Can Accountants Save the World? Incorporating Sustainability in Accounting Courses and Curricula

Posted by CHARLES CHO - Aug 08, 2019

A blog by Charles Cho and Hannele Mäkelä


The new academic year is about to start, turning our minds back into teaching. How tempting it would be to take the slides from the prior year(s) and do what we know best. However, recent changes in global governance and accounting standard setters’ agenda encourage (force?) us to step outside our comfort zone and think: “how can we incorporate sustainability into accounting courses and curricula?”

While many of us have successfully been doing this for years, and even more of us regularly experiment with novel ideas in their teaching, it is time that we, as a community, start carrying responsibility and take action towards a better – and more formal – alignment between accounting and sustainability. Pursuing sustainable development and mitigation of climate change require new understandings of corporate accountability and measuring corporate performance. How companies manage sustainability is crucial for their long-term success. It is no longer enough to measure organisational success by financial measures only. The role of accounting is acknowledged central in achieving sustainability, as strongly emphasized by high-profile speakers at the recent World Congress of Accountants – including former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales and Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England.

For instance, recent developments for non-financial reporting require new understandings of social and environmental value, and how to account and measure for such value. Carbon accounting and disclosure, water accounting, and human capital accounting are just a few examples of the types of non-financial information that companies are now required to disclose. Consequently, and in parallel, business schools are globally and increasingly expected to commit to sustainability education. How can we as academics, researchers and teachers, equip future accounting professionals to better deal with the challenges (and possibilities?) associated with sustainability issues?

Both of us have recently attended workshops, panel discussions and other related events with valuable opportunities to learn and share thoughts around accounting and sustainability with experts from different backgrounds. One of us is part of a group of eight Canadian academics who (still) call for an “integration of sustainability into the CPA Canada curriculum” as follows:

It is our responsibility – as accounting educators and researchers – to contribute to the sustainable development of the profession. This academic commitment to accounting is also an engagement that will ensure the prosperity of future generations. We live in turbulent times where the natural resources of the planet are compromising economic growth, where fiduciary duty requires the inclusion of environmental, social and governance issues and where the ethics of economic actors has become essential to the conduct of business. The integration of sustainability into the CPA Canada curriculum is crucial to the building of a successful, inclusive and leading accounting profession that could pursue an ideal of good business.

We firmly believe that besides the new tools and accounting-related ideas and theories we teach at our business schools – and perhaps as a driver for change –  the accounting profession, via its professional orders, associations and/or societies (e.g., ACCA, AICPA, CA ANZ, CPA Canada, ICAEW), must lead and take action to make concrete changes by including sustainability as a core competency in their examinations and certification/licensing requirements. Unfortunately, we have only seen much discourse without much action so far—a ‘déjà vu’ (?).

Moving forward and “on the ground”, we need new methodologies and new ways of approaching accounting education. Many of the key ideas and concepts in accounting need to be thoroughly and fundamentally re-considered when applied to the sustainability arena. In this process, multidisciplinary thinking is the key. We need to build and educate students with strong core competencies in accounting, but it is equally important to critically analyse the role of accounting-related ideas, tools, and information in the bigger picture of the ecosystem we live in and its sustainable development. What are the critical accounting concepts, theories and tools that we need to master? What is the sustainability-related information that we need, how and from where do we get it? How and what do we conceive of value? What is the time-span to be considered? And so on.

In addition to a critical analysis of these pressing questions, we also need the ability to collaborate in multidisciplinary settings and with different actors in society. This should be reflected in how we teach at business schools. Businesses, governments, NGOs and all other societal actors could (should) be involved, and we could experiment with? new kinds of participatory methods. Then again, sustainability could be easily included even in introductory courses through case studies, for instance. As often mentioned, the question is not only about what you teach but how you teach; that is, teaching methods that foster critical analysis, collaborative skills and problem-solving should be in use throughout curriculum.

This blog aims to stimulate debate around how we should teach accounting to advance and improve sustainability. It constitutes a call for action from us – the community of accounting educators – to change our accounting courses and curricula to integrate sustainability issues, a response for the challenge posed for accountants to save the world.

The Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting Research (CSEAR) provides resources and organizes the annual International Congress on Social and Environmental Accounting Research at the University of St Andrews this month, as well as others around the world. We also aspire to organize a Symposium on this important aspect of accounting education at the next EAA Annual Congress!



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