Action by SMEs is key to a more sustainable world

Intergenerational Survey

After the recent COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, sustainability is an even more urgent focus for governments and businesses. Accountants in practice and finance teams in SMEs can play a leading role in the transformation the world needs.

Climate action is the catch cry of the decade as the world seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But it’s not the only challenge humanity faces: the extinction crisis, burgeoning inequality and natural resource depletion, among others, threaten our future.

Governments, businesses and individuals play a critical role in the transformation that’s required. We must deliver life’s essentials for everyone while ensuring Earth’s capacity to support life itself. Already, we have exceeded boundaries that would ensure stability.

Large corporations need to change, but so, too, must small and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) which account for 90% of the world’s businesses and employ half the world’s workers. Their environmental and social impact, and role in helping to solve many of the challenges we face, is increasingly in the spotlight.

These challenges and opportunities for SMEs, and the accountants who advise them, are outlined in a new playbook How SMEs can create a more sustainable world by Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

“Business as usual is no longer an option,” say Ainslie van Onselen and Helen Brand, CEOs of CA ANZ and ACCA respectively, in a joint foreword to the document. “Sustainability is an urgent, global project. The collective impact of billions of actions at local and organisational scale will make a huge difference.”

Some SMEs already have transformative strategies, placing sustainability at the heart of their purpose to make a difference to the world’s biggest social and environmental challenges.

Many others, however, recovering from the impact of the COVID19 pandemic, have neither time to rethink and reshape their supply chains and business models, nor financial resources to do so. Real action on sustainability isn’t yet on their agenda — but it needs to be.

Business as usual is no longer an option,” say Ainslie van Onselen and Helen Brand, CEOs of CA ANZ and ACCA respectively, in a joint foreword to the document.

“Organisations are now feeling the pinch from all sides,” says Miranda Siu CA, chair of CAANZ’s Sustainability Management Advisory Committee. “Many realise that if they don’t embed sustainability into their organisation they’ll be out of business or lose customers. Their customers, investors and employees are already pushing for it, so they have to act.”

Accountants have a critical role in the sustainable transformation of SMEs, from instigating action through to evaluating strategies, as well as measuring and reporting performance. They can work with clients not only to reduce costs and negative environmental and social impact, but create new opportunities for growth, profitability and positive impact.

CAs should take the lead, says Catherine Bell, manager for global sustainability at BDO in Perth. “We can’t go and help our clients unless we can walk the talk, and put our hands on our hearts and say ‘this is what we are doing to integrate sustainability into our business.’”

And while the path to sustainability is different for every organisation, speaking from experience always helps, she says. “We are telling clients this will be the biggest business transformation of modern times, and we don’t have a lot of time.”

Wyndi Tagi, co-founder of WE Accounting in Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand), says 70% of the firm’s clients are Maori or Pasifika, and sustainability is embedded in their culture.

“If you are purpose-driven, and you’ve got that vision that’s bigger than you are, and you know that what you’re doing is right for your ancestors, for your land and for the generations to come, then you work harder,” she says. “You do everything that you possibly can to make sure that you are successful because you just know that it’s the right thing to do.”

Sustainability for SME’s

A playbook for accountants in practice seeking to take sustainable action.

The playbook, an introductory resource for CAs and finance teams in SMEs and small and medium-scale practices (SMPs), includes actionable steps to embed sustainability within your own practice or organisation and assist clients. It urges members to:

  • improve your sustainability skills and understanding
  • gather resources, start a conversation and connect more widely
  • consider sustainability in every decision you make
  • measure non-financial performance and encourage clients to do so too
  • engage with other accounting and sustainability professionals, and
  • share your insights and experience widely and often.