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Teaching sustainability to the next generation of accountants

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 14 Apr 2022

To make meaningful progress on sustainability, it needs to be rooted in all business decisions. ICAEW’s approach is to embed sustainability throughout the ACA curriculum.

If you weren’t aware of the importance of sustainability in the ACA qualification, then ICAEW’s Chief Executive Michael Izza’s introduction to the ACA learning materials spells it out loud and clear. “By choosing our world-leading chartered accountancy qualification, the ACA, you will be equipped to flourish and to lead in areas that are transforming the business landscape,” Izza says. “It includes putting climate change and sustainability at the heart of business strategy.”

As climate risk moves up the business agenda, the onus is on finance and accounting professionals to up the ante on sustainability and move beyond simply measuring and reporting the impact of climate change, environmental regulation, supply chain pressure and rising energy costs.

“They must focus on understanding those implications and integrating them into financial management and business planning. ICAEW has been at the forefront of this movement over the past decade and has adapted the ACA qualification to reflect that,” explains Adam Birt, ICAEW’s Head of Qualifications, Strategy and Development.

For that reason, sustainability is embedded across the ACA curriculum and content. The decision was made in the early 2000s that “having a single module on sustainability was not the right approach because it would marginalise the topic”, Birt explains. As for the primary goal of the ACA qualification, Birt says: “It’s to create trusted business advisers.”

The risk management, strategy and finance areas are well developed and ICAEW is waiting for reporting and assurance standards to emerge so they too can be embedded into the ACA.

Accounting with a purpose

Peter Ellington is the founder of accountancy firm Triple Bottom Line Accounting (TBLA) and a strong believer in the role that accountants could and should be playing in helping to save the planet Ellington’s drive for purposeful work stems from his experience in commercial businesses where he was good at making the company profits but felt a lack of meaning in his role besides making more money. 

Ellington leads by example in TBLA and involves the whole team to reduce its carbon footprint, provides staff with a four-day week with no loss of pay, pays the real living wage and offers incentives such as climate perks – if an employee takes a train over a plane to reach a holiday destination, they are given an extra day’s leave to factor in their travel. TBLA also discounts heavily to businesses with a social purpose.

Chartered accountants have a real opportunity to show that power to save the planet and make a real difference in society. But it needs to start from their education, so the future accountants have ESG as one of their core values.”

Could a separate ESG module boost sustainability?

Ellington questions whether accountancy bodies should add a dedicated environmental, social and governance (ESG) module to help raise the profile of ESG in the minds of young accountants so they embed it in the business decisions they make going forward. 

In particular, Ellington says this would help to highlight the importance of measuring and accounting for a business’s negative and positive impact on the environment and society. For example, how the business might impact the local community or comply with supply chain issues such as modern slavery and governance.

“I think the major accountancy bodies across the whole world should add ESG as a separate topic that people must cover in order to pass their exams,” explains Ellington. “There should also be a separate element of CPD off the back of this separate module for qualified members where they all have to spend 10 hours a year studying ESG. That way they will know the impact their work can have on areas such as climate change.”

He also suggests the module should also cover how business decisions affect the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The ACA curriculum already weaves the UN SDGs into multiple scenarios, much like ICAEW’s code of ethics.

Ellington’s interest in the ACA curriculum is more than passing: he is also doing research for a doctorate in education. His research notes that some qualified accountants, when looking back at their professional education from various professional accountancy bodies and technical courses, felt that ethics was bolted on to modules rather than embedded into all parts of the course. It would seem this is changing for the better.

Training future ICAEW members

As an accredited ACA training employer, Ellington says he has been impressed by the Institute’s content on ethics, saying: “There have been a few conferences that have come up around ethics that look very interesting and much like the CPD modules I would like to make mandatory for all accountants.

“Accountancy students are already very busy when it comes to studying so they will do what they have to do. By mandating this proposed ESG module they will have to do it and this education will set them up for the climate-related problems ahead.”

Visit our Sustainability and Climate Change hub

Sustainability describes a world that thrives by maintaining its capital, whether natural, economic or social. Members in practice, in business and private individuals all have a role to play if sustainability goals are to be met. The work being undertaken by ICAEW in this area is to change behaviour to drive sustainable outcomes.

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