How to pursue a sustainability career in accounting

Careers at the intersection of accounting and environmental, social and governance (ESG) could be for you.

Are you interested in wielding numbers for the greater good? Careers at the intersection of accounting and environmental, social and governance (ESG) could be what you seek.

The SEC proposal on climate-related disclosures has accelerated the demand for investor-grade assurance on ESG reporting, and the important task of creating reliable, quality reports is best handled by accounting and finance teams. Firms seek CPAs with knowledge and interest in sustainability and that will only increase as international sustainability disclosure standards are anticipated soon.

“Someone who can do the accounting for the money and the environmental impact would be a very desirable hire,” said Jennifer Cantero, director of the Sensiba Center for Sustainability at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, a public accounting firm based in Pleasanton, CA.

Cantero added that the increasing demand for CPAs in the ESG space could boost interest in the profession among college students.

“Accounting has seen a decrease in enrollment and graduates, and I think this particular piece is going to bring students back to the accounting profession, because it’s saving the planet,” Cantero said. “It’s helping companies use their business as a force for good, and a lot of students really want work that gives them purpose.”

If you’re a student interested in helping organizations integrate ESG factors into strategy and operations, here’s some expert advice for landing a job in this space.

Take courses related to the environment.

While you don’t necessarily need to double-major in accounting and environmental sciences, it’s a good idea to incorporate relevant classes into your schedule.

“You don’t need to be an environmental engineer, but you need to have a fundamental understanding of what some of these concepts are in order to speak the language,” said Ami Beers, CPA, CGMA, senior director — Assurance & Advisory Innovation for AICPA & CIMA, together as the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

Accountants will most likely work with engineers, environmental scientists and other specialists to help determine the impact of emissions, water withdrawals and waste metrics have on financial and nonfinancial company goals, and then advise on strategies to reduce waste.

“Accountants need to be able to look at this information and take the data they need to either report accurately if they’re within a company or audit that information if they’re providing an assurance engagement,” Beers said.

Beers pointed out that students planning to become CPAs need to complete 150 credits anyway, so why not choose electives in environmental sciences or conscious capitalism?

She added that an increasing number of university accounting programs are planning to offer classes incorporating ESG topics. According to the October 2022 CPA Evolution Pulse survey, 40% of faculty said their accounting program was either already offering courses or coursework related to ESG or planning to add or alter existing courses.

Worried that your college doesn't offer ESG yet? Hiring managers advise simply keeping up to date on upcoming rules by reading current journal and news articles to be prepared to answer ESG questions from potential employers.

Highlight your interest in protecting the planet during an interview.

If you have taken a few environmental science classes and volunteered to clean up litter, Cantero recommends presenting that in your résumé, cover letter and LinkedIn profile. During interviews, highlight your knowledge and interest in sustainable and ethical businesses.

“If you come into the interview and start talking about environmental sciences, they’re going to automatically flag you for the sustainability niche,” Cantero said.

In addition to mentioning the relevant classes you’ve taken, you could also discuss any credentials you’ve earned and conferences attended that demonstrate your commitment to ESG.

For example, the AICPA® has a Fundamentals of ESG Certificate, IFRS Foundation offers a Fundamentals of Sustainability Accounting (FSA) and the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) offers a Sustainability Excellence credential.

Cantero recommends attending conferences such as Sustainable Brands in San Diego and GreenBiz in Scottsdale, AZ, which offer student pricing, as a way to network and learn about developments in ESG.

Do your homework on firms.

You’re a master at studying. When job seeking, take that tried-and-true practice to the companies where you’re considering applying.

Firms are happy to share the progress they’ve made on ESG initiatives if they are working toward them. Organizations like to discuss their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. And if a company is green, it will share that information readily on its website.

A bit more digging — scope an annual report or integrated report — and you’ll learn if the firm has identified ESG metrics, such as reducing its carbon footprint or aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Right now, large, global accounting firms already have ESG programs in place, at least on the compliance side, meaning they’re helping clients comply with regulations. And some firms, including Grant Thornton LLP and KPMG, are beginning to develop employee knowledge around ESG issues.

“Look for accounting firms that are trying to start those practices now,” Beers said. “I know firms are starting to develop lines of service, for assurance as well as advisory consulting, to help companies set up processes and controls and conducting assessments to determine what type of information they should be measuring and what's important to their stakeholders.”

Beers added that many firms are structured by industry, so you could consider how various industries will implement ESG initiatives to reach realistic outcomes. For example, in the services industry, companies may focus more with social justice and equitable staffing because people are the biggest assets of those organizations. The oil and gas industry, transportation and manufacturing, however, are more likely to initiate programs that address many environmental concerns.

Get in on the ground floor.

Many companies are going to need help to establish ESG initiatives, metrics, timelines, processes and controls to gather and report on the right data, according to Beers.

“You're getting in on the ground, if you think about it,” she said. “Right now, you've got the environmental experts, and then you have the CPAs, but there's no one in between, so we kind of talk past each other. We need people who can bridge that gap.”

If you’re interested in finance, climate change and social justice, you could find an accounting career that involves reviewing financial and nonfinancial data, advising leaders on strategies for sustainable business operations and creating integrated reports that maintain compliance per international standards.

Visit the Global Career Hub for job postings and tips for interviewing. You can also explore more information from AICPA & CIMA about environmental, social and governance information and resources or watch a webinar on ESG and sustainability careers in accounting.

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