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How Accountants are using their Analytical Skills to Drive Sustainability

By Susan Smith

Canadian accountants are being challenged to view corporate activity through a wider lens than the typical financial report. Some CPAs are stepping up, using their analytical skills to drive sustainability.

Monica Sood deals with bear facts. As the manager of environment for TD Bank Group in Toronto and the lead on TD’s paper reduction initiative in 2010, Sood helped determine how much paper the bank was using and helped set the goal of reducing it by 20%, or 3,032 tonnes, by 2015. She determined what to disclose in TD’s corporate responsibility reports to conform to the Global Reporting Initiative protocol, conducted internal audits of results and liaised with external auditors verifying the information.

She was also asked to think of visuals to help tell the story for an internal video designed to encourage employees to get behind the reduction effort, which was related to the larger goal of conserving critical forest habitat. The result was an equation no doubt new to the accounting world: 3,032 tonnes is equal to the weight of about 16,400 black bears.

Not only was the bear a cute addition to the video, her new metric also provided a tangible representation of the numbers behind the initiative, something people could relate to.

“My accounting friends were crunching tax numbers and I was translating paper to bears,” Sood laughs. But her efforts got results. In 2013, TD saved 67 million sheets of office paper and reduced its overall paper use by 15% compared with 2010.
“What gets measured gets managed,” she says.

This is but one example of how Canadian accountants are being challenged to view corporate activity through a wider lens than the traditional financial report. Sustainability reporting — also known as triple bottom line reporting (financial, environmental and social) — has been gaining momentum ever since

Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company, prepared a report on social responsibility in the late 1980s.

According to A Starter’s Guide to Sustainability Reporting, published by CPA Canada, disclosure of sustainability issues and performance among the 200 most publicly traded Canadian companies grew by 40% between 2011 and 2012, with 122 companies reporting on sustainability in 2012.

The trend is being driven by consumer and investor demand, and the awareness of standards set out by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the Carbon Disclosure Project, the United Nations Global Compact and other entities. The number of companies reporting to the GRI in 2013 in Canada was 101, up from 72 in 2011. Companies are also seeing the value of winning a place on lists that recognize sustainability efforts in general and those related to specific industries.

“We live in an interconnected world and risks and opportunities can arise from a lot of areas,” says Susan Todd, a principal of Solstice Sustainability Works Inc., a Burnaby, BC-based consultancy. “Companies are starting to become more cognizant of how issues in the supply chain can affect them, how the value of the brand can be impacted severely from something upstream from them.”

There are more and more opportunities for accountants to measure things such as environmental and social factors that were once outside the realm of traditional number crunching — things such as emissions reduction, employee well-being, diversity and community engagement. And they are also being asked to bring their skills to bear in areas that may defy quantification.

“Part of the challenge to accountants is realizing that you can report some things without quantifying them,” Todd says. “Just because you can’t attach numbers doesn’t mean that accountants don’t have something to offer. We have rigorous analytical minds that can help break down qualitative information into digestible pieces that can be supported by evidence.”

She offers the example of stakeholder engagement, which goes well beyond counting calls to the consumer hotline. An accountant could be asked, for instance, to review the company’s approach to the issue. What is the goal? Who are the stakeholders? Do we have the responsibility at the right level of the organization? What are our peers doing? Which issues are being raised by the media? “It’s taking us a little out of our comfort zone,” Todd says. “It’s using solid accounting skills, but in new ways.”

Accountants can also play a role in making a business case for initiatives once considered “soft.” Treating employees well, for example, reduces turnover and helps in the retention of key people. A diverse workforce can create opportunities to reach out to communities or to understand consumer preferences.

Preparing sustainability reports that address these issues is more than a matter of public disclosure. It’s a way to focus thinking within an organization, Todd says. “Your customers may never actually read the sustainability report, but the reporting is an expression of the need for companies to get their act together on the inside.”

Energy and resource conservation is an obvious area where the business case for sustainability is not hard to make and Canadian resource companies in particular are well along in reporting results in this area.

Vancouver-based mining and energy giant Teck Resources Ltd., for instance, is focused on improving energy efficiency for both financial and environmental reasons. Results are measured in ways that allow the company to connect the two goals.

“Whenever possible we look for initiatives that get us closer to our sustainability goals while also improving our efficiency as a company,” says Carmen Turner, Teck’s leader of sustainability.

One example: the company is making more efficient use of trucks for hauling waste and coal at steelmaking coal sites by improving traffic flow, reducing the time trucks wait to be loaded and using lighter-weight truck boxes. Teck is saving money on diesel fuel as well as furthering its goal of reduced CO2 emissions. It reports that a 5% increase in truck productivity translates into a savings of $24 million a year.

This is but one bit of data in the company’s 130-page 2013 Sustainability Report, which details programs involving community relations, workplace safety, water management and support of biodiversity.

Some programs are driven by increased environmental awareness and demands on the part of the public.

“We live in the age of information,” Turner says. “These days, if there’s an issue, someone is going to know about it and talk about it. It’s better when you can tell your story and report on your practices. It’s better than having another party tell your story before you do.”

Other initiatives are about building relationships with communities affected by Teck’s operations, considerations that may not show up immediately on the bottom line but are crucial to the company’s long-term success. For instance, the company contributes 1% of its annual pre-tax earnings to community investments in areas such as health and education, promotes and tracks local hiring and has contributed to a private equity investment fund supporting aboriginal entrepreneurs.

Vancouver City Savings Credit Union is a prime example of an organization that realizes the interconnectedness of financial and nonfinancial goals, becoming a leader in integrated reporting by issuing a single report to account for financial results and efforts to positively affect the community. VanCity uses one accounting firm — KPMG — to audit its financial statements and to provide assurance over key accountability data.

“It makes more sense to have one integrated report,” says Joanne Westwood, VanCity’s manager of accountability reporting. “This better reflects how we do business.”

VanCity, in fact, has the lofty goal of redefining the concept of wealth altogether by harking back to the original meaning of the word as a measure of overall well-being, not just monetary worth. “Accountability used to be more about making money and giving back to the community,” Westwood says. “It’s progressed from there to making sure that everything we do impacts on our members and the community in a positive way, and embedding that in our organization.”

Integrated reporting, which she believes more organizations will embrace eventually, serves to highlight the disconnects between financial and nonfinancial goals. And exposing those disconnects creates the dialogue necessary to bring those goals in line, she believes.

In 2013, the financial cooperative surpassed some of its targets, such as employing people with disabilities and generating return on member equity. It fell short in other areas, such as employee engagement and meeting targets for increasing its active membership base. While reporting on the failures may scare off some organizations, Westwood believes being honest about missed targets helps promote continuous improvement.

One of VanCity’s goals for 2014 was to have 41% of new loans made to organizations that have a positive impact on the community. Defining positive impact, of course, is not an exact science and provides a good example of the importance of the internal dialogue. By mid-November some lines of business had already achieved the target. “We’re fairly confident we can reach our goal,” says Westwood.
After much discussion, a working group for assessing community impact loans decided to focus on commercial real estate in the Downtown Eastside, a low-income area battling social problems such as crime and drugs. VanCity decided it could make a difference by not financing projects that would demolish affordable housing for occupants on welfare.

“The definitions are evolving all the time,” Westwood says. “We always have very interesting discussions.”

Susan Smith is a freelance writer in Toronto.

This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of CPA Magazine.