Special report: The CAs championing sustainability
Raising the standard
A series of announcements over the coming months is set to have a profound effect on how companies publish sustainability reports. They could significantly quicken the pace of the war against greenwashing. Ahead of what promises to be an important period of change, ICAS will be hosting a special summit on sustainability reporting, in London, on 26 April, with speakers such as Judy Kuszewski, Chair of the Global Sustainability Standards Board, which oversees the development of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)’s standards. This 10-page report features an interview with Eelco van der Enden, CEO of the GRI, alongside more details about the summit. Read here.
Ideally, reporting standards should become mandatory. But this, as outlined by van der Enden, can often feel like a complex world of various organisations competing to do much the same thing. ICAS supports mandating standards, but believes those of the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) do not go far enough. We would prefer a reporting approach involving an alignment between the ISSB and GRI standards.
More broadly, sustainability is fast becoming an important part of an accountant’s day-to-day role. CAs are exceptionally well placed to work with sustainability experts and decision makers to drive the changes needed in the business, finance and public sectors to meet our collective UK and global net-zero targets. We speak to three CAs who are immersed in the business of sustainability. They explain how it impacts both their work and that of their clients. Read below.
And to highlight how big brands have used sustainability for their own ends – and to underline why the issue is so important – we close with a brief history of greenwashing. Read here.
Sustainability is all about fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising those of future ones. It’s an issue that is becoming ever more pressing for CAs in industry, in practice and as entrepreneurs running their own companies or looking to break out on their own. Where once making a show of your environmental credentials may just have been considered canny marketing, soon detailed reporting on sustainability could be mandatory by law. Julie Burniston speaks to three CAs for whom sustainability is already an integral part of their professional life
Harriet Walker CA - Sustainability Services Manager, Mazars
In 2013, I secured a placement with Mazars in Edinburgh as part of my degree, working primarily in audit and tax. On completion, I was offered a graduate position, which saw me move into Mazars’ healthcare practice, dealing with tax, accounts and superannuation for doctors. It was here I gained my CA qualification.
Though I loved my team, it’s fair to say tax wasn’t my passion, so when I heard of a new initiative to make Mazars more sustainable, I jumped at the chance to join the committee. ESG [environmental, social, governance] was in its infancy and for some time we were described as a group of enthusiastic volunteers. When Mazars realised the need to formalise and create a dedicated Sustainability Executive role, I was first in the line to apply. Moving to our operations team in London, I spent a couple of years focusing on Mazars’ environmental impact and our relationship with the communities we live and work alongside.
I was in the team which drafted Mazars’ first sustainability report, led our community and green champions groups, and was involved with cutting-edge initiatives, such as the move to sustainable business cards using NFC [near-field communication] technology.
In May 2022, I returned to a client-facing role in the sustainability services consulting team, bringing together my accounting, stakeholder management and operational sustainability knowledge to deliver a comprehensive suite of services. As manager of a rapidly growing team, I’ve been able to undertake some amazing courses courtesy of Mazars, such as the Young Sustainable Innovator Programme with the UN Global Compact, working alongside a peer group from a range of industries, identifying areas within our companies that would benefit from making sustainable change.
I also completed a Business Sustainability Management programme with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, and this time last year I was working as a volunteer manager in Costa Rica for Raleigh International as part of a Mazars future leaders programme.
My current remit cuts across consulting and assurance, incorporating services such as broader ESG strategy, net zero, and modern slavery. I firmly believe that non-financial KPIs will be subject to the same level of rigour as financial KPIs within the next five years, and due to my background as an auditor, and my CA qualification, I am well placed to assist our clients on the assurance, reporting and tracking of non-financial KPIs. Rather than looking at the all too familiar bank and leased assets, I now advise on environmental and social data, but it’s a very similar thought process. I also deliver Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting, a compulsory report for mid-sized companies which sits within the directors’ report of the financial statements, and summarises their Scope 1 and 2 emissions, as well as their high-level plans to decarbonise.
In summary, my experience in audit and operations has enabled me to add value to our clients, be that from a financial or business angle. I understand their pain points, and work with them to progress their strategies, ensuring that sustainability is considered in all decision making
In terms of Mazars’ sustainability, we are continuing to make steady progress. My team are into the second year of calculating our carbon footprint on a global level – both a challenge and an achievement in itself! I feel motivated by my work, knowing that what I do makes a contribution to a more sustainable world, because the client may act on my recommendations, or just because our reporting support helps bring some of the ESG transparency which has been severely lacking in the past.
Many of our clients are early adopters, so it’s not mandatory for them to have a net-zero strategy. However, they have chosen to do it with our support because it enhances or protects their brand reputation, helps them to win business, especially from larger companies or government, and there is a recognition that it helps future-proof their business model.
