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Sustainability: Challenges and Opportunities for SMPs and SMEs

Apr 9, 2013 | Article for Member Bodies | English

Small- and medium-sized entities (SMEs) might think that sustainability is only relevant to large companies. Maybe they think they cannot afford to be sustainable, that measuring and managing environmental performance amounts to a costly and unnecessary burden. Moreover their accountants, both those employed by the business (accountants in business) and those providing services to the business (accountants in practice), will tell you it is a hard sell getting SMEs to embrace sustainability. However, SMEs that integrate sustainability into their core business strategy can benefit from lower costs, reduced risk, and new opportunities. And their accountants, typically operating in small- and medium-sized practices (SMPs), can play a key role in their journey.

SMEs and the Benefits of Sustainability

SMEs are crucially important to the health and stability of the global economy: they account for over 95% of all businesses and for the majority of private sector gross domestic product (GDP), wealth and employment creation, and social and environmental impacts. Meanwhile, there is immense pressure on the natural environment and a recognition that finite resources are fast depleting. Today, SMEs are increasingly being faced with pressure to measure and manage their impact on the environment. They are an integral part of the supply chain where there is a growing demand for sustainability management both from customers and suppliers, especially for those SMEs seeking to secure contracts with governments or larger companies. SMEs also need to ensure they have access to the resources they need to be able to continue offer their products and services in the future.

That said, many SMEs may still feel they can delay addressing sustainability issues. Our global SMP poll indicates there are other more urgent issues preoccupying businesses, including economic concerns and keeping up with new standards, prompting sustainability to slide down their list of priorities. This may explain why few SMPs are presently offering sustainability services. But in the longer term, the sustainability issue is here to stay.

The good news is that there is growing evidence that sustainability initiatives, such as those to reduce an SME’s carbon footprint, can also help improve their bottom line. SMEs of all shapes and sizes—for profits and not-for-profits, public or private, across all industrial sectors—stand to yield significant benefits from adopting sustainable business practices. The initial cost of integrating sustainability into the core business strategy, and reporting on it, can be more than offset by cost savings, reduced risk, positive brand association, and the ability to meet consumer, investor, and supplier demand for environmentally conscientious products and services. In this way, the initial cost is more an investment.

Opportunities for SMPs

Accountants working in SMEs can help their employers at each step of the way, from advising on the costs/benefits of behavioral changes aimed at reducing waste, to investment in new equipment and alternate sources of energy, to developing a comprehensive environmental management system (EMS). However, many SMEs lack the capability to this without outside help. They will likely seek the help of someone they trust, their accounting firm, a demand that can generate new revenue opportunities for SMPs. But first SMEs need to know that they can expect assistance of this nature from their accountants.

Given that SMEs are keen to realize the financial benefits of adopting more sustainable practices, a starting point for SMPs might be to offer to help their clients implement the plan-do-check-act method for the control and continuous improvement of processes and products. This advisory service could include improving business opportunities and creating efficiencies, identifying the risks to cash flow that social, economic, and environmental change will present, and ensuring that clients or employers take advantage of the cost reductions, minimize any cost increases, and maximize the potential revenue by adopting business strategies that identify and address those sustainability issues that are most relevant to their particular business circumstances. In addition, SMPs might wish to encourage their SME clients or employers to have an EnviroReady Report, an engagement based on ISRS 4400 that confirms that the business has an environmental management system (EMS) in place that meets the requirements in ISO 14001:2004.

Some accountants might also help SMEs do some form of sustainability reporting, such as the Global Reporting Initiative’s Level C. They could employ a step-by-step approach of making a public commitment to take action, assessing the business’s impact, setting targets for reducing impact, acting to reduce impact, and publishing the business’s policies and actions. Some SMPs are already helping their clients to develop metrics and the systems needed to capture and report on the metrics. If reporting is deemed valuable, SMPs could progressively do more, culminating in getting some form of assurance on what the client/employer reports, perhaps using the IAASB’s ISAE 3000 series of engagement standards, such as ISAE 3410 for greenhouse gas emissions.

Initial Steps in Offering a Sustainability Service

An ACCA report suggests that SMPs take the following steps to ensure they have the prerequisite expertise to offer a sustainability service:

1. Build partnerships—SMPs should establish collaboration with local environmental sustainability experts in order to gain local access to credible knowledge.

2. Gain experience—This begins in the SMP’s own business. Practitioners should review the environmental sustainability of their own business and then use that valuable experience to have rounded, relevant conversations, based on genuine experience, with their clients.

3. Seek information—Practitioners should familiarize themselves with information sources that they could recommend to others or use to broaden their own knowledge.

4. Formalize commitment—Where appropriate, practitioners should formalize their commitment to offering environmental sustainability advice through marketing and awareness raising in newsletters, their documentation, and website.

Ultimately, offering a sustainability service can help SMPs both add value to the services they offer and help their clients/employers improve the way they run their businesses. Applying the same principles to the practice itself can help accountants improve the way they run their own businesses as well. Does your practice offer a sustainability service? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Please describe your experience and any advice you would give.