to managers, but reminding ourselves of the broad reach of our accounting numbers can only be a good thing.

The full text the address by Pope Francis can be found here.

Accounting for water

Image from wikipedia

Image from wikipedia

I have recently been involved in a research project on the newly formed Irish Water – a state-owned utility responsible for water supply in Ireland. The main objective of the new utility is to provide a unified approach to water supply – as opposed to the 30 odd previous authorities.  While the utility has caused much media attention, this post draws your attention to the use of accounting principles in the provision of water supply.

Let’s think about water as a resource,  which it is. Now think about the utility. It needs to account for the water it processes, distributes to customers and looses through leaks etc. To do this it needs various measuring devices such as meters. So, in a similar way to a ledger account, we could think as water coming into a system as a debit, water out a credit, the measurement is in litres (not money) and we should be able to account for the difference i.e. the balance on the account.

Now think about the end consumer of water. Similarly water comes in and out – the latter being usage. With meter installed, we can account for our usage, possibly trying to reduce usage. Or we can seek an alternative (partial) source of water by harvesting water from the roof of our house. By accounting for our usage, ultimately we can make decisions to reduce usage if we have to pay for the water resource. Without the ability to account for our usage (through a meter), we cannot make such decisions. This is of course more like management accounting – using our information on water usage to make decisions – but it is still accounting.


The cost of “non-local” food

A while ago, I was asked to write some entries for an Encyclopaedia of Corporate Social Responsibility. I enjoyed this and the research behind the writing. One of the terms I wrote about was Local Food. Without repeating the definition verbatim, local food is basically food grown within a local area. But what exactly is local? Town, region, state, country or what? That’s the hard part.

The image to your right shows some nice juicy strawberries. When I was a kid, we had these as treats from about May to July. And they are a treat, once in season and local. But now I can get strawberries at Christmas –  but they taste c**p usually and come from many miles away. This is definitely not local food.

Bringing consumers year round fruit (and other food types) is an expensive and difficult business. An article in the November edition of National Geographic gives some idea. Yes the example is US based, but it has some hard facts. The article follows the 3,200 mile journey of strawberries from California to Washington DC. The berries are grown on large-scale farms and over 500 trucks a day can be involved on just one farm. The retail value of each truckload is $90,000, and fuel for each truck costs $2,700.  Total journey time is 80 hours, for which a driver must be paid etc, and think about the wear and tear of the truck.  This is hardly a local food example I would argue, and it easy to see the money involved. And I’m not even starting on the true cost, which includes costs of large-scale farming (pesticide run-off for example) and CO2 emissions.


Environmental and social reporting – new EU Directive

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I recently read an article from the Guardian which highlights the problems of measuring and reporting all things environmental, sustainable and social. The article noted a recent study n the Journal of Cleaner Production. It analysed metrics used in academic literature to measure performance in sustainable supply chains. The study reveals a total of 2,555 different metrics were published in 445 different articles.

I think we would all agree that publishing some performance measures on sustainability and similar issues is very important. But if we do not have a set of standards to follow, comparing things is quite difficult. This should sound quite familiar to accountants, as before we had financial reporting standards in the 1970’s and IFRS at EU level today it was not easy to compare financial statements.

Although there are some standards on environmental and social reporting (such as the Global Reporting Initiative), these are typically voluntary. The EU has recently provided some help and impetus. According to a CGMA article, “About 6,000 large companies and groups across the EU will be required to disclose certain non-financial information on environmental and social impacts as well as diversity policies for boards of directors”.  The Directive must be implemented by member states within two years, so by 2017, we should see the first reports. I am sure some will say the Directive does not go far enough, but at least it’s a start and it sets a standard. This is better than no reporting or such diverse reporting that it becomes pointless.


What is true cost accounting?

Image from 3bl media

True cost accounting (also called Environmental Full Cost Accounting) is a process which tries to identify all costs associated with a product or service. This includes not only the normal costs we would associate with a product or service, bit also social and environmental costs. It attempts include what economists call externalities – something which affects society or the environment  but is not included in the market price of the product. Rather than me continue, here is a short YouTube video which explains the concept in a very clear way.

The Science May Be Settled, But the Economics Isn’t

A re-blog this week. This is a great post from the Freakonomics blog on the climate change debate – or fact perhaps more correctly. It makes interesting reading.

The Science May Be Settled, But the Economics Isn’t.

A brief (but incomplete) overview of current attempts to account for sustainability : guest post 2 by Dr Stephen Jollands

World map of countries by ecological footprint

World map of countries by ecological footprint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guest post #2 by Dr Stephen Jollands

In the previous post I defined sustainability as humanity not over-consuming the resources available to them and thereby irreversibly depleting the levels of natural capital while at the same time ensuring an equitable and fair distribution, both within the current generation as well as across all future generations, of the resources available. The aim of this post is to review some of the tools that claim to account for sustainability and question how well they stack up against this definition.