Neil Mackinnon CA - Founder, Arm in Arm Accounting
I began my career straight from university with Price Waterhouse in Edinburgh on a CA training contract, progressing to Audit Assistant Manager, before transferring to insolvency and seeing a lot of businesses across a multitude of sectors. I did block release and studied at night, achieving my CA in 1990.
That same year I joined Sun Microsystems, a large global technology business which had just opened its first manufacturing technology site outside the US, in Scotland, growing from a greenfield start-up to manufacturing some of the biggest data centres and computers in the world. I grew through several different roles before becoming FD of the global manufacturing and supply chain business.
It was a great learning experience from both a technical accounting and business support viewpoint. Working with global teams, I got involved in finance transformation, business partnering, our annual planning cycles and some good investment/disinvestment analysis.
In 2011, I left to become CFO of a small private equity-backed start-up in Edinburgh whose strategy was to acquire a number of businesses. My role was to support the financial analysis of that and the finance integration of the acquisitions. Four years later I decided to form my own company.
Arm in Arm Accounting launched in 2015. A relatively small practice with a team of five, we provide three core services: primary accounting and tax, a business planning service, and strategic advice consultancy support.
The skills I learnt doing my CA have helped throughout my career, but are particularly relevant since forming Arm in Arm. ICAS has been a tremendous support to my practice, keeping me up to date with technical accounting and tax changes, and ensuring I’m in the best position to use that knowledge to advise clients.
My involvement with the Scottish net-zero community started a few years back – Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021 was a big influence. Prior to that there’d been a lot of visibility around climate change and the need for action, which sparked my interest. In the lead-up to Cop26, we looked at our carbon footprint and how we could implement carbon-reduction initiatives. We got an overview of the important requirements, then thought of them from a client perspective. Around that time, I was asked to speak at a conference on the topic of how SMEs could adopt net zero. I met academics, other practitioners and businesses all focused on the same subject. I still work closely with many of them.
Our profession has been good at setting the overall sustainability structure which larger businesses have to report on. But if you’re a smaller business, having to develop a net-zero strategy that is verifiable and actionable, that’s where we can step in to help the business understand how to get started, and to support them with advice on how it affects their financials.
Rising energy prices means being sustainable can reduce costs significantly. There’s a growing demand for expert practitioners, accelerator programmes and software offerings to help businesses develop their own net-zero plans. It’s not across the board yet, but it’s getting there – and the interest will only grow.
Stephen Gibbens CA - Founder, Accountech
I decided to become an accountant after doing school work experience at Geoghegans. I really enjoyed it and was determined to gain my CA as it’s a badge of quality. I’ve since worked for Deloitte Haskins and Sells, Sidlaw Group in Dundee and as Finance Director of Omega Diagnostics, based in Alloa.
Having tried almost every type of work a CA can do over the years, I recognised my passion lay with small tech companies, so I set up my own practice working with tech start-ups in September 2002.
Accountech is very different from a typical accountancy firm as we don’t do any self-assessment returns – many clients don’t yet have sales – and we work much more closely with our clients than traditional firms. We are a firm of two bookkeepers and two CAs – myself and Kate Methley who was at Deloitte at the same time as me. Her skillset complements my own and we make a good team. Since having my own practice I really appreciate what ICAS does for its members – its help has been invaluable.
I had developed an interest in life sciences and medical device companies during my time at Omega but latterly I have also become interested in climate change – so our climate tech clients have become a main focus too. I’m not a climate scientist nor a biotech expert, but I believe we can still make a difference by helping companies that are. One of Accountech’s values is to only work with clients who do good. We take on only a small number of tech company clients at a time and I choose those whose values align with ours, such as Danu Robotics, which has created a robotic arm used to sort recyclable from non-recyclable waste, using AI. We work with other climate tech spinouts from Edinburgh University, such as Crover, which has created the world’s first granular drone to help grain storage operators reduce losses, and Robocean, which is mechanising seagrass restoration for large-scale marine rewilding projects.
I really do believe that things are changing, and start-ups are putting sustainability at the heart of all they do. They want to make the world a better place and as a result people are investing in them. Though it isn’t across the board yet, I’ve seen a big change in the last few years and CAs need to be ahead of the game. While more needs to be done at government level, we as a profession need to be raising awareness of the financial benefits of sustainability and offering our clients all the support and advice we can.
From both a business and personal viewpoint, my interest in sustainability has been piqued. I have read a lot of books on the subject now such as Speed & Scale by John Doerr, which gives grounds for optimism as it outlines a detailed plan for solving the climate crisis. I also post regularly on the subject on LinkedIn and that does seem to have an impact. One recent post about oat milk went viral, had more than 65,000 impressions. That resulted in me receiving a free delivery of Three Robins oat milk – and as a result of that, I have now become a regular customer of theirs!
Other than B Corp, which is a bit too onerous for most new businesses, there doesn’t as yet seem to be one recognised scheme which start-ups could do. There’s definitely a gap to be filled there.
For more resources, visit the ICAS sustainability hub