Done paperless - what next? | AccountingWEB

Done paperless - what next?

Following on from Gina Dyer’s excellent article Sustainability: Do accountants get it?, I’m interested to know the answer as I’m convinced that we are missing out and will be left behind by other experts if we do not grasp the opportunities on offer.

How did we get here?
After years of carrots and sticks, most householders in the UK, either because they have green tendencies or because they are told to, accept that recycling, composting, better use of energy, water and other resources is part of running their home. There has not, however, been the same encouragement for most small businesses and so the take up has been far slower, relying to a great extent on the fact people do it at home and so it was bound to infiltrate their business at some time or another.

Sustainability, i.e. maintaining resources rather than depleting or destroying them, not only makes sense for the environment but also makes sound business sense. Looking to get the best outcome from least input has always been at the heart of running a successful business only now key resources such as energy and raw materials are at risk and certain ways of working that were held as commonplace, have now been identified as damaging to the environment meaning that profit and growth alone are not the only outcomes to consider.
With both national and local governments committed to lessening environmental impact the sustainability industry is now in full swing with many large businesses recognising the financial, marketing and welfare benefits of operating in a sustainable way and many of these helping others to achieve it or, less kindly, jumping on the eco-cash bandwagon.

For small businesses going less-paper was an obvious place to start and it’s only now, many years later, that we can see the benefits, i.e. not only cutting the paper bill but also the cost of ink, toner, equipment, storage, rent, carriage and postage as well as greater efficiency in the throughput of information. 

Given that these benefits were obvious from the start, and that processing information is what we do, it was disheartening to see a vociferous minority of accountants who denied them and worse, campaigned against the concept itself.

An unkind commentator might deduce that this merely confirms the view that accountants are reactionary, i.e. will resist change and only do something when forced to do so. A kinder commentator might infer that we are just lazy.

Law and regulation over resource management and environmental issues is still relatively narrow for small business, impacting on areas such as waste management and tax cost/incentives however it’s worth remembering that the 2006 Companies Act requires all directors to consider “the impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment” .

Whilst the reporting of sustainability policies and activities is only a requirement for large companies, many smaller companies now do it because they not only embrace the concept but can see the financial and social benefits.

It is also worth noting that the charitable sector is ahead of the commercial sector on this requiring all charities to consider and report on their environmental responsibilities and activities.

What next?

You need only search for “sustainable” on Google or any of the regulatory bodies’ websites to see that there is a lot more to this than might be gathered from doing the same search on AccountingWEB.

Given that governments, industry and the main regulatory bodies accept that the monitoring, reporting and audit of sustainable development is perfectly suited to the capabilities of accountants and that whatever starts with large business usually end with small business, why are we, as small businesses in our own right and advisors to SMEs, so slow in the uptake?

Is it because we are reactionary, lazy and just too busy to consider anything that might happen in more than six month’s time? 

Or is it because, having been so profligate ourselves in following the ideology of “profit at all costs” we have to go through our own conversion first before being able to help others?

Whatever the reason, this is already impacting on us either because clients and other organisations are ahead of us or, with sustainability now being part of the exam syllabus, students too are ahead of us.  If you doubt any of this, you may soon have to change your mind when a prospective client or supplier asks you for details of your environmental policies.

It makes sense therefore to get onboard, assess our own environmental credentials (or lack of them), put them in order and gather the skills necessary to help our clients do the same. 

Doesn’t it?

Paul Scholes


John Stokdyk's picture

A worrying conundrum

John Stokdyk | | Permalink

Thanks for a passionate summary of the underlying issues, and for kicking off this discussion group, Paul.

But at this point, some three months after your original post, we're still scratching our heads at about the apparent apathy of most members around these issues. You suggest the possibility of the profession's innate conservatism as a contributing factor, as well as laziness.

But it's not just within AccountingWEB that the accusations about environmental neglect are flying. Over the weekend, evironment secretary Caroline Spelman warned businesses about the need to prepare "for the difficulties that higher temperatures and more adverse weather could mean for their staff and working practices".

But a Defra survey released last week found that while three-quarters of 600 businesses questioned were concerned about the potential impact of climate change, only 23% had actually started to do something about dealing with the risks.

Spelman urged more businesses to carry out detailed climate risk assessments in order to establish how they are likely to be affected by rising temperatures and the anticipated increase in flood risks. "It is crucial that we all now think what climate change could mean for us," she said. "Impacts will vary considerably from place to place due to different geographies and because local populations have their own very distinctive circumstances, characteristics and priorities."

As some of the profession's leading figures have commented elsewhere, accountants are ideally placed to carry out much of this work, and the regulatory wheels are definitely shifting in this direction. Last week we also reported on the integrated reporting initiative and government consultation on an enhanced Operating and Financial Review that is likely to make sustainability part of the statutory reporting package.

My suspicion is that the underlying dynamic we're witnessing here is not just laziness and conservatism, but a short-termist mindset within the profession. Accountants rarely anticipate and plan forward for major changes in their professional lives. They tend to wait until the last minute when they are legally required to take on some new activity, and then squalk about how difficult, unfair and expensive it all is.

When applied to reporting manipulations, executive remuneration schemes and distorted corporate strategies that destroy value, we rightly condemn short-termism. But in this instance the profession appears to be turning a blind eye to a very, very important issue.

Can anyone suggest what we can do to focus members' attention on sustainabilty and perhaps get more of them interested at least in reading about the issues in this group?

Paul Scholes's picture

Keep it simple?

Paul Scholes | | Permalink

Hi John.  Nearly fell of my chair to see a comment on the original posting, hope this doesn't become just a 2 person discussion group.

I have no doubt that there is a significant proportion of accountants who turn their backs on this becasue they see it as irrelavant, false or, as you say, unlikely to bite them on the bum for at least 6 months.  However I am also certain that there are a bunch of caring accountants who probably know a bit about this but are confounded by the sheer weight and speed of information which makes it very difficult to take the first step.

Having spent 2-3 years being one of the confounded I've reached the point where I think I can identify a way to start a relatively simple process of risk assessment, planning & implementation that I can use first for the firm and then clients and will try and cover the principles in a later posting on here.

Many (one in particular) comment that we are trying to turn the clocks back, to deny "progress" eg we want everyone to start using horse & cart and candles (although not at the same time).  However the lateral response to this is, imagine that everything you take for granted, ie fuel, electricity, water, food, materials became scarce or just impossibly expensive overnight, or if you learned that a flood barrier was to be dropped a mile away or the temperature was to hit 100 degrees for at least a month, how would you run your business or advise clients to run theirs? 

This may sound daft but greater people than me are pushing the view that, just as in late 1939 & early 1940 we are in a phoney war, we are told of these horrible potential risks but the sun comes up, the emails keep arriving, Iris 10.X needs downloading and, whilst there are disasters, they always seem to hit the poorer bits of the planet and we can donate online.

Then it came to an end and war hit everyday life & loved ones, democracy was suspended and people were forced to go without and to make the most of what they had.  Yes, in some cases that meant having to dust off Dobbin and oil graddad's pushbike but people became incredibly inventive and effecient (and fit!).

Given that even the most profligate amongst us are now wondering if they have enough, then surely there can be no harm in pulling back, making better use, doing a bit of risk assessment?  Better that than the possibility of Dave & whatshisname having to knee jerk when something horrible happens and therefore taking the controil away from us.




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Discussing issues related to resource management and environmental issues for accountants.