The obvious place to start is with the very tool we utilised to help explain sustainability, the ecological footprint. This calculates the biologically productive surface area required to sustain the thing of interest; whether that is the Earth, a specific country, an organisation, or even a specific project. Thus this tool is a very effective indicator of resource throughput. Despite being a very effective tool and adhering to a strong conception of sustainability it also has inherent weaknesses. Primarily amongst these is that it gives no indication over the health of the specific part of the ecosphere that the resources are being drawn from or the waste assimilated to. Therefore, it would appear that its effectiveness would be improved if set within a system of supporting sustainability focused management controls. We shall now turn to examining a few of these potential candidates.

The most obvious to examine next is the various types of external reporting that organisations do under the label of sustainability. There have been many differing frameworks developed in this respect including The Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project, the GRI and Integrated Reporting. These provide useful tools for businesses to organise their communications with their shareholders in regards to their social and environmental impacts. But this is also the source of critique for them as well. That is we have to question how far beyond public relations these reports go. The proponents of the various framework argue that the use of their frameworks provide stakeholders with an in depth analysis of the social and environmental impacts of an organisation. However, we need to question whether any rationale executive would allow the more controversial elements of their operations to be released in a public environment. When we reflect on the various accounting standards inability to provide clarity over economic affairs, as is evidenced by continual scandals, it is hardly surprising that these frameworks will probably fare no better. Further, none of these frameworks requires the organisation to report on the scale or scope of resources drawn from the ecosphere or waste assimilated back into it (i.e. an ecological footprint), which, as was explained last week, is at the heart of the issue of sustainability. This is not surprising as the accounting entity convention sets precise limits as to what is accounted for. For this very reason many commentators have expressed the view that the focus of the going concern concept should be elements of the ecosphere; such as rivers and forests; rather than the economic entity. If this was the case then economic organisations would be required to account for how they have helped maintained these ecosphere going concerns and in doing so been allowed to generate a profit.

The final example, although there is so many others we could review, which I will cover will be attempts to provide a cost to the social and environmental impacts of an organisation. The reason for selecting this as the final example is that Puma generated a large amount of publicity recently through publishing their first Environmental Profit and Loss account. Puma reports that their environmental impact for the key areas of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use, air pollution and waste, generated through their operations and supply chain is valued at €145 million in 2010. In the same year Puma reported that their Net Earnings were €202.2 million. This raises the question as to whether, given their Net Earnings were greater than their environmental impacts, they are therefore a truly sustainable organisation? The possibility of one of the world’s most notable examples of a consumerism driven, profit increasing through growth in sales organisations being sustainable seems to fly in the face of the evidence provided by the ecological footprint of our current over consumption of natural capital. This contradiction could be better explored had Puma provided more in depth details surrounding their calculations. However, given the involvement of consultants in this calculation, these details are unlikely to be ever released. The final question to ask is what concrete actions will this calculation result in?

In closing this quick overview, I would also question why Puma chose to put itself in a position for stakeholders to believe that it was the first organisation to provide an environmental profit and loss account when so many other notable and more transparent examples and experiments have occurred before? Or indeed we could question why Puma did not utilise one of these other tools given they are existing technologies and these tools have a close relationship with strong conceptions of sustainability? One notable example is full cost accounting (FCA). FCA as a concept integrates all potential costs and benefits, including those that relate to social and environmental, that organisations would normally consider as externalities, into the economic calculations they perform. The aim, therefore, is to ensure that a full set of broad considerations are taken into account during the decision making process. Of course here the emphasis is on decision making rather than releasing information publically and hence when this tool is used it generally does not make levels of publicity anywhere near those generated by Puma. Related to this is the sustainability assessment model (SAM), which is a tool developed in order to assist with the implementation of FCA. It is interesting that a colleague of mine focused his PhD research on assisting two local government bodies in implementing the use of SAM. While one of these were genuinely amazed at the extent of their impact and proceeded to take action accordingly, the other asked my colleague to leave when the SAM failed to deliver the “right” answer. That is when it provided visibility over the high levels of un-sustainability this plainly was unsettling to the managers involved. It is often understood by researchers in the area of accounting for sustainability that if the results do not make you feel incredibly uncomfortable you’re plainly not doing it right. Thus it is with interest that I introduce the last tool, the sustainable cost calculation (SCC). SCC is a way to measures how much it would cost an organisation to ensure that its operations left Earth at least no worse off at the end of the accounting period. The idea here is precisely to utilise the language of accounting to provide visibility over the true impacts of an organisation on natural capital and thereby the gapping chasm between our current operations and those that would be sustainable. It is interesting that the experiments with this tool have, beyond showing the un-sustainability of the organisations involved, highlighted how difficult it is to perform these calculations given the complexities and our relative dearth of knowledge as to how our ecosphere works.

The point I am trying to highlight in this post is that it is hard to be anything but cynical of many of the current attempts to account for sustainability as they do not link to the underlying issues and appear to be nothing more than attempts to generate publicity for the organisations involved.

These issues, covered in these two posts, around accounting and sustainability is the focus of my research and teaching efforts:

I would therefore encourage anyone interested in furthering their knowledge in the area of sustainability and business to consider undertaking the innovative One Planet MBA, which I teach the accounting module in:

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