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Food for thought on sustainability

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Published: 18 Jul 2020

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Ravi Abeywardana is Finance for Sustainability Lead at Olam International, one of the world’s largest suppliers of cocoa, coffee, cotton and rice. He explains how his accounting skills therefore contribute to one in three chocolate bars around the world.

Sustainability may be a big buzzword in business, but for chartered accountant Ravi Abeywardana it’s a basic part of his job. As Finance for Sustainability Lead at global food and agri-business Olam International, he has the task of working out how sustainability principles can be worked into the profit and loss account.

It’s a challenge. Farming was responsible for around 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, making it the world’s second-largest emitter after the energy sector. The World Bank estimates that 70% of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture. Yet a billion smallholder farmers struggle to feed themselves. “There are so many big issues in agriculture and concepts that need to be brought into the boardroom,” he says.

Olam supplies food ingredients, feed and industrial raw materials to over 19,000 customers in over 60 countries. It is one of the world’s largest suppliers of cocoa, coffee, cotton and rice. “One in three chocolate bars comes from our supply chains and Olam is one of the world’s largest growers of almonds,” Abeywardana says.

Having graduated in 2006 with a first in geography from the University of Liverpool, he stayed on as a research analyst for the university’s oil depletion impact group. “I’d read about Prince Charles’s Accounting for Sustainability initiative,” he says. “I wanted to make business good but to do that I needed to understand how business functioned.”

In 2008 Abeywardana joined accountancy firm ECOVIS Wingrave Yeats, where he qualified as an ACA. Then, in 2014, he joined Olam as financial controller for its £200m European cocoa division. After moving into the company’s corporate responsibility and sustainability function two years later, he took on his current role last September.

Olam’s revenue is dependent upon its employees as well as the farmers and land it sources from. Integrated reporting is a means to measure and manage those invisible capitals. “This allows a company to effectively manage the full picture: people, profit and planet.” Today’s business models are beginning to recognise that value is derived from protecting the natural assets that underline economic prosperity.

In the absence of hard regulation on sustainability reporting, Abeywardana - who sits on ICAEW’s Sustainability Committee - warns that there will always be some form of greenwashing. “The accounting profession needs to act fast to overhaul accounting standards to address the environmental and social challenges business and society face.”

Being an accountant has opened so many doors, says Abeywardana, but he believes the profession needs to change, and fast. “My vision is that some day soon, when accountants turn up to work and prepare month-end reports, I want them to be reporting social and environmental capital alongside the financial results and business decisions, with financial performance appropriately incentivised based on those decisions.”