Painting by numbers: The ICAS sustainability survey results

painting by numbers
Matt McGeehan CA By Matt McGeehan CA

27 October 2016

ICAS conducted two sustainability surveys in 2013 and 2015. Matt McGeehan CA draws some conclusions on sustainability from the results.

We all remember, as children, using painting by numbers to build up a picture from lots of numbered colours. Some numbers gave us the background and we would happily paint large areas of blue sky or green grass. However, the picture wasn’t complete without the smaller details in the foreground which could be trickier to paint.

In 2013 and 2015, ICAS conducted two surveys of members. Both surveys showed similar results and these statistics can be used to build a ‘painting by numbers’ picture of member’s views on sustainability.

The first element consisted of a set of scored questions which gives us the broad background landscape.

Members were also asked to provide their individual comments and these provide, if you like, some detail in the foreground.

Overlapping these two elements is a third element which is interpretation. I have offered some potential interpretations of the result which may provide some light and shade to the picture. Enough of the art appreciation, let’s look at the results:

Importance of key aspects of sustainability

Members were asked to rate the importance of key aspects of sustainability to them individually as CAs. These covered economic, environmental, social, governance and cultural/spiritual criteria.

Not surprisingly, both surveys rated the economic aspects of highest importance and the cultural/spiritual aspects lowest.

If you view sustainability from a risk management perspective, it is vital and should be part of good business practice… 

After all, we are accountants.

Even when we are considering sustainability, we revert to type and want to apply economic values and calculations to it.


Individual comments suggested that ICAS should focus on sustainability issues relevant to members’ clients, as well as the Scottish economy, so as to produce some quick wins.

Farming was suggested as one industry that needed a focus on sustainability. Indeed, there is already a circular sustainability relationship between farming, fishing and the whisky industry.

Others commented that sustainability used to mean sustaining the community. Localised owner-industrialists recognised this in the past but this responsibility has perhaps now been forgotten in the corporate age.

What areas of sustainability have you worked on?

Members were asked what areas of sustainability they had worked on over the last twelve months from the following selection:

  • Assurance of CSR/Sustainability reports
  • Carbon measurement
  • Request for input in sustainability decisions
  • Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Supply chain audit
  • Preparing CSR /Sustainability reports
  • Sustainable IT
  • Integrated Reporting
  • Environmental taxes

Survey scores indicated that many respondents had worked in these areas either occasionally (usually in the corporate social responsibility arena) or not at all. This may reflect that the only interface many CAs have with sustainability is occasional CSR reporting.

Some individual comments were sceptical about these initiatives. Indeed, the sustainability debate, in general, was variously described as “nonsense”, “greenwashing”, “twaddle”, “job preservation”, and “mindless flailing”.

On the other hand, some recognised that sustainability is an important part of all our lives and that non-monetary costs should be recognised. Even so, there was pragmatic realisation that sustainability currently takes second place to the corporate bottom line and the challenge lies in matching the two.

It is fair to say that, among ICAS members, the battle for hearts and minds on sustainability has not yet been won.

How important is sustainability to your organisation?

The surveys asked how important sustainability was to the organisation in areas such as products, processes, reporting and reputation.

The scores in both surveys rated the first three of these between “somewhat important” and“very important”.

However, the score for reputation was way out in front of the other three. This suggests that the most important sustainability factor for most organisations was reputational damage or kudos.


This begs an important question: If our sustainability efforts were kept secret and there was no reputational dividend, would corporations bother to spend the money?

Individual comments reflected a suspicion that corporate sustainability activity was about corporate survival, not altruistic green objectives.

Companies were perceived as paying lip service to sustainability as a marketing ploy and even using it to dress up cost cutting. Some viewed it as a reputational exercise rather than a behavioural or aspirational shift that companies really lived and breathed.

Level of awareness

Respondents were asked to score their levels of awareness on a range of sustainability issues. The scores for both surveys were somewhere between“not aware” and“slightly aware” across all categories. This suggests a low level of awareness about a range of significant issues.

Individual comments called for more training on the basic concepts. Many respondents said that they were not as aware as they would like to be while some admitted that their knowledge was non-existent.

Practitioners wanted to keep abreast of issues facing their clients. There were suggestions such as a training conference and including sustainability within CA training.

Survey scores and individual comments both suggest that ICAS has a role to play in raising member awareness and that existing initiatives, such as the essay competition, are successful vehicles for doing this.

Is sustainability an accounting issue?

Nearly half of the respondents agreed, or strongly agreed, that sustainability was an accounting issue. Around 34% were ambivalent and a minority disagreed. This is a clear signpost that sustainability is indeed an accounting issue.

I feel that sustainability is the most important objective and that financial and economic reporting needs to reflect this.

Individual comments recognised that we require a proper true and accurate measurement of non-monetary costs. Furthermore, sustainability needed to be measurable in order to be reported on, and both measurement and reporting had to be transparent and open to challenge.

However, some CAs were of the view that they should take care of the financial numbers and let others on the board be accountable for sustainability.

How important is it for ICAS to provide guidance?

This question produced a strong response across both surveys. Respondents felt it was important for ICAS to give guidance, particularly when it came to mandatory reporting.

However, some felt that whilst ICAS should provide leadership, this should capture wider UK and global developments.

“There is a major gap of holistic large scale leadership in this area, an opportunity?”


These surveys were enormously successful in building a “painting by numbers” picture of ICAS member opinion.

The survey scores indicate that sustainability is indeed an accounting issue and that ICAS has a role in providing guidance. They also indicate a lack of awareness and a thirst for training about sustainability among CAs.

However, many individual comments reflect genuine cynicism. The sustainability agenda will struggle to move forward whilst some of ICAS’s own members view it so sceptically.

ICAS has a role in demonstrating that there are real issues at stake as well as leading and educating its members on what those issues are. This could include introducing sustainability to younger members as part of their CA training.

The surveys pose some difficult dilemmas. Members want initiatives that are relevant to the Scottish economy and to their local client base. Indeed, a project on the circular relationship between farming, fishing and whisky could record some quick sustainability reporting wins. Yet, at the same time, members want these initiatives to take account of UK and global developments. This is a difficult balancing act.

Finally, as CAs we need to take individual as well as collective responsibility. If we want ICAS to provide guidance, then more of the membership needs to step up and get involved, so that such guidance is written by the members, for the members.

Matt McGeehan CA is a Technical Adviser at ICAS.


  • Sustainability
  • Accountancy

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