During the World Bank session, we covered the benefits of using the <IR> Framework and how in particular the framework works for public agencies. <IR> allows an organization to explain how it creates value over the short, medium, and long terms. It does not replace other reporting frameworks but is the next step for organizations to move beyond providing separate sustainability (i.e., economic, environmental, and social) and financial (i.e., assets, liabilities, revenues, and expenses) metrics. It helps organizations tie together these metrics to see the big picture of their opportunities and risks; this involves reporting about its strategy, governance, performance and prospects in the context of its environment. To prepare this report, an organization must take an in-depth look at the inputs (e.g., raw materials, equipment, human resources) and outputs (e.g., finished products, waste, emissions) of its business model as it relates to risks and opportunities. For example, an organization’s decision to invest in an energy efficient production facility affects its profits by reducing costs and the environment by reducing emissions. In an integrated report, the organization can explain how the interrelated effects of reducing its annual operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions reduce its risks. To illustrate, the risks associated with increases in future energy costs are lessened. Reducing these risks could increase an organization’s opportunities to obtain future financing for other capital projects.
During the IR training, I shared my knowledge and experience with university, city, and airport sustainability reports in the <IR> context. In one of my examples, I discussed a city that invested in a more fuel-efficient transportation system that reduced costs, fuel usage, and carbon emissions. This investment has long-term consequences for reducing operating costs, carbon emissions, and human healthcare costs. It has the potential to affect how the city is perceived in terms of managing its financial and environmental impacts. This could in turn have consequences for the city’s bond ratings. An <IR> report would discuss these issues as they relate to the city’s costs, revenues, opportunities, and risks in the short, medium, and long terms.
Monika Kumar, Environmental Specialist with the Corporate Responsibility Program at the World Bank, and I were co-trainers at the GRI G4 sustainability reporting session at the National Geographic Headquarters March 16 and 17. Monika is an excellent trainer with a wealth of experience from her work preparing the World Bank’s sustainability reports. We had a stimulating two days with a group of enthusiastic participants. These trainings provided participants with the opportunity to learn in detail about the GRI G4 framework with current examples of reporting companies. In addition to learning about the GRI principles and their application, we focused on the entire reporting process from planning to publishing the finished report. In this training, we also learned a great deal about our participants’ sustainability reporting experiences. They shared their successes and challenges, which was quite useful to all. Interactive trainings such as this one make our training interesting and memorable.
As an accountant, I was thrilled to read that Peter Bakker, President of World Business Council for Sustainable Development , said, “Accountants would save the world.” This should make any accountant smile. The realist in me knows that it will take a big “village” to save the world, but accountants can play an important role.
At an experts panel discussion in Amsterdam, Marjolein Baghuis stated, “… the conclusion was that accountants can certainly play a role in making companies more sustainable, but the profession is not quite ready to deliver on this promise without further education.” I agree!
Accountants have a long history of providing information to decision makers. They have been in the business of providing information since the 15th century. Really! If you want to read a great book, I recommend The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations by Jacob Soll. Accountants are big players in the fortunes of companies and nations. With their experience in providing information for decision-making, accountants can provide important sustainability information to companies, governments, and the public.
Sustainability reporting is unfortunately not currently recognized as an important topic in accounting education in the United States. In a curriculum crowded with courses in tax, auditing, financial accounting, and management accounting, training in sustainability reporting is viewed as nice but not necessary.
Why is this?
There are several reasons.
It is not covered on the major certification exams such as the Certified Public Accountants (CPA) exam and the Certified Management Accountant exam.
There is no demand for sustainability reporting skills in accounting public practice because there is no legal requirement to do it in the United States.
Inside companies, accountants are not usually tasked with sustainability accounting and reporting.
Accountants in small to medium sized public practices do not traditionally offer sustainability services.
Most small to medium sized accounting firms do not know how to make the business case for sustainability reporting for their own firm or for their clients.
Over the years there have been attempts to include sustainability reporting as part of accountants’ education but with little progress. Other traditional accounting topics take precedence. Without the demand, change will be slow.
How will demand for sustainability reporting be created? Here are some possibilities.
Mandatory reporting – Nothings creates a demand for services like a legal requirement. Examples abound – auditing, tax, Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance.
Demand by financial institutions – As part of the evaluation of companies, lending institutions could require a sustainability report. This report would enable banks to do an expanded risk assessment. This would include a company’s environmental and social risks, which are directly tied to their economic risks.
Demand by local governments – Local governments might consider requiring sustainability reports from companies within the city limits. This would be beneficial to cities in assessing a company’s economic, environmental, and social risks. By complying, organizations would be demonstrating their good citizenship and assessing their own risks.