Creative ideas for teaching ESG and sustainability accounting

By Cheryl Meyer

Pique students’ interest with this socially relevant topic

In December 2020 a KMPG survey found that 80% of companies worldwide now report on "sustainability", the overarching term for ensuring they are doing what's right for the planet, their communities, their investors, and their own businesses.

Given this trend, sustainability is a topic accounting students should absolutely study and embrace, said Carol Adams, Ph.D., a professor of accounting at Durham University in Durham, England, and editor-in-chief of the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal.

"The job of accountants is to provide information to management to make decisions, and management needs to be aware of issues that present risks to the organisation,” she said. Sustainability accounting helps identify these issues and risks, and allows organisations to assess their impact on the ecosystem.

To keep pace with real-world activity, university accounting departments worldwide are progressively integrating sustainability accounting and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) into their classrooms, Adams said, and it's vital that instructors continue to prepare students for the environmentally conscious world. "Employers want graduates who are skilled in sustainability thinking," she said.

Students schooled in ESG and sustainability accounting will broaden their career prospects, said Artie Ng, FCMA, CGMA, FCPA (Hong Kong), Ph.D., deputy director and principal lecturer in the School of Professional Education and Executive Development at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "Such knowledge will improve their readiness and competitiveness as an accounting professional," he said.

The pressure to integrate ESG into college classrooms will likely only intensify, as stricter reporting guidelines surface and corporations are forced to disclose what they are doing to make the world a better place for coming generations. "Investors need this information to make sure they are investing in companies that have a sustainability agenda," said Jill Atkins, Ph.D., the chair in financial management at the University of Sheffield, in Sheffield, England, and a visiting professor in the School of Accountancy at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Any company that ignores these issues really doesn't have a future."

The European Union, the World Economic Forum, the IFRS Foundation, and major reporting organisations, including the Global Reporting Initiative and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, are all looking to bolster or blend reporting standards to address "sustainability reporting" across geographies, according to KPMG's 2020 report, The Time Has Come.

ESG and sustainability accounting can be woven into many courses, including financial accounting, management accounting, auditing, and business ethics, and students can discuss everything from corporate governance and accountability to internal reporting and controls, noted Atkins. She and other faculty offer the following tips for incorporating these topics into your courses:

  • Get up to speed. There's no shortage of materials to help faculty get started on teaching ESG and sustainability accounting. Peruse CGMA and AICPA resources and CIMA-sponsored research on the topic. Read academic papers, watch YouTube videos on the subject, or review any of the books or textbooks on the market, Atkins advised.
  • Make it relevant and real. Determine how sustainability is linked to what you are teaching. "It's really important to use examples that show how it is relevant to accounting and business," Adams said. Browse syllabuses from other accounting courses that teach sustainability (the 2019 CIMA Professional Qualification Syllabus covers the topic), show students videos that connect sustainability to accounting, or visit Adams's website, where she analyses new policy developments in this area.

In addition, she noted, give students examples of careers involving sustainability, such as consulting for one of the Big Four firms or auditing with an expertise in sustainability, that they can pursue after graduation. Students can also choose careers in management accounting, providing information to their companies' executive leaders so they can make intelligent decisions. "Management accountants should know how to do carbon accounting by product, project, and organisation, and environmental management accounting more broadly," Adams said.

  • Bring in guest speakers. "Reach out to practitioners who are confronted with ESG/sustainability accounting issues," said Sanlie Middelberg, FCMA, CGMA, Ph.D., a professor in the Management Accountancy programme at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa.
  • Be creative with assignments and activities. Students are generally enthused about sustainability, and assignments that pique their interest are not difficult to craft. For instance, you can ask students to review and analyse organisations’ sustainability reports and do an "in-depth analysis of their ESG disclosures as well as implications to the society and even themselves as stakeholders/customers", Ng said.

They can also compare how organisations portray their sustainability efforts in their own reports with how other sources, such as the media, NGOs [nongovernmental organisations], civil society organisations, and industry associations, portray them, Adams said. "Students can examine some of these sources to assess the level of accountability by corporate reporting,” she said.

Ask students to read articles or blogposts "on how accountants could make the world a better place", Ng advised. Students can also role-play, acting as business executives, shareholders, or stakeholders concerned about a company's sustainability policy, he added. They can take online quizzes on sustainability to inspire thinking, or compare how companies in the same sector, such as those in the energy, transportation, and construction industries report on sustainability and which are performing better. "Doing this kind of exercise, students can be better prepared for similar professional work in the real world,” he said.

Or use case studies such as these listed by the CFA Institute or the Principles for Responsible Investment. "Make use of case studies that can be utilised and discussed across courses," Middelberg said.


Ultimately, be diligent about helping students realise the difference accountants can make in this arena. Sustainability and ESG are “the agenda for saving the planet, as far as I'm concerned”, Atkins said. "Accounting is a very important transformational tool, which needs to be used for the betterment of society and the environment."

Read CIMA-sponsored research into sustainability issues.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the U.S. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at