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!
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.
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.
A brief (but incomplete) overview of current attempts to account for sustainability : guest post 2 by Dr Stephen Jollands
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:
Guest post #1 by Dr Stephen Jollands
It is very interesting that Martin’s story of the wasted portions of condiments on an airline flight is a very simple setting to think through the complexities of the issues we face around sustainability. But before we examine Martin’s example further we first need to think about what exactly sustainability is and more importantly what it is not. The first question to ask is what is it that we are trying to sustain? While this may appear as quite a straight forward question the answer is not as most expect. Sustainability is about sustaining humanity. Put simply we need the ecosphere in which we live but it does not need us. This leads to an interesting understanding of a nested system view of the world. That is the economy resides in our societies and our societies in turn reside within the ecosphere. Thus no ecosphere then no society and in turn no society then no economy.
With having worked out what it is that we are trying to sustain we still need to investigate a few more things before we can put forward a concrete definition. In order to do so I need to introduce the ecological footprint, which is an accounting tool that measures the biologically productive area required to sustain a given population. This has been calculated for the entire world with the formula being the total biologically productive surface area divided by the population of the world. The result of this calculation gives us what is referred to as each individual persons Earth share. That is it provides us an indication of the average amount of biologically productive surface that we each have available to us to provide all that we need and want as well as absorb all the waste we generate. Based on 1996 data we know that the Earth share per person was roughly the size of one football field and this is not even taking into account the space required for other species we share our planet with.
To draw an appropriate conclusion from the above calculation of the average Earth share we need to draw an analogy between the ecosphere and a business. With a business we invest capital from which we expect to earn some form of interest. It is this interest that we expect to use to pay for the things we need and want to live from. However, in some situations we understand that the interest we earn may not be enough to support what we want and therefore we may decide to withdraw some of the capital. This is fine as long as we understand that we are doing this (and hence the need for good accounting) and that we understand that if we keep removing capital then the business will eventually go bankrupt. So it is with the ecosphere. Interestingly environmentalism first started to gain traction with space exploration back in the 1960s when it became very clear from the photos taken from space that we live on a finite planet. Hence we can view the ecosphere as having a finite amount of natural capital from which we derive natural interest (usually through interactions with the energy produced by the sun). So in terms of our Earth share this requires deriving everything we need from the football field without depleting the existing resources on that football field. However, the ecological footprint calculation based on 1996 data showed that our resource throughput (measuring resources being taken from the ecosphere as well as waste that the ecosphere is required to re-assimilate) was 20% over the levels of natural interest. This has increased to 50% over the levels of natural interest based on 2008 data. Put simply it would take one and a half years to generate the resources we consume within a year and thus we are currently, and potentially irreversibly, depleting the levels of natural capital, the very thing we require to keep sustaining us.
We can therefore define 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. Hence returning to Martin’s analogy it is not only the amount of things we waste that we must be aware of but also the levels of resources we utilise. Hence, what would the ecological footprint of Martin’s flight look like or in other words what was the amount of biologically productive surface area required to sustain this flight?
In the next post (as Martin has been kind enough to allow me to post two) I will briefly overview experiments around accounting for sustainability. As part of this we will investigate how well the measure up against accounting for a world of finite resources. We will even see that successful examples like the ecological footprint have inherent weaknesses that require us to question whether business that are serious about engaging with these issues may actually require a series of sustainability focused controls to guide their efforts.
Finally in closing, the large part of what I have written above is based on one easy to read book that I would suggest is the perfect place to start for anyone wishing to learn more about these issues:
Wackernagel, M., Rees, W.E., 1996. Our ecological footprint : reducing human impact on the Earth. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, B.C.
Sustainability is a huge issue for us all, not just for accountants. It is not my specific area of expertise, so over the next few weeks Dr Stephen Jollands, University of Exeter, will be writing a few guest posts on my blog. He will give you much more on sustainability actually means, but let me tell you what inspired me to ask Dr Jollands to write some stuff.
I was travelling back to Ireland on an Aer Lingus flight recently. It was an early flight, so I ordered a breakfast, some muffins and drinks for my kids and a tea and cake for my wife. So we started to eat. As I was eating my breakfast I realised I had a portion or marmalade I did not want to eat just then, and portions of salt/pepper I did not use, and some plastic cutlery and some milk. So I thought why not bring some of it home and use it for lunch – which I duly did. Then I started to think about how many similar items would be simply waste on the flight. And, thinking further, the effort (and cost) that goes into produced all these portions is simply wasted too. This, I thought is completely daft, and here it come, not sustainable. All sorts of questions came into my mind – why do we waste so much, why do the flight attendants not ask if you want certain portions, how much money is wasted in this one flight, what natural resources are wasted etc.
