Finding a future in sustainability accounting
The burgeoning field of ESG accounting focuses on helping businesses improve sustainability.
Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting has become an important component in corporate accounting in recent years as companies pay more attention to sustainability and social responsibility issues.
And for accountants like Manna Samuel, CPA, who always knew she wanted to do something in her career with a greater impact on the world at large, ESG reporting was a good fit for her personal and career goals. Involved with nonprofits and volunteer work, Samuel yearned to find a way to combine the charitable work she was doing with her accounting skills.
“It was this incredible cross-section of my skills for accounting, my love of business, and my desire to make an impact,” she said. “ESG as an umbrella is this space where we get to connect the dots between the environment and the economy.”
ESG reporting jobs can include positions with in-house accounting teams, or with firms like PwC. Samuel, in her current role as a sustainability services senior associate with PwC, splits her time between ESG reporting work and strategic services.
ESG reporting is a relatively new field of interest for accountants. The concept first began popping up in boardrooms around 15 years ago, when companies started to assess their effect beyond traditional measures of productivity and profitability.
There’s been an uptick of students pursuing ESG reporting in recent years, said Barbara M. Porco, CPA/CFF, Ph.D., a professor of accounting and taxation at Fordham University Gabelli School of Business. She also serves as the executive director at the university’s Center for Professional Accounting Practices.
“You can consider it extended external reporting that captures risks and opportunities beyond traditional financial disclosures,” Porco said.
Samuel earned a master’s in accounting and finance at Fordham in 2019. Upon graduation, she joined PwC and transferred to ESG services in 2021. Though relatively early in her career, Samuel already feels that she’s contributing to the greater good in her role.
“I always find it really thrilling when we have some of those initial conversations with leadership in a company, and you see them slowly pivot toward how to make their operations sustainable and embracing sustainability as a core value,” Samuel said.
Focus on corporate ripple effects
Sustainability is more than just a buzzword for many companies, particularly in the wake of the pandemic and the recent United Nations Climate Report that painted a dire picture of the future without significant changes to how business operations affect the environment.
These recent events have further emphasized why corporations need to consider incorporating more sustainability measures in their business models, Porco said.
“It’s important to think about the impact organizations have on resources,” Porco said. “You have the elevated issue of climate change, the elevated awareness of scarcity of resources, and you add what we’ve seen in our own supply chain with challenges during COVID — all these things are showing that business impacts society and being only profit based is no longer sustainable.”
Choosing an ESG reporting path
For those interested in pursuing a career in ESG reporting, Porco suggests first building a strong fundamental accounting foundation, and supplementing it with less obvious but just as important critical thinking skills, such as being able to determine if a decision is useful or not. She said the nature of ESG reporting requires accountants to recognize whether a company is making effective investments in reaching sustainability goals or simply making promises without the monetary investment to back them.
“If you don’t have the professional skepticism that is embedded in the mindset of many accountants, that’s something to focus on,” she said. “Without that skepticism, we may not have the skills set to utilize this information that is being reported under the umbrella of ESG in a way that’s decision-useful and discerning.”
As a student, Samuel wasn’t sure how her accounting skills would factor into her passion of instituting positive change in the world. But a career in ESG reporting made that possible.
She found, for example, work she did as a student conducting research disclosure gaps for companies not reporting against the standards set by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board is helping in her current position. She frequently repeats this exercise in the professional space when assessing a company’s sustainability reporting and strategies.
“I never thought at that time that what I was studying in accounting could be applied in a way that’s so meaningful and powerful,” she said.
— Jennifer Bringle is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.