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Report the whole story

The provision of environmental reporting clearly aligns to our profession’s core values, so we can all play a role in the drive for sustainability.

By Kate van der Merwe

Since the 1970s, the influential Business Roundtable has exclusively represented CEOs of the most prominent US companies. In August 2019, 181 CEOs issued a new mission for the group and the companies they represent. No longer singularly focused on maximising shareholder wealth, the mission proposes to benefit “all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders”. This represents a significant shift in how a company’s purpose is understood.

Reporting business performance was traditionally one-dimensional, with an annual presentation of structured figures delivered primarily to shareholders. Over time, this has proven insufficient as it doesn’t explain “how” a company achieves its financial results. In response, the content of reporting has transformed. The increasing demand for, and provision of, non-financial reporting within the external reporting cycle is part of a broader shift. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) and integrated reporting won’t be new concepts to readers, having been previously covered in this publication. Reporting continues to evolve, recognising the value of social responsibility, ethics, and diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) to tell a fuller, more meaningful story and in doing so, making the numbers three-dimensional.
Companies’ impact on the environment is increasingly being scrutinised, driven by the visibility and awareness of the climate crisis coupled with the current expectation of corporates to be “responsible citizens”. We can see this manifesting in the investment trends of both personal and institutional investors.

For the personal investor, investing increasingly requires value-alignment, with impact investing prioritised with younger investors in particular. Both pollution/use of renewables and climate change were two of the top five areas of importance for personal investors in 2018, according to Schroders. Meanwhile, 52% of young investors (18–34) always/often invest in sustainable investments instead of those that aren’t considered sustainable or contributing to a sustainable society, with at least a further $12 trillion estimated to pass to these potential investors over the next decade.

Diverse institutional investors, similarly, continue to shift towards impact investing. The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) values the impact investment market at $502 billion while its 2019 Impact Investor Survey found that 56% of investors target both social and environmental impact objectives, with a further 7% specifically targeting environmental investments. Meanwhile, fossil fuel divestment is approaching a valuation of $10 trillion across 1,100 entities including nation states, banks, universities, NGOs and faith groups. As Jim Yong Kim, a former president of the World Bank, put it: “Every company, investor and bank that screens new and existing investments for climate risk is simply being pragmatic”. With such appetite, the need for deep understanding of the relationship between business and the environment is clear. Such environmental information exists in a number of forms – as part of non-financial reporting (such as ESG reporting); independent accreditations or affiliations (from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to Certified B Corporations); award recognition (for example, the United Nation’s (UN) Champions of the Earth); and, finally, less formal self-assessments. This environmental information informs reporting and has significant benefits for the relationships with stakeholders, including employees and consumers.

As environmental reporting develops, there are several players attempting to define a standard, yet relevant, framework to capture environmental performance. Multilateral bodies such as the UN and European Union (EU) have issued guidance; the Swedish government, for example, has introduced prescribed reporting; and independent organisations have issued frameworks to further this agenda. However, development has been fragmented and criticised for a lack of maturity. Two key criticisms are the lack of comparability (given the array of frameworks to choose from) and the lack of prescription or detail (succumbing to either greenwashing, or irrelevance due to a lack of nuance). The need for clarity in this area is highlighted by a Schroders investor survey, which notes that 57% of people held back from investing or investing more in sustainable investments due to information gaps.

While investor appetite represents a significant carrot, the sticks of regulation and public relations (PR) penalties must also be considered. The direction of regulation can be seen with the EU’s Technical Expert Group on sustainable finance (TEG), established in 2018, whose remit includes defining metrics for climate-related disclosure.

Irrespective of the current maturity of environmental reporting, there is increasing pressure to get it right. Both Ireland and the UK recently announced commitments to invest in “green” projects and infrastructure. With companies, governments and individuals looking to invest in sustainable businesses, projects and infrastructure, it becomes ever-more important for every business to be able to tell their sustainability story with credibility and depth. Accountants have an opportunity to leverage their complementary skills and experiences to aid the transition to meaningful environmental reporting. Furthermore, the provision of environmental reporting clearly aligns to our core values and serves the common good by meeting public expectations and ensuring transparency and accountability.

Environmental reporting is an immature but growing area that is here to stay. It is best viewed holistically, as part of a bigger shift to intersectional environmental information. It is central to our values not just as human beings, but as accountants, finance professionals and business leaders. All businesses, whether multinationals or small- or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), should embrace this as an opportunity to tell an authentic, winning story to an extensive audience as the absence of information will inevitably generate its own noisy static. As accountants, we have an exciting opportunity to play an integral part in solving a problem for the common good.

Kate van der Merwe ACA is responsible for Global gFA Reporting Optimisation at Google.

This article was originally published in the October 2019 issue of Accountancy Ireland.