ESD case study: Accountancy at West Suffolk College

Introduction by Charlotte Bonner, National Head of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF).

The ETF’s report ‘Leadership for ESD in the FE Curriculum’, has highlighted a range of successful initiatives that support Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

In the report, we’ve heard from various FE and Training providers, who have shared their experiences of ESD, from both an educator and learner perspective.

In our last blog, we discovered the unique ESD programme at Michaeljohn Training School (MJTS), where learners are taught how sustainability can be vastly beneficial for both hairdressing businesses and the environment. Using practical activities that demonstrate the positive impact of applying a sustainable lens to running a business, educators are showing learners at MJTS how to become responsible entrepreneurs of the future. To continue this series of ESD case studies, we’ve headed to West Suffolk College, to learn from Richard Carter, Lecturer in Accounting, Finance and Sustainability. In this case study, we get an in-depth look at his teaching curriculum, and how he’s bringing sustainability to the forefront of his courses.

Drawing on his personal experience of managing financial operations for large companies, as well as the expertise gained from being an IEMA board member, Richard works with his learners to consider the complexities, contradictions and tensions which can exist around sustainable development, framed within the context of accountancy.

 Accountancy at West Suffolk College

Accountancy teacher at West Suffolk College

At West Suffolk College, Richard Carter teaches sustainable development as part of the Association of Accounting Technicians curriculum. Although there are specific modules and content which provide more distinct sustainable development content, Richard uses the topic as a springboard for a range of activities and tasks that encourage learners to consider sustainable development and its ethics and complexities more broadly. He says:

“There is no doubt that sustainability is no longer a ‘feel-good bolt-on’ for businesses. It is front and centre of their future whichever way you look at it: revenue growth, cost saving or investment decisions.”

Business today: a changing landscape

In his modules, Richard emphasises the commercial imperatives and interdependencies, rather than just focusing on narrow areas of theory, to help learners who are studying for a professional, hands-on qualification. This teaching reflects the increasing number of businesses that are being built with a social purpose, as well as seeking to maximise returns to investors.

Richard is aware that sustainability is often found more in science subjects, and therefore is committed to bringing an awareness and understanding of sustainability into accounting. He uses his experience in managing financial operations for a large public limited company to reinforce the criticality of sustainability within the commercial sector, and within the finance departments of businesses and other organisations.

Sustainability and ethics within Accounting

As an educator, Richard recognises and works with his learners to consider the complexities, contradictions and tensions which can exist around sustainable development, framed within the context of accountancy. He uses challenging and thought-provoking scenarios to probe perceptions and preconceptions about how sustainability and ethics work within business and financial settings. He argues that there is a very strong business case for understanding the topic, and that it is primarily about long-term business resilience. Cost efficiencies and marketing benefits are secondary drivers. For example, using sustainability as an advertising point might include:

  • transparency to build trust and loyalty
  • making consumers really care about environmental issues
  • encouragement of other businesses to take similar actions
  • standing apart from competitors

Conversely, the reasons to keep sustainability as a more discreet activity are often more extensive and might include:

  • the fact most consumers are still focused on price, quality and status
  • suspicion that detracts and distracts from other attributes (for example, sustainability attributes are in some way hiding flaws or deficits)
  • highlights what is not being done
  • consumers don’t want to be lectured on morality
  • can come across as an insincere marketing ploy
  • reputational risk if a mistake is made around sustainability credentials.

Corporate case studies

Richard uses related corporate scandal case studies to help put across reputational, financial and legal risks to businesses. The case studies include: the overseas garment factory collapse, the horsemeat scandal, or directors receiving prison sentences for failing to dispose of waste correctly. Learners are then able to use these case studies to zoom in on real-life detail, data, media coverage and consequences.

Creating Accountants of the futures

Learners are taught how to think more broadly and systemically about sustainability. He is clear that students are not expected to be environmental managers, but they have a responsibility as financial accountants to be fully aware of the complexities and risks around ethical, environmental and sustainability considerations. After all, this is certainly the next frontier of corporate reporting: accountants are extremely focused on an organisation’s risk profile and mandatory reporting frameworks are already in place.

Learners are asked to consider where and when an application of knowledge and awareness of sustainability issues would be relevant in an accountancy context, for example, when they are in meetings with a production manager in a manufacturing context. The accountants of the future are clearly recognising the importance of these issues within their businesses.

You can read the full case study and report here.

Read all case studies in this series:

For more information on ESD at the ETF, please visit our ESD web pages.