Sustainability explained

What is­­­­ "sustainability"?

There are a number of possible interpretations of sustainability, but for the purposes of these notes we have adopted the definition first used in 1987 in the Brundtland Report. It defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Sustainable activity would meet the requirements of this definition in terms of its impact on the environment.

Why should my organisation care about sustainability and the environment?

At a high level there is a moral responsibility to take care of the environment and our planet in the interests of the survival of this and future generations but, at a more immediate and commercial level, it should be in the interests of all organisations to promote sustainability where this can improve efficiency, reduce costs, increase profitability and enhance reputation.

How is ICAS involved in environmental sustainability?

ICAS takes the view that it should be encouraging its members to manage their own businesses in an environmentally responsible manner. In addition, it believes that accountants, with skills and experience in audit, have much to offer in the field of measuring environmental impact and providing assurance to the business community. Equally, the accounting profession can take the lead in developing environmental reporting and communication in financial statements.
Just as important, ICAS is incorporated under a Royal Charter which commits the Institute to act in the public interest. It is our view that, particularly at the present time, it is indisputably in the public interest to promote the cause of environmental sustainability.
In addition, early in 2010 ICAS established its Sustainability Advisory Group, which has the aims of increasing environmental awareness and of providing policy advice to the Institute and its members on matters of environmental sustainability.

What do my business stand to gain?

This depends on how much action you wish to take, but it is quite possible to make a significant reduction in your environmental impacts by taking a few fairly easy steps which are not costly to implement; put another way, you can make a big difference by simply focusing on the "low-hanging fruit". In addition, reducing the environmental impact of a business also frequently results in reduced operating costs.
Those businesses which are choosing to ignore sustainability are unlikely to survive in the medium to long term, while the more proactive organisations can, all other things being equal, look forward to a longer-lasting business model. At least in part this is because the consumer is becoming less tolerant of environmentally unfriendly operations, and this is driving the corporate buyer towards more sustainable suppliers. Additionally, reducing environmental impacts often results in reduced costs and improved profitability.
Furthermore, it is almost inevitable that the regulation of activity which impacts on the environment (be it in manufacturing operations, in the use of scarce resources or in waste disposal) will soon become even more demanding. We believe that it is advisable for businesses to embrace these changes and to lead the way towards improved practices. This will give those organisations not only a head start in the work to be done but also a significant commercial advantage over their more tardy competitors.

What expertise is required to take the necessary steps?

It is easy to make a major difference to your environmental impacts without having an enormous amount of technical expertise. The application of a few commonsense practices will help, and it is also fairly easy to obtain low-cost help and advice to get you started.

My business is office-based and has a very low level impact on the environment. Why do I need to think about sustainability?

All organisations have an impact on the environment, and to the extent that that can be reduced you should have an interest in sustainability; this should also result in lower costs for your business. Specifically for accountancy practices, it is also likely that your clients will soon be seeking advice in this area, so a degree of interest and experience should prove helpful to you.

Where can we go for practical advice to help us get started on this work?

A number of organisations offer advice in this area, including the Carbon Trust, Zero Waste Scotland, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Saving Trust, the UK Environment Agency and the Department for Energy and Climate Change.


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