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Should I worry about sustainability?

Sustainability is a characteristic of a process or condition that can be maintained at a particular level for an indefinite period. In the context of a corporation or other organization, we can consider sustainability in two broad ways:

Sustainable development means meeting present needs without compromising the future. This is the traditional approach, which focuses on the environment.

Sustainable systems and processes facilitate the continuity of an organization. This is a control-based approach that corresponds to an enterprise risk management or internal-control-based conceptual framework.

Changing attitudes

In the past, there was a clear dividing line between operating a business to maximize profit and benefit to the shareholders, versus being concerned about “softer” issues such as sustainability, environmental issues, ethics and governance.

In fact, even today, some believe that considering “environmental, social and governance” (ESG) issues may inherently constitute a breach of the fiduciary duty that the directors and executives owe to the shareholders, since it suggests that the interests of the shareholders are not placed first. This view has been discredited in recent years and it is generally accepted that there is no conflict between attention to ESG issues and sound business judgement.

Indeed, the opposite is probably true nowadays: not considering ESG issues may be a breach of fiduciary duty. In the words of one Alberta-based energy company, they now are “doing the right things for the right reasons.” Currently, the world of governance and accountability acknowledges that a business is accountable to multiple stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, the public, governments, and so on, in addition to shareholders and investors.

Sustainability represents a continuing evolution of the principles and practices of sound environmental and ecological management. The chart below gives some examples of this progression.

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Control and sustainability

Interestingly, there are similarities between sustainability and traditional business concepts such as control. COSO’s Internal Control Integrated Framework states that one of the components of internal control is monitoring. Internal control refers to all of the activities a company undertakes to ensure that its objectives will be achieved. Monitoring ensures that internal control continues to operate effectively. It includes both ongoing processes as well as separate evaluations.

The concept of monitoring can be applied not only to the internal control processes, but also at a higher level: ensuring that the organization is responsive to changes in its external environment. Thus, monitoring can be viewed as a necessary element to ensure the continued viability of the organization.

For more information and how to implement sustainability as a control-based approach, consult Finance and Accounting PolicyPro published by First Reference.

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Jeffrey Sherman

Chief financial officer, author, lecturer and professor focussing on corporate finance at Atrium Mortgage Investment Corporation, Canadian Mortgage Capital Corp., Trimel Pharmaceuticals Corporation, and Anagram Services
Jeffrey D. Sherman, BComm, MBA, CIM, FCA, is a director or CFO of several public companies and has had over 20 years of executive management experience. He is the author of Finance and Accounting PolicyPro, Not-for-Profit PolicyPro and Information Technology PolicyPro (guides to governance, procedures and internal control, all published by First Reference and the CPA). Read more
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