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From accountancy to sustainability: a surprisingly short leap

30 Oct 2023 10 min read

Sharon Livingstone qualified as an accountant and is now working as a Chief Sustainability Officer. In this blog she talks about the skills that helped her transition.

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Sharon Livingstone FCCA FRSA PIEMA, is the Chief Sustainability Officer at Kid-A. Here, she explains how key transferable skills gained during her accountancy career helped her successfully navigate from accountancy into sustainability, and why these skills are in such high demand.

When I qualified many years ago, my father, a fellow accountant, gifted me a 1970s poster to commemorate the event. The poster’s killer line was “Accountancy was my life, until I discovered Smirnoff…the effect is shattering” (source unknown).

This poster has, and will always have great sentimental value to me, but back then it never really resonated, due to my dislike for vodka. Looking at it again now, (and setting aside the dated idea of alcohol as a great lifestyle-defining choice) my dislike of vodka remains. However, if I substitute ‘Smirnoff’ for ‘Sustainability’, there’s real resonance in the message.

Following my passion to work in sustainability after 17 years in finance and commercial, has had a hugely positive impact on my life in so many ways. Reflecting on my personal journey, I believe the transition to sustainability has been made more straightforward because of my previous life as an accountant. The transferable skills and experience that diverse and rewarding profession afforded me, continue to serve me well in my current role.

Photo of person giving a presentation at the front of a room of people. There is a graph on the screen.

Below, I have set out the key transferable accountancy skills which, from my experience, can be easily transferred and which are highly valuable for anyone in a sustainability-focused role.

  1. Accountants are renowned for their quantitative and numerical skills, which are invaluable in sustainability. We gather, analyse and interpret data with ease, and as carbon footprints, life-cycle assessments, tracking resource usage, and energy audits can all be very data-driven, these skills are incredibly useful.

  2. Our critical thinking and creative problem solving are highly desired transferable skills. An accountant’s expertise in the preparation of business cases and cost-benefit analysis, can also aid sustainable decision making. Likewise, the ability to deliver objective analysis, evaluation, and balanced judgement, is also a necessity in assessing environmental impacts, and identifying opportunities for cost and energy efficiency measures, and waste reduction strategies.

  3. Within sustainability, there is a need to understand and apply accounting principles and methodologies. The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Accounting and Reporting Standard clearly details the principles of Relevance, Completeness, Consistency, Transparency and Accuracy. These underpin all aspects of GHG accounting and reporting, and they also happen to be part of every accountant’s DNA. Likewise, the standard explains the approach organisations should take to set organisational boundaries and consolidate GHG emissions. Here again there is alignment with the financial accounting approach of equity share, and financial and operational control.

  4. Transparent and accurate reporting is critical; brand and reputational damage due to green washing is a very real prospect if there are misleading environmental claims or omissions. There is an ever-growing demand for voluntary sustainability reporting and accountants can extend their financial reporting skills into this area. Our attention to detail and adherence to reporting standards can contribute to the accuracy, reliability, and transparency of information, and the evaluation and disclosure of environmental and social performance. This additional level of assurance both instils confidence and enhances credibility.

  5. The same can be said for governance and risk management. Accountants have a solid foundation in risk management and compliance, making us well-suited to help mitigate against sustainability risks and maximise opportunities. Accountants can help with the implementation and ongoing management of both environmental and sustainability procurement management systems. This includes the identification, sizing, and prioritisation of risks, the development of robust internal control systems, and compliance with relevant regulations and standards. All these help to navigate environmental and social risks effectively.

  6. Accountants are already an integral part of the strategic business planning process, and our financial acumen ensures both business and sustainability strategies are aligned with financial goals. We ensure the financial implications of sustainability initiatives are economically viable, resources are effectively allocated, funds are directed towards initiatives that have the most significant positive environmental impact, and that they contribute to long-term value creation.

  7. Finally, effective collaboration and communication are the cornerstone of any successful sustainability strategy. One of the most valuable transferable skills accountants possess is the ability to communicate complex concepts to stakeholders in a clear and concise manner. This is perhaps the most important transferable skill accountants have, and we have a responsibility to use it effectively to help mitigate the climate crisis, the biggest global risk we face.
Photo of four cubes of wood, each displaying an image of the brain, representing different skills

Although I have captured only some of the transferable skills that many accountants possess, these skills place us in a unique and privileged position. By leveraging them, and embracing broader responsibilities, accountants can join the good fight, becoming catalysts for change and building a more sustainable future for everyone.

This is a guest blog written by Sharon Livingstone for the Green Careers Hub.

Image credits: Shutterstock

  • sustainability
  • IEMA
  • accountancy
  • ACCA
  • Kid-A

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IEMA is the membership body for environment and sustainability professionals