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Richard Carter’s early career in finance became a launchpad for a working life in sustainability

Richard Carter

Lecturer in Accounting, Finance and Sustainability, West Suffolk College

Desk with folders and calculator.
What is your educational background?

I have GCSEs, A levels, a degree, and I’m a qualified Accountant. I studied at state schools and I’m fortunate to have had a supportive and encouraging family. I was planning a career in aviation, choosing subjects to support that (including maths and physics) but my eyesight ultimately prevented me from becoming a Commercial Pilot. I had to rethink my plans and decided that accounting and finance would be a good route. I joke that I opened the UCAS book and only got as far as ‘acc…’ but in truth, I had always had an interest and ability in handling money. I chose to study an accounting and finance degree in Wales, leaving university with a first-class honours degree.

How did you transition from education into your current role? 

My career has taken a winding path. After university, I became a Junior Accountant while studying for my chartership. Careers in accounting are relatively structured and it’s normal for companies to support their staff through their professional qualifications.

My last commercial role was at Adnams, a brewery and distillery on the east coast of Suffolk. I wanted to work for an organisation that was ethically minded and took its social and environmental responsibilities seriously, so I enjoyed working there. Although I joined to look after the financial side of things, my role quickly developed to encompass the sustainability agenda too. It began because we wanted to start reporting on our environmental impact. I’ve always had a strong interest in sustainability, so I quickly began working to ensure significant improvements every year. The link with finance was obvious to me: accountants are used to quantifying and reporting, but sustainability management is also about minimising risk, building business resilience, ensuring best efficiency, and reducing operating costs. These are bread and butter to accountants.

Having worked in the business for 20 years, I decided it was time for a change. I’d done a little teaching outside of work previously and enjoyed it, so when the opportunity to join West Suffolk College presented itself, I grabbed it. I teach at technician, chartered and degree level as well as running sustainability courses, including the IEMA Associate qualification.

Photo of Richard Carter

“What we’re seeing happen to our climate and ecosystems is very worrying – if you’re the environmental lead in your organisation, you’ll find that you need friends and colleagues to share that burden. You can’t solve every challenge alone and talking with other professionals can really help.”

Richard Carter
Lecturer in Accounting, Finance and Sustainability
Could you briefly describe what you do in your current role?

Around 80% of my time is spent teaching, which I love. That’s a combination of lectures, discussions, question practice and so on. The other 20% is spent on preparing lectures, writing practice questions, reviewing students’ work, and the inevitable general admin tasks. Unused to the long holidays, I spent some of that time writing a new textbook and question bank to help students through their qualifications. I firmly believe that with a strong understanding of the whys and wherefores of a subject, candidates will be able to make more balanced long-term decisions.

Outside of my day job, I contribute to other organisations on various committees and boards. Most substantively, I’m a non-executive director at IEMA and chair the finance, risk, and audit committee. That’s primarily a governance role and provides an independent perspective on the strategies and day-to-day operations of IEMA. Where we can, the non-execs provide insight and experience and try to serve as a ‘critical friend’ to the genuinely brilliant management team.

How has volunteering impacted your career?  

For me, volunteering has three huge draws. First, it’s an opportunity to contribute to the things that really matter. I care deeply about the natural world and the populations it supports so the current crises cause me deep concern. But by making a practical contribution, I can alleviate some of that. Working with IEMA and other professional institutes and networks lets me use my knowledge and experience to have a bigger impact.

Second, having the opportunity to build relationships outside of the day job is hugely beneficial in terms of developing knowledge and awareness. Knowing the right people has been helpful because it can speed up the finding of answers and steer one away from the mistakes that a first-timer could easily make. If I look back over the last 20 years or so, I value the wisdom that I’ve accumulated far higher than the job titles, salaries and so on. This is particularly important in a fast-moving and intricate area like sustainability.

Third, the opportunities I’ve taken have always led to other, interesting activities. That might be the chance to meet people I admire, visit places I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered, or join organisations to help with rewarding projects. These are the things that I look back on fondly, and are still influencing my life now. One often considers a ‘work-life’ balance, but to me, it’s all just life, and I love that.

What skills do you think are important for your current role?  

I’d say that being able to communicate well is essential – you need to be able to influence the people that need your knowledge, insight and recommendations.

Another important skill is to maintain a clear view of the big picture. Of course, that’s critical in environmental management where managers are constantly considering side-effects and consequences, but it’s still easy to neglect other issues, such as commercial imperatives. While that might be frustrating to think about, an organisation needs its financial sustainability in order to keep doing good.

People contemplating a career in finance ask me how important it is to be good at maths, and the answer is ‘not very’. It’s about understanding the bigger picture, seeing what the figures represent and being able to identify solutions or recommendations. Maths is just shorthand for a story or technique. But data handling and understanding what those figures mean is critically important. In many respects, it’s the only way to know whether you’re making progress or where problems might be emerging.

Lastly, everybody should have an understanding of environmental sustainability. Getting even an entry-level sustainability qualification is essential to anyone who wants to make real progress, particularly if environmental management is just part of your job.

How does your job link to the wider environment / sustainability agenda? 

Accountants are beginning to realise that environmental and social sustainability is important. Indeed, well-regarded academics have proven the link between corporate success and responsible business. I’m delighted to see those results.

I think there are two big areas where accountants are really making a difference. First, the financial accountants are taking the reporting aspects seriously. They appreciate that climate and biodiversity risk represent financial risk for investors. What we once saw as assets may not have the value that we once thought. So, there’s lots of work going on to develop consistent, universal reporting frameworks.

More importantly, commercial accountants are driving an agenda of long-term sustainability in organisations’ strategy and projects. We know that it makes good business sense to behave responsibly, and accountants can make that commercial case easily. Unfortunately, this usually means heavier upfront investment to achieve those longer-term benefits, so communicating that clearly to less forward-thinking managers is a critical task.

Screen with timeline pictures behind table and chairs.
Do you have any tips for people looking to get into this type of career? 

Build good networks. What we’re seeing happen to our climate and ecosystems is very worrying – if you’re the environmental lead in your organisation, you’ll find that you need friends and colleagues to share that burden. You can’t solve every challenge alone and talking with other professionals can really help.

If your primary qualification or experience is on the environmental or social side of sustainability, spend a bit of time understanding the commercial requirements of an organisation. There are lots of good lectures, books videos, etc. Or, buy your CEO and/or CFO a coffee and have a chat to understand their perspective. It’ll make your job easier if you know what else they’re trying to juggle and why.

How do you use your IEMA membership to complement your job role?  

The big areas for me were having access to the latest legislative changes and meeting with like-minded professionals. I probably made more progress chatting randomly over a coffee than I ever could have from reading books. I’ve also made some solid friends through IEMA, so don’t underestimate the importance of those softer skills and opportunities.

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IEMA is the membership body for environment and sustainability professionals