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Can accountancy be socially conscious?

Conscious accounting

​The financial aspects of accountancy mean that it's a particularly difficult field for professionals to be ethically and morally conscious, as money is often the main driver and the way in which success is measured. This means that the value of what accountancy can do for the local community or society as a whole is often put to one side.

But does the challenge of making accountancy socially conscious mean it's impossible for businesses in this sector to take on these ethics? This was the topic of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)’s President Debate held in Brussels.

The body emphasised the increasing importance social and natural capital imperatives are having on the industry, with them being viewed as potentially material issues that businesses of all types should manage and quantify.

Although the panellists at the event agreed, ACCA stated that these can be incredibly difficult tasks for for companies to achieve. It suggested that often the focus is on ecosystem services and the challenges associated with their valuation, but when it comes to biodiversity, it's much more difficult.

To discuss this matter further, ACCA brought together leading experts in the field and accountancy professionals for its ‘Accounting for Public Goods: the Social and Natural Capital Imperatives’ 2017 debate. It wanted to identify the ways that accountancy professionals can help integrate the values and services of nature into economic decision making, and how can it support businesses to make more sustainable choices.

But what is in it for companies themselves? Aside from the ethical nature of being more socially conscious, being more socially responsible can have financial benefits for businesses.

Research published in the American Accounting Association journal Accounting Review found that companies with higher corporate social responsibility (CSR) paid lower taxes, on average.

CSR includes factors like community commitment, diversity, employee relations, environment, and product safety and quality, and companies with higher rates of these were found to pay around six per cent less tax than other businesses.

However, does paying lower taxes by doing more for society mean you are actually taking away from the community businesses are working in?

The researchers suggest a possible answer: "Socially responsible firms may not consider the payment of corporate taxes to be the best means by which to accomplish their social-responsibility goals” and even believe that “paying taxes detracts from social welfare."

Other companies polled in the study are calling for lower corporate taxes because it would increase economic development. The report also suggests that businesses may "strategically engage in CSR to create a more favourable reputation among various stakeholders and reduce the possibility of negative attention".

Developing a solution that allows accountancy firms to be more socially conscious and rewards those that are - without it being exploited - remains a challenge for the industry. However, accountants themselves could hold the solution.
Brian McEnery, ACCA president, said more needs to be done and "a meaningful measure must be found to incorporate biodiversity in the process".

"Part of the answer to addressing our natural capital crisis lies with the accountants.  Not only can members of our profession help to develop solutions, but perhaps it is time for us to embed their concrete application and to assume the responsibility of accounting for business’ use of natural capital," Mr McEnery explained.