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The sustainability sector: a fertile job market for new ACAs

30 July: The sustainability sector offers a bright future for ACAs beginning their careers, KPMG’s Director of Sustainability Services Richard Betts tells ICAEW Insights.

The planet and the next generation

Until relatively recently, sustainability didn’t seem very pertinent to many people, explains KPMG’s Richard Betts. Most people had heard about climate change, but it didn’t seem relevant and people couldn’t connect with it.

The Australian bush fires, other climate-related crises on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, have acted as a wake-up call for many. Climate change is no longer a vague threat that might affect some people somewhere; it’s a problem that is happening now which needs to be acted upon now, says Betts.

Sustainability is intrinsically linked to intergenerational fairness because the actions we take now need to ensure that the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is not compromised.

The great momentum we have seen in sustainability initiatives over the past few years have partly been caused by a public opinion shift that connects the future security of their children and grandchildren with a sustainable planet. People want future generations to thrive, and this will only happen through action taken in the immediate present. 

A new paradigm

“There needs to be a connection”, Betts explains. “There can’t be accountability until we can make a tangible connection with our lives. While terms like future generations can seem very vague, recent disasters have shown that this is a problem that affects us now and, unless we turn things around, it will get a lot worse in the coming years.

“We are essentially saying we need a new paradigm. We need to see the bigger picture. We’ve tended to consider only the direct financial costs and returns rather than also indirect costs and impacts, like those on the environment. We’ve also tended to focus predominantly on the short-term (for example, companies focusing on short-term results, employees on how to pay the next bill, or politicians on how to win the next election). 

“However, due to the rapid increase in the world’s population and size of the global economy in recent decades, we are already exceeding the planetary boundaries for many resources and can no longer continue in the same way as before.”

The sustainability sector as a job market for new ACAs

Betts also emphasises that sustainability is a growth area, despite difficulties in the economy in the short term due to COVID-19. The sector is still extremely active and there will be a lot more work done in the coming years. 

The majority of large accountancy firms now have sustainability teams, and these could be a great focus for ACAs searching for work.

Betts describes his career trajectory: “I never thought about working in sustainability originally. I started in financial audit, transferred to KPMG’s sustainability department and took to it well. The ACA training gave me a really good foundation and transferable skills. Doing the ACA and working in financial audit gives you discipline and rigour, project management skills and attention to detail. Even though our data is not financial data, you still need the same skills.”

Sustainability is a rapidly developing area and with many companies only just getting started, ACAs can bring added value in many different ways. 

Sustainability work matches the ACA skillset

Sustainability initiatives are also moving away from being marginal activities to become integrated into and across core business. The necessary changes won’t happen if one part of a company is sustainable, but the rest is unsustainable or business as usual. 

Decarbonisation, for example, should affect the whole business, explains Betts.

“At KPMG, we have sustainability engagements working with our financial audit teams but also with our tax and advisory teams,” he said.

Betts has worked on a wide range of solutions in over 20 countries. These include non-financial reporting and assurance (for example GRI Standards, CDP, ISAE 3000, AA1000 and IIRC Integrated Reporting), sustainability strategy and implementation, sustainable financing, environmental due diligence, climate change advisory services (TCFD and climate risk, GHG monitoring and reporting, decarbonisation and renewable energy), social value and circular economy. His ACA provided transferable skills enabling him to thrive in these fields.

There are many initiatives around auditing non-financial impact, integrating key non-financial information into primary annual reports. Aligning with the TCFD Recommendations requires companies to report climate-related financial risk disclosures within their annual report. 

There are also many important recent developments focused on interconnected standard-setting. In the future, companies will need to report far more extensively on non-financial data that is now material to all businesses. More ACAs will be needed to do the necessary work.