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Accounting for the SDGs and Sustainability

by Kate van der Merwe on the 13/12/2018

A little bit about Kate:
I am a Chartered Accountant with 12 years experience, currently working in finance within the technology sector. I have had an ongoing interest in, and increasing focus on, sustainability. I’ve fed this with various courses, events, and most recently with my year chairing the Young Professionals committee. The Young Professionals committee is a subcommittee of Chartered Accountants Ireland, aimed at engaging, informing and connecting members in the first 10 years qualified.

The need for the finance sector to engage with sustainability is clear. Businesses are increasingly affected by global challenges and, as key decision makers, those working within the finance sector, including accountants, are important actors in any drive to integrate sustainable practices within industry. Through a programme of sustainability-themed events for Chartered Accountants, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proved an important, yet sometimes challenging framework to address this.

As chair of the Young Professionals committee, I initiated the sustainability-themed year with topics linked to the SDGs. Building on our annual event programme sponsored by a local recruitment firm, we held 8 events across 2017/2018, covering topics ranging from renewable energy to emotional intelligence.

Despite coverage of such significant and complex global challenges, reports show limited public awareness of the SDGs. In introducing the first event I asked the crowd who knew of the SDGs - not one hand went up. So I aimed to familiarise people with the SDGs, referencing the iconic logos throughout our social media promotions and linking individual SDGs and the associated icons to specific events.

Although sustainability accounting practices and reporting, partnerships, and networks are developing, the lack of an integrated sustainability framework presents a challenge to engagement across a varied finance sector.

Finance professionals are often key decision-makers, so to have this group onside enhances the reach of sustainability practice. Our event participants are generally in the early phase of their careers, with many years in which to advocate sustainability, and will inevitably be impacted by either sustainability-related corrections or the effects of global issues. In the absence of finance-specific frameworks, I found the broad-based SDGs to be a valuable framework. However, it was a challenge to go beyond the moral case in trying to create a compelling event that married SDGs with a more traditionally-framed finance professional development agenda. It required creating relevant links as opposed to simply referencing them. This did mean some events felt more tenuously connected, such as our necessary soft skill events. I recognise the risk here of undermining the link between finance & SDGs, and tried to mitigate this. Our site page set out our plan and why the SDGs are important (to accountants, businesses and us all) through quotes from prominent figures. Panel discussions within our events were linked to specific SDG targets. For example, for our Innovation event we focused on 2 companies connected to lowering the barriers of entry (Linked Finance) and enabling inclusivity (Currency Fair), using Goal 9 targets to shape the conversation.

The final challenge was how to measure success. As past feedback responses from email/ form were poor, we gathered informal qualitative feedback at each event and ran a raffle for general feedback entries at our final event, receiving positive comments on our theme. We increased the number of events by 60%, built up our attendance numbers including many returners. Our renewables event achieved a record attendance and we noticed an increase in other engagement indicators (such as audience engagement in Q and A). I hope the year gave people a greater awareness, whatever that may be, and a common language or framework of the SDGs; however, despite favourable signs from the attempted measurements mentioned, I don’t know exactly how many more hands would go up if asked what the SDGs are. To focus deeper, whilst the committee needed convincing initially, I was so heartened by the level of engagement they gave. They were crucial to the year and are at least a handful of individuals that more deeply engaged with sustainability - frequently sending me articles related to sustainability or an SDG topic. I take encouragement from this when questioning what the year achieved in terms of SDGs/ sustainability!

On this platform, I don’t imagine there’s much need to convince people of the importance of sustainability. However, to reach those who aren’t aware or invested, I very much believe that we need a multi-faceted approach including persuasive business and moral cases, which needn’t be at odds. Finance, being the professionals or the businesses that they steer, will inevitably be affected and should be collaborating in the search for solutions.

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