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Last updated: 18 May 2023 11:00 Posted in: Sustainability

Recording and advising on money-based transactions has been the ‘superpower’ of accountants for centuries. Accountants must now take account of natural and social capitals. Larger companies are already required to report on their environment, social and governance (ESG) impact. It is only a matter of time before smaller organisations are required to follow suit.

It is a mistake to wait for regulation before acting. Success is now influenced by the extent to which companies can mitigate the risks and take advantage of the opportunities in the new sustainable economy. Smart organisations (both big and small) are already implementing strategies that respect natural and social capitals in their business models. These will be the winners in the new sustainable world. The accountants advising the winners start by taking account of the impacts of natural and social capitals before they are reflected in financial or monetary transactions. They gain a strategic advantage by acting in advance of economic change.

The role of financial capital

Why will natural and social capitals inevitably be reflected in financial capital? The simple answer is that otherwise, society as we know it will likely fall into chaos as the natural world becomes uninhabitable in many places. Societies will be disrupted by water shortages, crop failures, biodiversity loss, pandemics and other disasters arising from climate change.

The following forces are driving natural and social capital into the accountant’s remit:

Governments: Governments globally are taking action to encourage organisations to account for natural and social capital by laws, taxes and incentives that accelerate the transition to environmental and socially positive outcomes.

The natural world: Severe weather events cost money in numerous ways. Biodiversity loss has been linked to issues such as pandemics, which disrupt economies. Abuses of the natural world are costly and are making some operations uninsurable.

Society/consumers: People are starting to understand the issues relating to environmental and societal justice and are concerned for the future. Consumers are beginning to make choices based on the sustainability footprint of their purchases.

Investors: Environmental and social issues put investments at risk. Investors are starting to require that their money positively impacts society and the environment. Regulators are accelerating the shift to responsible and impact-led investment.

Business acquirers: Businesses are being sold for a premium if they can demonstrate that they are mitigating the risks and taking advantage of sustainability issues.

Economics: Scarce natural resources, the impact of climate change and the cost benefits of green technologies create compelling economic scenarios. These save money and create competitive value and wealth for risk-takers and breakthrough inventions.

Technology: Methods of harnessing natural resources such as solar, wind and waves are less harmful to the environment. The cost of new green technologies is decreasing rapidly.

Customers: Consumers, larger companies and governments are bringing sustainability factors into their procurement choices, so it is becoming harder for non-sustainable businesses to win.

Employees: People want to work for companies that positively impact their communities, society and the environment.

Cost of running a business: Sustainability often means less waste, the avoidance of unnecessary consumption, less travel and improved efficiency. Businesses use fewer resources for the same outputs, resulting in savings and improved profits.

Purposeful business: A focus on natural and social capitals and how these integrate with the organisation’s goals and objectives brings about positive motivation and success.

Grant funding and bidding for tenders: Charities and businesses with sustainability credentials are being prioritised for grants over those that can’t demonstrate net zero plans and ESG credentials.

These forces are changing organisational business models. Accountants that include their impact on financial plans, business cases, budgets and cash flow forecasts help their clients to succeed in the new sustainable economy. Failure to adapt to these changes will result in missed opportunities and possible business failure.

Accounting firms must adapt to remain competitive in the new sustainable economy. You need to demonstrate that your firm intends to make profound changes to address the challenge. Appoint a senior partner or board member to focus on sustainability and ESG matters to inspire your teams and make things happen. This ensures that necessary resource is allocated. Embracing sustainability and ESG requires taking internal and client-facing actions to integrate ESG and sustainability into their practices.

Internal actions

  1. Offer staff training and development: Invest in programmes to expand your team’s ESG and sustainability knowledge. Encourage staff to pursue certifications in sustainability and undertake continuous professional development, such as AIA’s free online CPD. This investment in training demonstrates your commitment to staying ahead in the field.

  2. Collaborate with experts and partners: Partner with sustainability consultants and industry experts to expand your firm’s knowledge base and services, providing comprehensive ESG advice to clients. These partnerships enable your firm to offer broader services and expertise.

  3. Implement a net zero plan for your firm: Create a net zero plan for your accounting firm, detailing steps to reduce emissions, promote sustainability and achieve net zero status. Implement this plan and share your progress with clients, demonstrating your commitment to sustainability and your understanding of the challenges it presents. Service from companies such as AIA partner, Net Zero Now, is ideal for this.

