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People and Planet in the Accounts: let’s reimagine the role of the profession

23 November 2020: Mario Abela is the Director, Redefining Value, at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. He says the opportunities for accountants around the sustainability question are vast.

  “Accountants have skills way beyond the financials,” says Abela. He urges the profession to apply those skills in the public interest, drawing not only on analytical thinking but also on ethics and professional scepticism to pursue a central role in ensuring the future sustainability of business.

At the heart of all this is the role of accountants as providers of assurance around sustainable good practice. To this end, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has worked with ICAEW’s Audit and Assurance Faculty to create guidance for the profession. The guidance explains how assurance might be useful to users of non-financial information to show how accountants are already central to many sustainability questions.

The WBCSD itself is a membership body with 200 large multinational corporations under its umbrella, including the likes of Apple and Unilever. The membership is committed to finding practical solutions for businesses to move forward – this is not a think tank.

“A lot of our work comprises bringing companies together to discover sustainable approaches,” says Abela. “We tend to work in that ‘pre-competitive’ space.” This means the WBCSD provides a forum in which multinationals can work through their ideas together in a spirit of collaboration before they become part of business planning or develop into a commercial advantage.

Sensitising the financial system to sustainability

“We are organised around changing six systems,” Abela says. These are the circular economy, cities and mobility, climate and energy, food and nature, people, and redefining value. It is this sixth system that is relevant here, and this is where the guidance for accountants fits into WBCSD’s strategy.

“We are trying to make the financial system sensitised to sustainability issues,” says Abela. “The question is how do we shift capital away from unsustainable business to sustainable business, and how do we fund the transition?”

To move the thinking along, Abela looks after two groups of projects. The first asks: how do we improve business decision-making, embed ESG thinking into it and change the way people think and act? The second group of projects revolves around reporting. These ask: once ESG thinking is entrenched inside the organisation, how should this be reported to investors and other stakeholders? The work with ICAEW spans all of this.

“You need to have good information that can be used for all this decision-making,” says Abela. “The question is: what do companies need to do internally and what role can the profession play around assurance to ensure that information is good? We need proper systems in place.”

Accountants at the centre of understanding

He talks about reimagining the role of the accountant and putting the accountant at the centre of understanding the implications of climate, social issues and other risks on a company in the future.

“Just how prepared are we for the next crisis?” he asks. “COVID has disabused people that ESG has nothing to do with them and has no implications for business.”

Abela sees accountants’ work entrenched in public interest thinking. “Conversations about challenging estimates, impairments, these are not things that auditors want to have with their clients. We are now seeing that, because of COVID and climate risks, conversations like these really do have to happen,” he says.

But he sees green shoots too. “There are new opportunities for accountants to verify processes within businesses,” he says. “Especially, using our perspective of acting in the public interest. Today that means for people and planet, and a form of capitalism that works for all stakeholders, not just the few.”

He concedes that accountants have not traditionally been steeped in these types of activities but urges the profession to view this as an exciting opportunity. It could mean certifying the integrity of supply chains, exposing modern slavery, shining a light on people and planet abuses, and generally providing transparency across business for the benefit of a much wider group than previously. Building resilience and longer term viability into the business model so we move away from the ‘crash and grab’ culture.

Abela talks in terms of the credibility of the profession and sees this as an opportunity to embrace a real need and, ultimately, for the profession to shine.

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Article series: People and Planet in the Accounts

Convergence of non-financial frameworks and standards is gaining momentum and we are beginning to see how nature and society might be included in the financial statements. But can these frameworks tolerate such change? In these articles we explore this from the perspectives of different actors in the debate.

See the series