The questions every employee, customer and investor could ask of all the companies they engage with

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It is only fair to give feedback on yesterday’s discussion of sustainable cost accounting, although as is commonplace on this blog, when I discuss an idea rather than current politics readership does go down.

I would stress that yesterday’s event was relatively small and undoubtedly self-selected to be interested in the subject. There was always going to be a bias towards welcoming the idea as a result.

Victor Anderson -who has a long history as an environmental economist - presented the first paper on whether it is possible to measure the value of natural capital, or not. I think it is fair to say that it was concluded that it is not, and even more strongly that it may not even be desirable to do so. That might only encourage its use, which is not just undesirable but simply contrary to all our interests now.

This then gave me my opening. In reaction to the idea of sustainable cost accounting it was first of all necessary for me to make clear that I was not seeking to value natural capital. Instead the idea seeks to evaluate the cost to a company of the necessary physical constraint that they do not abuse it. It was apparent that, overall, biodiversity may be too hard to cover with this idea at present and zero net carbon was the thing to focus on.

Having established that this was what I was seeking to measure I think it fair to say that three concerns arose. These were:

a) How to manage a transition;

b) How to win support from institutions who will need to embrace it;

c) How to build a mass narrative.

I might deal with them in reverse, as I think it will help. I would like to thank all those who helped shape some ideas so early in this process.

On the narrative, the aim is to empower questions. So, for employees, who should be rightly worried about the company they work for, the questions to their employers might be:

1) Can you make this company carbon neutral?

2) How long will it take?

3) How much will it cost?

4) Where is that money coming from?

5) When are you starting work?

6) How will you keep us informed?

If a campaign is meant to be capable of summary on a postcard, that is mine. Asking those questions could create the mass narrative. And the debate on how to do it. Suppose everyone in Extinction Rebellion asked those questions of their employer and the companies that they deal with now? That would create the pressure for change.

So how to get institutions behind this? First, politics follows people. That’s the golden rule. If people ask how companies can be made sustainable so will politicians, I have no doubt.

As for companies, the pressure on them comes from four directions. One is government. They may well be last to the show. When everyone else is asking, they will.

Employees I have already dealt with.

Consumers are next. They have to simply have to ask the same questions as employees. Except they could add this question 7:

7) Why should I shop with you if you won’t make these changes?

I suspect that might hit home.

And then investors are next. We already have the notion of stranded assets in the oil and gas sectors. Suppose this was extended to all sectors? What would the implications be? And don’t investors need to know? This is not a marginal issue. This is about going to the very core of where value might be now in companies. So I suggest that investors also have to ask questions. They could start with the six that employees might use, and add these:

7) How will you close down activities that cannot be made to be not zero carbon emitting?

8) What is the cost of doing so?

9) When will that cost hit the accounts?

10) What is the implication of all this on earnings?

I would suggest that institutional investors have a duty to ask those questions, now. And to act on them. If doing so isn’t a definition of fiduciary duty then I am not sure what is. This is because those investors need to know about the best use of their capital and the risks associated with it. These questions are meant to find answers to where that risk is.

Of course the questions may require nuance in some cases. But the importance of the questions that I propose is that they create an agenda which frames what this issue of sustainable cost accounting is about because it is the answer to the reporting question, of course.

So what of the transition? This blog is long enough. Let me deal with that elsewhere. As it has a technical theme the ideas have a different tone. I will link it as soon as it is written.

In the meantime, you could start sending questions to people.