  4. Craft an authentic sustainability narrative: Develop a transparent narrative about your firm’s sustainability journey, showcasing your expertise and dedication to creating a sustainable world. Highlight the challenges and solutions, thereby making it authentic. This narrative helps to build trust and credibility with clients and prospects.

  5. Understand behavioural aspects: Familiarise yourself with The Behavioural Insights Team’s work (‘How to Build a Net Zero Society’, Jan 2023, Toby Parkes et al.) (see This report provides valuable insights into how people adapt to a net zero sustainable economy. By understanding these patterns, you can better guide clients in making sustainable choices.

  6. Stay updated on regulatory and industry trends: Monitor changes, trends and best practices related to ESG and sustainability, providing informed advice and adapting to evolving standards. Staying informed helps you establish your firm as a trusted advisor.

  7. Leverage technology for sustainable solutions: Embrace innovations that promote sustainability, such as tools for measuring carbon emissions or tracking supply chain sustainability. Integrating these technologies into your services can offer innovative solutions to improve their ESG performance.

Client facing initiatives

  1. Integrate ESG into financial reporting and advisory services: Incorporate ESG factors into clients’ financial reporting, risk assessments and performance analysis, providing a comprehensive understanding of their financial health and the potential impacts of ESG factors on their business.

  2. Identify material items for climate adaptation and risk management: Use the SASB Materiality Map and GRI guides to identify material items for clients. Offer targeted advice and support on their journey toward sustainability. Invite clients to attend workshops where you can lead discussions and actions on how their industry can adapt and change to avoid the risks and seize the opportunities that arise.

  3. Develop tailored sustainability and ESG solutions: Create customised sustainability and ESG solutions catering to your client’s needs and industry requirements. By offering tailored services, you demonstrate a deep understanding of their business and help them navigate the complexities of sustainable practices.

  4. Offer sustainability benchmarking and target setting support: Assist clients in benchmarking their current sustainability performance and setting ambitious yet achievable targets in line with international standards, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement.

  5. Set up a net zero service: Develop a net zero consultancy service utilising carbon emissions estimation tools like Normative, Sage Earth, or Ecologi Zero. Organise workshops to create tailored net zero plans for each client, addressing their unique circumstances and sustainability targets. Help them to develop an authentic narrative about their sustainability journey.

  6. Guide clients through ESG reporting: Help clients to understand the various ESG disclosure frameworks, such as the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and IFRS – International Sustainability Standards Board Sustainability (ISSB), and support them in developing transparent, accurate and comprehensive reports that meet stakeholder expectations.

  7. Provide tax and incentive advice related to sustainability: Offer guidance on tax incentives, credits and deductions related to sustainable practices and investments. Help clients to identify opportunities to reduce their tax burden while improving their ESG performance.

  8. Facilitate access to sustainable finance and investment: Connect clients with sustainable finance options, such as green bonds and impact investment funds, to finance their sustainability initiatives and enhance their ESG credentials.

  9. Develop your ESG audit function: Enhance your audit function to include a service that assesses clients’ reports and plans for adapting to sustainability and ESG issues.

  10. Educate clients on the benefits of sustainability and ESG: Share success stories, case studies and insights demonstrating the benefits of embracing sustainability and ESG factors, such as cost savings, increased brand reputation and better access to capital.

  11. Encourage and support clients in setting up their own ESG committees: Facilitate the formation of ESG committees within your clients’ organisations, providing guidance on best practices, governance and the roles and responsibilities of committee members.

  12. Organise workshops and events to share ESG knowledge: Host workshops, webinars and events to educate existing and prospective clients on sustainability and ESG topics, reinforcing your position as a thought leader and trusted advisor in this field.

Integrating sustainability and ESG factors into your accounting firm’s practices can unlock new opportunities, drive business growth and help your clients to succeed in the new sustainable economy. Embrace the challenge and position your firm as a leader in the accounting industry, driving positive change for both your clients and the world.

Accountants have a crucial role in transitioning to a sustainable economy. By taking a proactive approach to incorporating natural and social capitals into your practice, your firm can capitalise on the opportunities presented by the new sustainable economy and help your clients become winners in this era of transformational change.

Author Biography

Dr Peter Ellington is CEO and Founder of Triple Bottom Line Accounting, a UK based digital practice providing a range of services to SMEs, and Associate Professor in Accounting at the University of East Anglia.

AIA is committed to educating its members in sustainability and green finance. As a professional body we are committed through our policy agenda to act as an authoritative voice within the accountancy sector to raise standards and education in green finance and sustainability. We also ensure that our members have the skills, knowledge and tools to promote sustainable business practices.