World Environment Day: 5 tips for a greener, sustainable accountancy practice

Even basic changes can make a dramatic difference to your business' environmental impact. In this article we discuss five easy wins that can help move you towards a net zero target.

Keir Thomas-Bryant
Keir Thomas-Bryant

Sunday 5 June 2022 is World Environment Day.

Organised by the UN Environment Programme, World Environment Day “calls for collective, transformative action on a global scale to celebrate, protect and restore our planet.” Environmental issues need input from all of us.

For accountancy practices, it’s one more area where they can not only do their bit, but take the lead and provide a paradigm for their clients to follow. If nothing else, environmental and sustainability goals are marketable in today’s business world. Clients prefer to work with practices that reflect their values.

So, what are you already doing—and what could you be doing? In this article we provide some accountant-focussed tips.

The subjects covered include:

1. Ditch the paperwork

2. Maintain and repair, rather than buy new

3. Switch to apps and software

4. Avoid driving with virtual meetings and onboarding

5. Fix-up your office and working practices

1. Ditch the paperwork

There’s at least two approaches any environmental policy must follow. The first is to look at limiting resources use. The second is to limit energy use.

The two are, of course, interlinked. It takes energy to produce resources.

Ideally every practice should evaluate its resource usage. But the reality is that—outside of fuel for travel—there’s one big resource accountants continue to consume. Paper.

The UK’s paper manufacturing industry alone was responsible for 2.23 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

Digging down into details, £150 million is spent on envelopes in the UK each year, according to the Office for National Statistics. Around £53 million is spent on business forms, and £36 million is spent on notebooks.

Don’t think that using paper with the goal of recycling it is environmentally-friendly. It might be better for deforestation but it means two amounts of carbon dioxide are produced during manufacture. Two lots of nasty chemicals, such as the bleaches required to get rid of ink and make paper white, are also released into the environment.

Reducing paperwork isn’t rocket science in our day and age. Try the following:

1. Audit your paper use: Take the message around paper usage out to staff members: Ask them to make private recycling bins, perhaps collected in waste bags attached to their desk. At the end of the week, whose bag is the fullest? How can they adapt their working processes to reduce this waste?

2. Limit access to printing: Research shows 20% of print outs are never even collected from the printer. You don’t have to actually turn the printer off. But if a printer is in a separate room, even password protected, or linked to a given account that audits total usage, colleagues might think twice before making a hard copy of every document. Some people print things like emails out of habit. How can this be prevented?

3. Get rid of stationery. This sounds radical but it’s not uncommon and it really works. Just stop buying notepads, pens, and other items. Instead, train your staff how to use digital notetaking apps and cloud storage. We explain more about this below.

2. Maintain and repair, rather than buy new

While the history of personal computing is that technology gets better every year, that came grinding to a stop a few years ago. Moore’s Law is dead, in that chip densities are no longer doubling every year to make computers more powerful.

Yes, we’re still at a point now where brand new computers might be more powerful. But that doesn’t mean anything for most of us doing tasks typically undertaken by accountancy practices (okay, so perhaps with the exception of giant, complex spreadsheets).

For most tasks, any computer from the past five years will do just fine.

Rather than have a policy of buying new computers periodically, why not aim to maintain and repair what you already have? You might speak to local computer repair shops to setup a contract, whereby any repairs are done for a set fee or retainer.

Many older computers or laptops can be inexpensively upgraded with solid state disks and more RAM. This makes them super-speedy and provides a whole new lease of life.

3. Switch to apps and software

Switching as much as possible to digital and automated working practices is the basic way forward for any accountancy practice. It has been for decades.

And it happens to be one of the most environmentally-friendly ways of working, too.

While accountants have always battled against the last vestiges of paper in the form of printed receipts, invoices and bills, nowadays apps like AutoEntry can grab the data from a digital photo or scanned copy of these. It can then flow it into the client’s accounting software. If you request bills, invoices or purchase orders via PDF or email then there never need be a scrap of paper consumed.

And it’s not just headline efficiencies like this that can be undertaken.

Taking notes in meetings is important, of course. But you or your staff don’t have to fill jotters to capture the information. The likes of Microsoft OneNote, EverNote and GoodNotes are as good if not better than notebooks—and they create shareable, online documents for all meeting attendees. If nothing else, the highlights, details and dates of meetings will forever be easier to find.

4. Avoid driving via virtual meetings and onboarding

After paper, the resource that accountants traditionally consume most in their work is probably vehicle fuel. The bulk of this is driving to and from client premises for one-to-one meetings to provide a personal touch for tasks such as onboarding, or sales.

The solution is obvious: virtual meetings via Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Even just a few years ago, suggesting such a policy would be unthinkable. Clients wouldn’t have understood what you were talking about, and it would’ve sounded impersonal to even ask.

But the pandemic has changed all that. Nowadays we all have Zoom installed on our computers and phones, and we’re very comfortable sitting in front of them for one-to-one meetings.

And why not? Saving fuel also saves money, which is especially useful at times of record high fuel prices.

5. Fix-up your office and working practices

Where are most of the UK’s small accountancy practices located?

Some are based in purpose-built office blocks. Some are run from people’s homes.

But a lot are either high street shop fronts, or are located above such premises. These are not the most environmentally-friendly establishments, often having been built in the Victorian or Edwardian periods.

Yet there’s still lots that can be done. Most of us already know about this from the things we’ve already done in our homes: energy-efficient LED light bulbs, lagging the roof space, installing double glazing and cavity wall insulation, using smart meters to closely monitor energy usage, and a heat pump instead of gas-fired central heating.

Obviously, encouraging home working policies for staff can also help—a hybrid pattern of two or three days of home working each week will cut energy usage in an office by 40-60%.

Don’t forget to consult your local authority to see if any funding is available.

But it might be that the whole paradigm of the high-street accountancy practice needs to be re-evaluated in light of fallout from the pandemic, not to mention ever-increasing rents/rates, growing acceptance of digitisation, and a shift to hybrid working patterns.

AutoEntry - good for your business... And the planet

AutoEntry helps businesses become more efficient and cost-effective and less paper-dependent. It’s ideal in the move to digitisation demanded not just by environmental policies but also Making Tax Digital. Find out how it can make your working life easier with a free trial.

Conclusion: Being a better practice

While there’s some great ideas in this article, as an accountant you know there’s one more step to make it all perfect: auditing what you do.

If something doesn’t provide savings then it’s questionable if you should even continue to do it, because typically the savings directly equate to the environmental savings (using less gas to heat an office, for example, or purchasing less printer paper).

Whatever changes are imposed should come with accompanying key performance indicators that can be evaluated after three, six and twelve months. Somebody should take ownership of the plan and adjust as necessary.

Finally, don’t forget that your actions have collateral value in that you can market them. Mention what you’re doing on social media, and discuss why. Making renewed environmental efforts is simply one of the best PR tools. Once you’ve achieved the desired measurable results, share those too.

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