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Accountants discover 'green' is a natural fit for their skills

Burnaby's Deputy City Manager Rick Earle and Mayor Derek Corrigan. "Leadership from the City’s finance team has helped turn our commitment to sustainability and energy efficiency into meaningful action across our operations."

Sustainability expands the traditional accounting role

The day Susan Todd left KPMG to return to school for a Master's in Environmental Resource Management, she thought her accounting career was over for good.

"I thought I had closed a door," remembers Todd, a CA and principal of Solstice Sustainability Works, Inc. "I thought wow, I'm making a huge right-angle turn in my life. Will any of this [accounting training] be portable?"

With its discipline of looking at business holistically and understanding the connections between operations, stakeholders, and the environment, sustainability is forcing that broader perspective into many careers.

The old silos are in flux, and there's more cross-functional work and analysis than ever. Todd says despite her early fears, she found her accounting training both useful and relevant.

"The first contract I had with my own company was Vancity's first social audit in 1997," she says. "Because there were no clear standards for how to do auditing in the sustainability world, I found myself reaching back to first principles: how to approach information quality, how to look at systems that are producing the information, how to think about the controls over the information.

"So all of my accounting and auditing training — although it had been directed at financial information — turned out to be very relevant. I was looking for overstatement or understatement; it was just in the context of metrics on waste or emissions. It was the same principles at work."

Todd launched The Accountability Project (TAP) in 2003 to deliver accountability training to sustainability practitioners. She served on the inaugural Sustainability Experts Advisory Panel of the International Federation of Accountants and has advised on the development of key international sustainability standards.

"Now it feels like things have come full circle because the world is looking at integrated reporting [combined financial, social and environmental], and all of the Big 4 offer sustainability services," she says. "So maybe if I'd hung out in accounting long enough, I would have eventually wound up here anyway."

The sustainability and accounting link

Even the greenest of companies still needs basic financial statements. But accountants are now involved in areas that didn't even exist when most mid-career professionals took their training — carbon price risk analysis, sustainability reporting, energy audits, life cycle assessments.

These present new challenges, and they're also where the work may be the most interesting, and meaningful.

That's been the experience of Rick Earle, a CGA and Deputy City Manager for the City of Burnaby. As former head of the Finance department, he was involved in developing a comprehensive energy management program for the municipality.

City of Burnaby cuts power bill by 7.6 GWh

Since 2002, with support from BC Hydro Power Smart, which provides funding for new and retrofit energy-efficiency projects, Burnaby has cut its annual power bill by 7.4 GWh of electricity — enough to provide household lighting for over 4,000 homes.

Earle says the cost benefits were only part of the reason for adopting the program.

"When we first looked at the energy management program, it was the finance department that came back and said, 'Sure, you can save money, but this is a good initiative to do anyway. It's good for the environment, it satisfies the City's desire to be a green leader, and you can't expect homeowners to take this on if the City doesn't.'

"People are trained to look at the bottom line, but we pushed hard to say it's more than that."

Accountants look beyond the numbers

Earle says that adding sustainability considerations to his work drew on some of his earliest training.

"Even though it wasn't focused on these sorts of issues, the training taught us to look at not only the numbers. So your bottom line has increased by 12% over three years, but what does it mean? And where did it come from? and where are you going with that?

"The computers can do the numbers; you've got to have a human look at situations and say, in the total context of things, is this a good thing to do, and why?"

Sustainability as a priority

Todd says the rise of integrated reporting is likely to provide more scope for accounting professionals to apply their skills in analysis, estimation, and concepts such as materiality — and expand their careers.

"Integrated reporting will really force home the notion that we shouldn't have a lower standard for sustainability information," she says. "Once it's all bound up in the same report, there will be no dodging the need for environmental and social information to be collected, reviewed, documented and audited to the same degree of care and due diligence that we would expect with financial information."

So what's the advice from Todd and Earle?

"Broaden your notions about what you might be called upon to do," says Todd. "I think for many people, that will be quite exciting. I meet lots of young professionals in accounting who really want to add value, who want to be in organizations that are offering value. They're in a great position to help, for example, in making the business case for sustainability. The analytical skill set makes accounting very transportable."

"I'd say, 'Get out into the organizations you work for," says Earle. "You can't just stay in the finance department; you've got to find out what the guys are doing in the operations, and understand what's happening."

As a result of his ethic, and his work in energy efficiency and sustainability, Earle laughs at the thought he now "knows more about sewage than I ever wanted to know." But that, he says, has made for an interesting career.

"A friend of mine used to send me things about how the most boring job on the planet is being an accountant," he says. "But honestly, I don't know when I've been "just" an accountant, just putting statements together. This work is all about putting things in context. I think it's really true; it is more than the numbers."

This story was originally published in the January 2012 issue of Outlook Magazine.