EY Eco-Ambassadors Give Back Globally

Amelia Emmert, a manager in Assurance at EY, always had a quiet concern for conservation: taking little steps to make small differences to better the environment, like turning off the lights and "vampire" electronic devices, and recycling ("some of the time"). But she was always eager to learn more about sustainability on a bigger scale. Fortunately, accountants are getting in on the game.

This spring, EY helped her kick that personal passion into global overdrive, and give back to the international business community at the same time, when Emmert volunteered for the EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors Program.

Emmert was just one of 30 EY ambassadors, from across the United States, Canada, Israel, Mexico, and Central and South America, who participated in the 2014 EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors Program, an annual collaboration between EY and the Earthwatch Institute, an organization that engages people worldwide in scientific climate change research.

This year, the ambassadors took part in week-long skills-based expeditions to Mexico and Brazil, where they conducted environmental field research and supported small businesses in Latin America.

Emmert and her international team of co-workers spent the week in the Xochimilco wetlands, the site of the ancient "floating gardens" outside of Mexico City, where they helped Earthwatch researchers gather data on water quality in the "chinampas"—plots of land surrounded and connected by small canals. Their findings will be used to make the case for environmentally friendly, sustainable farming practices to improve the health of the wetlands' ecosystem.

Working under the philosophy that environmental practices must be inextricably linked to the local economy to thrive, EY ambassadors also leveraged their business skills to help 10 local farmers in Xochimilco develop a business plan to market and sell their environmentally sustainable crops.

"Earthwatch scientists are investigating critical environmental issues, and the EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors' field research supports our mission to promote action for a sustainable environment," says Larry Mason, president and CEO of the Earthwatch Institute. "These expeditions benefit not just the environment—our scientists receive valuable assistance, local entrepreneurs gain access to EY's skilled business professionals, and EY develops its employees' leadership, global mindset, and understanding of environmental sustainability."

This is the sixth year EY has sent volunteer ambassadors to Latin America. The 2014 expeditions marked a major milestone for the EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors program as well, with ambassadors surpassing 10,000 volunteer hours donated to small businesses and environmental research in Latin America since the program's inception in 2009.

Deborah K. Holmes, Americas Director of Corporate Responsibility for EY, said the EY-Earthwatch expeditions aligned perfectly with EY's skills-based corporate responsibility strategy, which emphasizes a commitment to education, environment, and entrepreneurship. 

"This really is a program with reciprocal benefits for our people as well as the communities we go to, because it allows our people to bring their skills and build their skills," Holmes said. "We feel good by helping a terrific organization and the local communities it serves, and our employees come back having practiced, implemented, and enhanced their business skills."

Holmes said the program is distinctive because it affords more-junior employees the opportunity to work with colleagues from every region in the Americas. "As part of EY's commitment to building a better working world, we're focused on cultivating a culture of high-performance teaming and offering our people experiences that develop them as leaders," Holmes said.

That was certainly the case for Emmert, who said her eco-volunteerism in Mexico pushed both her nascent concern for the environment and her professional skills to the next level.

Working with Farmers in Mexico

In Xochimilco, ambassadors were able to help Earthwatch researchers collect data to help convince local farmers and community members that sustainable farming methods are better for the Xochimilco wetlands than the use of agro-chemicals, and use their business, leadership, and teambuilding skills to help local 10 local farmers develop a plan to achieve financial success using eco-friendly agricultural practices.

Specifically, they outlined the benefits of a cooperative, or grower's organization, developing a business plan and mission statement for the producers, put together a marketing plan to help them sell their "green" produce to local buyers, and taught them how to use cost tracking templates to manage their costs. Not necessarily an easy task, Emmert said, when working through language barriers and some cultural differences to achieve a common goal.

"These 10 farmers we worked with were predominately middle-aged men who had not historically taken advice from women, much less a group of six women and four men all age 30 and under," Emmert said. "However, by the end of a week of getting to know these farmers, we had proven our skills and our desire to help them, and they were clear in their communication to us after our final presentation how much they appreciated us, our time, and our advice."

Since they left Mexico, Emmert said, the team has learned the farmers have taken the initial steps to form a growers' organization, and have held produce sales at the major university in Mexico City. "In the long term, we feel this group of producers has the capability to change the local Mexico City culture to look more favorably on produce obtained through sustainable methods by marketing their products to the community and educating consumers on their benefits," Emmert said.

And that ripple of change doesn't end in the host countries, organizers say. EY ambassadors, like Daniel Burke, return home eager to spread the message of conservation and sustainability and its link to the local economy to their colleagues and community, or become active in EY's Climate Change and Sustainability Services (CCaSS) work.

Burke, a fraud investigation and dispute services professional in EY's Boston office, recently returned from the 2014 EY-Earthwatch expedition in Curitiba, Brazil where volunteers identified and tagged birds in the Atlantic Forest to assist local wildlife population studies, and worked with local cahaca (Brazilian rum) producers to increase their brand and ecotourism and to review investment costs.

"Being an EY-Earthwatch Ambassador has been the most rewarding opportunity of my career to date," Burke said. "I found the opportunity to collaborate with professionals from various backgrounds and expertise across EY on sustainability initiatives extremely valuable. I also found the expedition raised my awareness about environmental sustainability challenges, and I'm empowered with the knowledge and tools to make an impact with my peers and my local community."

Burke said he originally went into the trip under his own "broad fallacy that this was supposed to be a week-long expedition to change the rainforest in a week." But working with Earthwatch quickly opened his eyes to the complexities of conservation and the importance of using knowledge and education to change people's attitudes and behaviors to effect real change.

Lessons You Can Take Home

"The major takeaway of the Brazil expedition for me was a level of awareness about the challenges of environmental sustainability, especially when it coincides with economic stability," Burke said. "I immediately returned from the trip and began giving presentations in my local market to educate others through sharing my experiences and what I gained from the trip. The key to making a major (environmental) impact is knowledge; the only way a real difference will be made is if attitudes and behaviors are changed."

Burke said the EY-Earthwatch experience also helped him see that businesses like EY, and their skilled employees, can play a meaningful role in that change.

"As a large professional services firm, we have a unique opportunity through the services we provide to bridge the inevitable gap between economic and environmental sustainability," Burke said. "I left with the message that engagement in sustainability initiatives is a true example of participating in something bigger than you, providing an opportunity to make a tremendous impact on the future."

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