What accountants are doing now about social responsibility

Accountants explain how their practices follow the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Businesses have an important role to play in operating in sustainable and responsible ways, not just in response to changing consumer demand and expectation, but because there’s a moral and business case to do so.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which was implemented by all United Nations Member States in 2015, includes 17 actionable sustainable development goals (SDGs) which help address key global challenges, such as the environment, social mobility, equality and health and wellbeing.

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The SDGs replace the 2001 Millennium Development Goals which previously just applied to developing countries.

United Nations Member States – including Britain – have committed to a 2030 deadline in which to achieve these goals.  The 17 SDGs include:

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well-being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals.

AAT is focusing on five SDGs: quality education, gender equality, reduced inequality, protect the planet and partnerships.

Although there is no legal requirement for companies to work towards the UN’s SDGs, accountants need to start thinking about these issues both in terms of their own business practices and the advice they give to clients.

There are key deadlines for UK accountants to keep in mind, including the UK’s commitment to achieve net zero carbon by 2050 and a 78 per cent reduction of 1990 carbon levels by 2035. Offering carbon accounting services and encouraging clients to measure their greenhouse gas emissions is a key part of this.

We spoke to several accountancy firms who are well on their journey to doing just this.

Commit to operating a paper-free business and support local charities

Sarah Robinson MAAT, Director, Oaktree Accountants

We try to be ethical and sustainable in everything we do, whether that’s through cycle-to-work schemes and/or car sharing, or by operating a paperless and plastic-free office. We are entirely cloud-based. We also:

  • Take on apprentices and offer work experience placements.
  • Offer free accounting for small, local charities including our local amateur dramatics group.
  • Take part in an annual town clean up.
  • Donate to foodbanks over Christmas and Easter in lieu of season staff gifts.

In addition, we take part in the Buy One, Give One (B1G1) initiative, whereby a charitable donation is made after every business sale.

Ultimately, we value helping others and we like to do what we can to support each other and the communities we serve.  It’s important for accountancy practices to take this ethical, sustainable approach because we need to look out for each other and look after our world so young ones can flourish.

Next steps:  Accountancy practices just starting out on their ethically and socially responsible journey should commit to going paperless and plastic free and encourage clients to work in the same way. Doing some sort of charity work too, is also important.

Verdict: Commit to going paper and plastic-free where possible while supporting local charities.

Think about your carbon footprint

David Wilsdon, director – technical and tax adviser, Green Accountancy

Green Accountancy was set up in 2007 to help small businesses reduce their carbon footprint. With qualifications in both accountancy and environmental conservation, I realised early on I could influence and encourage clients to tackle climate change.

We developed a carbon accounting system specifically for small businesses which ACCA published as a technical fact sheet. Carbon accounting can take a bit of an effort as it involves monitoring CO2 emissions in every aspect of the business, but it’s a worthwhile, long-term investment.

Elsewhere, we advocate fair tax. We steer away from any client wanting to bend the rules or use loopholes, even if it’s technically legal.  One such area has been VAT input tax claims on grant-only funded projects. Our approach has been to disallow VAT claims on grant-only funded projects which don’t have commercial sales now or in future. HMRC guidance was updated in recent years to state that this approach is correct.

Next steps: With the net zero carbon 2050 deadline, businesses will need to start thinking about their carbon footprint. Small business carbon emissions may account for a small slice of the cake in comparison to larger corporates, but it’s a significant slice and it can’t be ignored.

Verdict: Businesses need to be thinking about their carbon footprint and the impact their company has on the environment.

Accountancy services for CICs should be as cost effective as possible

Elizabeth Llewellyn-Rees, director, Social Enterprise Accounts CIC

My small accountancy firm is a certified social enterprise and I am a member of the CIC Association. I provide accounts for not-for-profits – including a lot of CICs (Community Interest Companies)-  across a range of industries including those which provide support services for children and young people.

Although CICs are not profit-driven, they are still required to file accounts and complete corporation tax returns annually as other businesses.

CICs also have an additional requirement whereby they must fill in a CIC34 form with Companies House which sets out how they have specifically benefited the communities in which they serve.

In the long term, everyone is going to have to operate in more ethically and socially responsible ways to make the world a better place. For accountants working with CICs, it’s important to make your services as cost effective as possible. I am hoping to take on a number of volunteers who can provide ad-hoc support for some of our existing CICs  and new CIC clients who haven’t used our services before to help reduce prices for our not-for-profit clients.

Next steps: Think about how you, as an accountant, can make a difference to ordinary people.

Verdict: CICs provide valuable services to communities and accountants should ensure fees as cost effective as possible.

Adopt a minimalist approach to business: invest only where there is a genuine need

Emma Charlotte, owner, a-count ethical business accountancy

I am an ethical accountant: all my clients run either socially, morally or environmentally responsible businesses. They range from organics retailers and natural health practitioners to woodland preservation and restoration officers.

We are a paperless office and do not use business cards or branded stationary. We also have no online presence outside of LinkedIn. We use Ecosia search engine which plants trees and is a good visual reminder – do I really need to search this? It is surprising how many people don’t realise the environmental footprint of their internet and technology.

Some of the ways we are working towards the United Nation’s 17 SDGs are:

  • donations to the local food bank
  • filtered water and fruit provided in the office
  • provision of apprenticeship learning
  • inclusive work environment
  • donations to local charities
  • recycling and upcycling as much as possible.

We also don’t replace hardware until needed. We have an anti-consumerist stance and only investment in areas and technology where there is a genuine need. In terms of social responsibility, I have just taken on my first apprentice who has mental health needs in order to offer someone a chance to learn in a fully-supported and inclusive environment.

Next steps: I would recommend all accountancy and office-based businesses adopt a minimalist approach to company branding and technology: how much of is it actually necessary?  

Verdict: Consider a minimalist approach to business by cutting down on branded stationery and business cards and only investing in areas and technology where there is a genuine need.

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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