This interview was first published in the March 2015 Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Over the last 20 years the number of organisations working to address their sustainability impacts has risen significantly. This can be attributed to several key factors, including: a broader understanding and acceptance of the links between economic activity and global sustainability issues; a recognition of the risk-management and economic benefits that organisations can gain from integrating sustainability into their strategies; and a growing demand from stakeholders for organisations to manage their operations in a more sustainable manner.

A minority of governments and regulators have driven this trend by requiring companies to address their environmental and social impacts and to report on their practices. This is true of Malaysia where Bursa Malaysia launched an environment, social and governance (ESG) index named the FTSE4Good Bursa Malaysia (F4GBM) Index last December.

Currently over 3,000 companies worldwide issue annual reports on sustainability and corporate responsibility. Although these companies represent a small minority, ACCA expects their number to increase in the future, owing to the drivers noted above.

Realistically, this could take decades to achieve. Its fulfilment can only be reached if the young and aspiring accountants of today are imbued with an understanding and commitment towards sustainability in business.

ACCA recently surveyed among more than 4,700 students worldwide, asking them how sustainability trends will impact businesses and the role of accountants in countering these challenges. 

The results were quite enlightening. Deterioration of natural resources, a global population explosion and financial market instability will be the main impacts on the global business environment in the next 10 years, says the ACCA research. A massive 81% of respondents said the main impact by 2024 would be a decline in natural resources, while 79% stated that sustainability issues will be more prominent in 10 years time. 

ACCA places sustainability at the heart of business and accounting, and for over two decades we have been identifying the multiple roles the accountant will have in a more sustainable future. We believe that accountancy professionals are well placed to help organisations transform into more accountable entities. 

At a macro level, ACCA is able to influence global sustainability issues and contribute to the development of solutions. ACCA undertakes a wide variety of research into how accountants and finance professionals can assist in the shift to a sustainable economy. We also work with standard setters, governments and regulatory bodies to ensure that standards and regulations concerned with corporate sustainability are fit for purpose.

And perhaps the most wide ranging, in terms of impact, is that through the ACCA Qualification, all our students are taught about the sustainability risks and opportunities facing companies. The syllabus includes specific modules
that include integrated reporting and sustainability in the context of business, corporate social responsibility and environmental issues affecting the strategic position of an organisation. 

With ACCA currently having 436,000 students in 180 countries, the potential impact of this training and knowledge can be massive. This, I hope, will be a catalyst for accountants to be drivers for greater sustainability practices in business in the years to come. 

Datuk Zaiton Mohd Hassan is president of the ACCA Malaysia Advisory Committee.