As the role of CPAs continues to expand, adapting and revising accounting curricula to meet emerging complexities becomes increasingly difficult. One such emerging area is sustainability reporting—disclosures provided “by a company or organization about the economic, environmental and social impacts caused by its everyday activities.” Because this new field is neither covered in the CPA exam nor required reporting by the SEC, educational support is limited for most colleges. Yet despite the dearth of academic resources focused upon sustainability reporting, students are expressing a growing interest in the field. Fortunately, there are several simple, affordable ways to embed sustainability reporting into the academic experience.
AICPA Sustainability News Repository
The AICPA recognizes the increased interest in greater transparency of company strategy, performance drivers, and the reporting of both financial and nonfinancial information, including information about company sustainability initiatives. It has a dedicated webpage that provides a repository of publications links—free and fee-based—pertaining to sustainability reporting (http://bit.ly/2ZkqbsP). Organized with spotlight features and news updates, materials can be easily accessed by students and faculty alike.
Extracurricular Club Activities
Learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom, so consider forming a Net Impact chapter (http://bit.ly/2U7qelV). Net Impact is a nonprofit membership organization for students and professionals interested in using business skills to support various social and environmental causes. Its website boasts over 400 chapters in nearly 40 countries. Ideally, establishing a chapter will bring together like-minded students on campus and offer them a forum to discuss current pressing issues, such as socially responsible investing, sustainable business, and corporate social responsibility.
Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Podcast Library
Since 1997, GRI has pioneered sustainability reporting. GRI’s database includes more than 30,000 reports published by companies that share information regarding their impacts on a wide range of sustainability issues. The organization hosts monthly podcasts that are typically 10 minutes in length, and the MP3 link format makes the material easy to access (http://bit.ly/2MCzs8X). The variety of topics provides an excellent opportunity for an analytical extra credit assignment for upper level accounting classes, as well as tax courses.
Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) Online Resources
Currently, accounting curricula focus on the value of information reported in financial statements, such as tangible assets and financial capital. Traditional financial tools, however, provide only part of the story of a corporation’s long-term value and do not account for such factors as intellectual capital, customer relationships, brand value, and other forms of capital (e.g., environmental, social, human). The SASB website offers many publications that will enlighten both professors and students. A simple addition to an existing financial accounting course is coupling a financial analysis assignment with the review of a sustainability report for the same company. Instruct students to select a company listed on SASB’s website that has published a report using SASB standards (http://bit.ly/2Pezwxu). Students can identity a handful of sustainability initiatives disclosed and share their findings in class. Whether students present in a single dedicated class or a few present each class throughout the semester, these discussions can lead to an elevated understanding of the company’s business risks and goals.
Another excellent tool is the SASB Materiality Map, which identifies sustainability issues that are likely to affect the financial condition or operating performance of companies within an industry (https://materiality.sasb.org/). Using the Materiality Map in auditing lectures can stimulate expanded discussions regarding materiality, which may lead to a greater understanding of the concept.
Internal Guest Speakers from Other Departments
The concept of sustainability reporting comprises more than just environmental concerns such as climate change. It also includes information about a company’s practices in relation to social and governance issues such as employment safety, gender equality, and global responsibility. Faculty within business ethics, sociology, and management departments often research and lecture in topics similar to these; as a result, faculty within them may be able and willing to present information about these topics to accounting classes or to a club meeting (e.g., Beta Alpha Psi). This type of learning-based dialogical education may stimulate positive change in the values held by accounting students.
International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) Value Creation Framework
Financial capital lectures can be augmented to include other value capitals such as human, manufactured, intellectual, social, and natural/environmental. The International Integrated Reporting Framework, available for download on the IIRC website, offers an excellent flowchart illustrating the value creation process (https://integratedreporting.org/resources/). The framework describes the “capitals” as stocks of value that are increased, decreased, or transformed through the activities and outputs of the organization. For example, an organization’s financial capital is increased when it makes a profit, and the quality of its human capital is improved when employees become better trained. Exposing students to the concept by extending lectures beyond the traditional stock and bond topics can aid students’ understanding of financial capital.
Alumni and Adjunct Faculty Presentations
The KPMG “Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting” indicates that most of the world’s largest companies now include nonfinancial data in their annual reports (http://bit.ly/2KVMwE1). As growth in global reporting trends continues, familiarity of sustainability issues among alumni and adjunct faculty in public practice also increases. Consider inviting guest speakers to discuss any of the four major emerging trends within sustainability reporting: reporting on the financial risks associated with climate change, reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), reporting on corporate human rights performance, and reporting on science-based carbon reduction targets. Each of these topics offers an opportunity for guest presentations that will not only enrich the learning experience for students, but also inspire socially and environmental responsible behavior in future members of the profession.