This simple everyday experience of mine shows the kind of issues that might be part of the broader sustainability field. I’ll leave it up to Dr Jollands to give you some more insights over the coming weeks.
Following on from my last post on what is a business model, here I recount two articles I had saved from last year on how climate change can force businesses to change – and in some cases even change the business model.
The first article comes from Time (Sep 04, 2011). It recounts how Spanish winemaker Torres are increasingly moving their crops to higher, cooler areas of Spain. Due to global warming, the hotter climate means sweeter fruit and earlier ripening. At the same time, the early ripening of the fruit is offset by the fact that the seeds and skin (which give flavour) are not ripe. Thus, as a possible solution, vines are being planted at a higher, cooler altitude in an effort to offset the warming experienced in traditional regions.
The second related article comes from The Economist (Sep 10, 2011, online). In this articles, you can read how English wine is being produced in increased volumes and better quality – with locally grown grapes. Again, it is climate change – bringing warmer climes to Southern England – meaning that more traditional grape varieties can be grown in England as opposed to the typically acidic German varieties. The result has been a product of increasing quality, and a tendency to produce higher margin sparkling wines – something that was not so easily done before. Thus, the business model of English vineyards may have changed from one where imported “grape juice” was added to make local wine, to one where high quality, high-margin product is the norm.
According to an article in Time (April 18, 2011), a lot of money can be saved by retro-fitting old buildings. I have written a few posts already about this, but this article gives some really good examples of the kind of money that can be saved from some relatively simple initiatives. According to the article, older skyscrapers are one of the worst type of buildings in terms of energy efficiency. Some investment in lighting, heating and insulation can make a huge difference to costs and energy efficiency. For example, the Empire State building spent $13m in 2010 on a retrofit. The result is a 38% decrease in utility bills and a payback period of less than three years. Another example is a re-fit of a federal building in Cleveland, which saves $600,000 per annum. The city of Melbourne, Australia is also mentioned. The city’s Lord Mayor sums up well – “this is not some feel-good environmental initiative. It is a hard-headed economic business decision.
Sustainability in business is a big things nowadays. It can mean many things from saving energy, reducing waste and altering product design. Going one better of course is to completely re-use waste to make a new product. I read a great example recently in the Telegraph [London]. The article mentioned a UK company called Greenergy. The company has invested £50m in a plant to make bio-diesel from used cooking oil, which in itself is a great [if not new] idea. But this company has taken things a little further. In partnership with another company called Brocklesby, the company is now processing waste food into bio-diesel. Apparently, fatty foods like crisps, pies and junk food are great candidates as they are full of fatty oils. While the company has started this new process on a small scale, it seems like a great way to make money out of waste. It ticks so many boxes on the sustainable/environmental side too – it reduces waste to land fill, reduces fossil fuel dependency and may even in the future reduce land use e.g. rape seed grown for vegetable oil.
A recent joint survey (December 2010) from CIMA, the American Institute of CPA’s and Chartered Accountants Canada provides some very useful insights on what companies are actually doing in terms of sustainability. The survey obtained more than 2,000 responds, mainly from CFO’s. It reports on the key drivers of sustainability, with the number one driver being legal and regulatory requirements. This is followed by minimising brand risk for larger companies and cost and efficiency savings is in second place for smaller firms. An interesting finding is that CIMA members place a greater emphasis on sustainability – not surprising given they are more typically involved with the day-to-day practices of the business. The survey also reports on two cases, including UPS – the global logistics firm. The full survey report can be read at the link above.
I read this article in the CIMA insight ezine recently. It reports 0n an initiative called Prince of Wales’ Accounting for Sustainability Project (A4S). The project has been developing practical tools and guidance to help ensure that organisations meet sustainability challenges. A recent publication shows how eight UK private and public sector organisations have applied the guidance developed by A4S. According to the author some common themes emerge; sustainability must be a strategic objective; executive commitment is vital; effective bottom up approaches are needed to capture insights from employees across the organisation. Click the link to read more.
A piece in this months Financial Management (March, 2010), the monthly journal of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) in London, reports on a research report which asks the basic question why are financial managers (i.e. accountants) not getting more involved in important business issues like climate change strategy. Gillian Lees writes that businesses can be proactive or be pushed in relation to issues like climate change. Proactive seems like a much better approach for a business to be sustainable in the long-term, both economically and environmentally. Take energy costs as an example – these have and will increase as time goes on, so it makes sound business and environmental sense to control and reduce energy usage. The research reported in this piece suggests that when accountant are involved in climate-change work, the results were potentially better. As a manager at Asda ( a large UK retailer) says, “the finance team brings the right rigour to ensure that we aren’t simply doing it because it feels like the right thing to do”. Put another way, the numeric and commercial acumen of accountants can mean that climate-change can be the right business thing to do also. The full CIMA research report on Accounting for Climate Change can be found at this link.