The Great Debate: Accountants and the environment

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Accountants have a whole host of professional obligations, but nowhere in the code of conduct for any accountancy body is the obligation to put the environment first – whatever that actually means. It seems that few here on are willing to stand up against the awesome political correctness of the green movement, and so it falls to me to play the devil’s advocate.

What I won’t argue against is the scientific case for global warming. Some might lean that way, but as far as I’m concerned the facts are fairly damning – one day the facts may be proven wrong, but we have to go with what we can see and understand. And from where we stand, it would be fairly foolish to deny that human activity is affecting the planetary climate. So what should accountants, in particular, be doing about it?

Doubtless some will say that as thought leaders and trusted advisors and all that jazz accountants should be at the forefront of the new green dawn, extolling the virtues of middle-class liberal environmentalism. Nonsense. In the words of Milton Friedman, the only social responsibility of business is to improve its profits. As trusted business advisors, accountants are only obliged to help their clients run better businesses. As far as it makes commercial sense, environmental issues should be advocated and pursued, but only as far they have a positive effect on the bottom line of the business.

Other than that, environmentalism is a personal moral choice (unless it becomes law). Some environmentalists believe that global warming is a result of human greed. If those people want to consider that there is an impending ecological Armageddon which is our karmic punishment for over-indulgence, fine. It’s not an unusual way for humans to react to natural disasters. Centuries ago, plenty of people thought the Great Fire of London was divine retribution for English war crimes in the Netherlands. But it’s not only irrational to assume that consumerism is intrinsically immoral, it’s patronising and economically damaging.

Much of what the business world touts as environmentalism isn’t anything of the sort, anyway. In truth, a lot of green business initiatives aren’t concerned at all about the environment, or corporate social responsibility, or demonstrating "thought leadership" or so on: they are PR, and hypocrisy to boot, and such posturing denigrates the integrity of the profession.

As we slide into recession, the basic, traditional value of the accountant has never been more sorely needed – some would even say missed. Some would go as far as to say it was a failure of the accountancy profession that allowed the credit crunch to happen. And at precisely this time, when the essential integrity of the profession is being called into question, blithe accountants (some of them very senior public figures) are deluding themselves that their mission has become more important than humble commerce. But if you can’t file a trustworthy set of company accounts, please don’t try and convince people you can save the world. Analysts already think your normal audits are useless. Put your own house in order before you appoint yourselves ecological saviours.

Rob Lewis, practice editor,


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