In recent years the issue of sustainability has taken on increasing importance in all walks of life, both personal and business. Russell Bedford deems sustainability, and the impact of business on society and the environment, as one of the key global challenges. To confront this issue, Russell Bedford set up its Social Impact Committee with the task of promoting action among its global member firms. The committee launched with a panel discussion at the network’s global conference in October 2022; Business World asked three members of the panel – Lina Lemessiou, Deanna Salo, and Mike Sweeney – for answers to some key sustainability-related questions.
Why has sustainability leapt to the top of the agenda?
Deanna Salo: Sustainability affects everyone. It affects our success and how we connect with each other. We find that clients look to their accountants for help in all kinds of ways, retraining of their skilled staff and redesigning of their business model, for example. Professional advisers must stay in touch with their clients’ needs in order to keep them abreast of what’s around the corner.
Is it just a box-ticking exercise?
Mike Sweeney: Not at all. Between 2030 and 2050 there are many sustainability-related targets to contend with and 2030 is a mere seven years away. Discussions with clients around the practical implications on areas such as supply chains and logistics need to happen now.
Why is sustainability important at a personal level?
Lina Lemessiou: Sustainability is such a broad concept that we cannot divorce business activities from our personal lives. If we want to achieve a better and more sustainable world, we all have to contribute personally, and businesses will need to address all the angles if they want to remain trusted, respected, and profitable.
What are the most important issues for businesses to consider?
Mike Sweeney: Sustainability isn’t just about climate change. We also need to consider the next generation of businesses and the skills and other resources they will need. Accounting firms for example, looking at the talent pool while considering diversity we need to ensure we produce enough skilled accountants to support business needs.
Do you see any barriers to success?
Deanna Salo: One issue is the compressed window of time in which we have to deliver for our clients and the available resources to do so. So we need to automate, innovate, and maximise our resources to meet clients’ growing and changing needs. This means we need to be talking to clients now, so they understand our issues and we understand theirs.
Where are we right now?
Lina Lemessiou: With sustainability being such a broad subject we have to start somewhere and implement policies in a measured and gradual way, starting with an altered mindset. While understanding of the climate challenges is relatively well-formed, work is still needed around the wider sustainability issues. It’s not possible to do everything at once so all participants – individuals, businesses, and governments – need to prioritise and plan accordingly.
Mike Sweeney: While needing to think about the social impact of our actions, as businesses we can’t lose sight of the fact that we, and our clients, need to be profitable. We need to consider the needs of right now without sacrificing the future.
What is the outlook for recruitment and retention in a sustainability context?
Deanna Salo: As a profession we’ve tended to recruit from a specific educational and experience background. In our firm we now look at nontraditional applicants with broader skills and experience; we can create a sustainable workforce if we think creatively and invest in training.
Have the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals made a difference?
Lina Lemessiou: The publication of the SDGs drove the momentum and mobilisation that led to a diversity of guidance and frameworks to follow, both mandatory and voluntary. We are now at the stage where global effort is being made to harmonise and consolidate this information, aiming to make things easier to understand, adopt, and implement.
Is it enough to rely on people’s best efforts to drive sustainability-related change?
Deanna Salo: While we must acknowledge there is still a gap, as trusted advisers we can support clients to build sustainability into their business models. We can help them to incorporate sustainability into their budgeting and forecasting, and improve workplace environment and infrastructure. This presents an opportunity for all sides to practise in areas we might not previously have thought possible.
How do you make busy professionals care about sustainability?
Lina Lemessiou: The regulations in place or in the pipeline initially target large corporations. However, these corporations run supply chains comprising many smaller businesses. To remain on, or make it onto, these supply chains smaller businesses will find themselves having to comply with sustainability requirements. Businesses may also find sustainability plays a part in securing funding as the financial services sector begins to make sustainability a criterion in providing finance.
What final thoughts and actions can you offer?
Mike Sweeney: Pick something that drives people to get up in the morning and go to work. Harness that passion and let them drive by giving them the tools and the impetus to achieve. Then get out of the way.
Deanna Salo: Change only happens as a result of a traumatic event, business evolution, or a deliberate decision. Make that decision then take small steps but with genuine intent. You may well find that your business already has all the necessary ingredients to take you to your sustainability goals. All businesses have unique characteristics that can contribute to achieving sustainability.
Lina Lemessiou: Raise awareness of sustainability. Start gradually; don’t try to address all the aspects at once. Take a building-block approach and build sustainability one block at a time.
About the panellists
Deanna is a CPA and managing partner at Cray Kaiser, Russell Bedford’s Chicago member firm. She executes assurance, strategic and tax planning services across the client portfolio. For closely held and family-owned businesses, she focuses on the value she can bring to the family and owners. For non-profit clients, she manages internal control procedures, budgeting, governance issues and audit compliance procedures. Deanna has also handled special M&A engagements on the buy and sell sides.
Deanna holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Accountancy from University of Arizona.
Mike is a tax partner at Russell Bedford’s Adelaide member, Lee Green. Since 1992, he has developed his career in taxation, earning a strong reputation for his work in biotechnology, property, wholesale, not-for-profit organisations and start-up businesses around Australia and in Singapore. His particular professional interest is in developing strategies which build business growth.
Mike has a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting and a Masters in Taxation. He is a CPA, CA, registered Tax Agent and Chartered Tax Adviser.
Lina is Director of Professional Standards at Russell Bedford International; joining in November 2022 after working at EFRAG (European Financial Reporting Advisory Group). She was initially involved in the launch of projects to stimulate innovation and best practices in the field of corporate reporting in Europe, and then moving to central management for the development of draft European sustainability reporting standards.
Lina holds a degree in computer science from the University of Manchester. She is also a Fellow member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.