In ACCA’s report Future Ready: Accountancy Careers in the 2020s, the ‘sustainability trailblazer’ appeared as a key emerging role for accountancy and finance professionals. Both environmental and economic sustainability are now regarded as pressing issues for business and government. This is reflected in the growth of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) reporting frameworks, as well as the calls for more sustainable practices.
Accountants are uniquely placed both to report on and to drive sustainability in a world where businesses understand that value is created from multiple ‘capitals’: social, intellectual, natural and human.
As sustainability trailblazers, SMP accountants can work across this spectrum: helping socially and environmentally aware businesses to articulate and quantify their goals, enabling clients to understand and address the sustainability issues that will contribute to their long-term success.
Yogesh Patel is the founder and director of Telic, a UK-based tax focussed practice supporting business owners and entrepreneurs who want to use their businesses to solve real-world problems.
He says: ‘We’re a textbook accounting firm, but we also have a passion for purpose, where we try to work with people and entrepreneurs who are working on sustainable ways, on ethically based projects’, he says. ‘People who are using business as the force for good’.
Beyond covering the basics of accounting and tax, Patel positions himself as a trusted adviser in this area, helping clients navigate the complexities of grants and tax reliefs.
But he also sees the firm as being a trailblazer in creating a broader awareness of how business cannot go on pursuing profit at the cost of environmental damage. While big investment funds are successfully demanding that the boards of large companies explicitly adopt a strong ethical and environmental mindset, this is very difficult from the perspective of an SME with limited resources.
‘So for them it’s about how do you utilise grants or reliefs to help you become more sustainable’, he says. ‘So if clients are looking to innovate,[for instance] in packaging, they can try and innovate using R&D tax credits, or in the UK obtain Innovate UK grants’.
But fundamental changes will still be required and Patel agrees that there is no easy way of making this work commercially – companies need both to produce products at reasonable price points and to be able to answer the ethical consumer’s questions about sourcing. One route is to pursue International Organization for Standardization (ISO) accreditations for sustainability, which will both help the business tell its story from a brand perspective and probably achieve numerous cost and energy savings at the same time.
‘It helps tell your clients that you are not just about making money’, says Patel.
Even where sustainability measures create extra cost, Patel believes that consumers are increasingly understanding of the need to protect the planet, particularly as COVID-19 has imposed a slower and less resource-intensive lifestyle on us all. Clients will need to go beyond cost and energy savings to redesign their products fundamentally, in a more modular fashion, so that they meet criteria such as the EU’s ‘Right to Repair’ directive and contribute to a ‘circular economy’ in which consumer products have their lifecycle extended by being repaired, repurposed or reused.
Patel believes that for SMPs sustainability is the logical next step after the digital revolution, which has already introduced benefits such as reduced travel and paper use.
‘Accountants have been talking about tech, tech, tech, but now how do we show we are more ethical?’ he says. ‘We, as a practice, want to get into that game change, of how we operate, our fixed costs. And if that means reducing our footprint in the office, it also helps improve the environment and improve our costs’.
‘I think the other question from an SMP perspective for us as a practice, is how can we ensure that we have an impact?’
‘The accountancy role has evolved immensely to where it's about analysis to make better decisions rather than just the postmortem sort of accounts’, says Patel. ‘To be sustainable, the accountancy profession needs to be at the forefront of all the different angles, whether it be the technical side of things, the ethics, people or the environment’.