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How accountancy firms can be more sustainable

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 29 Mar 2021

With sustainability increasingly important for businesses, Caroline Harridence, founder and managing director of Counting Clouds accountancy firm, shares how her business has embraced sustainability and how others can likewise become more ethical firms.

“I’m a big believer that you don’t have to do everything, but anything you can do to be more sustainable really helps”, says Caroline Harridence, who founded her accounting firm in October 2019 after more than 20 years’ experience in accounting and finance directing. Caroline first recognised the importance of sustainability while spending five years living in Australia.

“I did some health coaching and an environmental health course while over there and really enjoyed it”, she says. “That’s when the penny dropped that it was this bigger picture and I had to do something for the planet.” 

While she began with looking at her diet, her food waste and what she put in her washing machine, it grew into a business goal. Earlier this year, she submitted her B Corp certification assessment, which if approved will verify the business’ social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. She would be joining a community of almost 4,000 businesses including Innocent, The Guardian Media Group and Patagonia. “You don’t have to do B Corp to be more sustainable – any small steps are positive”, says Caroline. 

Beyond carbon footprints

“People may think being more sustainable is just looking at your carbon footprint, but carbon is just a tiny part of it”, says Caroline. “It’s actually how you conduct your business that matters – you need to consider the planet, people and profit.”

For example, to apply for B Corp, you first fill out a diagnostic tool, which assesses things like your suppliers, whether you use local businesses or do pro bono work – as well as your carbon footprint. You then accrue points on a sliding scale, with 80 needed for certification.

“You’ve got to look at how you run your business, how you deal with people and then you’ve got to look at the wider climate community and your environmental footprint”, says Caroline. 

For Counting Clouds, this means sending out supplier questionnaires before signing contracts to see if they match up with the business’ values, for example, if they recruit women to their board and if they’re inclusive and diverse. 

Caroline also tries to use local suppliers within a 50-mile radius, as well as donating to charity and doing pro bono work for a tech for good business. Of course, being sustainable does include taking better care of the planet, which is where carbon footprints come in. Counting Clouds’ aim is to be carbon negative by the end of this year, says Caroline, rather than carbon neutral. 

To help reach her target, Caroline turned off her printer at the start of 2020, and now plants trees when she wins a new client rather than sending them a welcome pack. She also tracks her energy usage and uses the online tool Ecologi to help offset her carbon footprint.

Now or never 

Caroline says becoming more sustainable doesn’t need to be overwhelming.

“I think a lot of people are just really confused – there’s so much jargon out there and conflicting opinions and views. You don’t need to be a carbon or sustainability expert and it doesn’t have to be complicated – just start simple!”

However, there is an element of urgency for businesses to start to change their habits. Campaigners for the Better Business Act, supported by 500 businesses including John Lewis and Iceland, are currently lobbying the Government to amend section 172 of the Companies Act to ensure all UK businesses have to report on how they balance people, profit and planet in their business. 

Caroline believes it's only a matter of time before this becomes a requirement, and when it does, businesses will be looking for like-minded sustainable accountants to partner with.

“If we don’t show leadership in this area, people aren’t going to want to work with us”, she says. “Ultimately, I believe that if we are reporting in our clients’ statutory accounts on their sustainability, they will expect us to similarly demonstrate our own environmental and sustainability credentials.” 

Caroline also believes accountants have a unique opportunity to impact change. 

“You’re in a prime position to help other businesses understand their sustainability – or lack of it. When you’re looking at cash flow, you’d naturally look at utility providers, but rather than just looking at the costs, you could consider the amount of energy being used and whether it is coming from renewable sources. We can change not only how we work, but also help our clients become aware of what they can do and help them in their journey as well.”

Caroline’s key thing to remember is to just start somewhere. 

“There’s an awful lot of people out there who think it has to be an all or nothing, and it doesn’t. Any little thing that you do is helping.”

Caroline’s ten tips for becoming more sustainable:  

  1. Think about how much energy you use and where it comes from – most providers have ‘green’ tariffs and some exclusively source electricity from renewable sources.
  2. Consider refurbished IT kit and recycled office furniture rather than buying new.
  3. If you employ people, do you have diversity within your appointments? 
  4. Ask your suppliers and clients about their attitude towards sustainability – do their values align with yours? 
  5. Consider doing pro bono work.
  6. Organise a local community or voluntary event for your firm, or give employees a couple of days each year to participate in events run by others.
  7. Use local suppliers where possible.
  8. Unsubscribe from email distribution lists – every email that’s sent has an energy cost associated with it from data centres around the world. 
  9. Educate yourself on how else to help – sign up to a free sustainability course or use online resources.
  10. Spread the word – talk about sustainability within the business community and with your employees.  

More information: 

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Are you professionally ready to mitigate the risk and maximise the opportunity of climate change? Find resources, information and inspiration on the ICAEW Climate Hub.