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quarterly issue 2

ICAEW President David Matthews on sustainability and the future

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 21 Jul 2020

Why the insights and information chartered accountants offer are key as economies address recovery plans.

When I was elected vice president in 2017, if someone had said that the global economy could be shut down at short notice and we’d all be confined to our homes, few would have believed them. It just goes to show how important it is to be prepared for many different scenarios and to be agile in our response. 

At the start of 2020, there were two main areas I intended to focus on during my presidency – sustainability and the future of our profession. 

But it is impossible to ignore COVID-19 and its economic impact as well as the human tragedy. I am proud of the response of chartered accountants. Our members have been helping businesses understand and access government support schemes and to strategise and plan to survive (and in some cases thrive). 

Many of our members will have been affected, directly or indirectly. But we have to look to the next phase of rebuilding our economy if we are to avoid a greater tragedy. The core skills of financial planning and budgetary control will be vital. 

But what will that recovery look like? It is here that we have choices that are relevant to sustainability: do we restore what existed before, or do we take the opportunity to build an economy that addresses some of the societal challenges that were proving so hard to tackle? 

In a bizarre turn, the pandemic has the potential to boost initiatives in addressing key sustainability challenges including climate change and social inequalities. Governments can set policy to achieve this and businesses can be proactive in their own strategies and actions even in the absence of policy requirements, but chartered accountants also have an important role to play. 

It is interesting that in its recent open consultation on audit reform, the BEIS Select Committee asks: ‘Will audit reform track progress made by companies in meeting the UK’s Sustainable Development Goal commitment and in particular net zero?’ Auditors can play a role, but they can do little in isolation. 

Chartered accountants can and do create trusted information and insights that better inform an understanding of the world. Through this we can help economies and businesses identify risks, define goals, set strategy and ensure the resulting initiatives are integrated into all aspects of a business’s response and ultimately measure success of those initiatives.

Sustainability and public trust in our profession will remain issues after the pandemic has subsided. But the urgency of economic recovery is unquestionable. The path to recovery can start to address some of the global challenges to build more sustainable businesses and economies, and I am convinced that chartered accountants can and will be central to this.