Associate Professor Ki-hoon Lee is building a global network and knowledge base around environmental management accounting (EMA) and corporate sustainability practices, and he is an internationally recognised leader in this field.
As Chairman for the Environmental and Sustainability Management Accounting Network (EMAN) Asia Pacific, and Director of Research for the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation, Dr Lee has been researching, collaborating and organising conferences to increase the education and implementation of EMA practices and sustainability in business and professional bodies.
“I have been doing research on corporate sustainability management since 1996, I started with corporate environmental strategy and strategic management, then I expanded my applications into the environmental and sustainability management for accounting practices,” said Dr Lee.
“The environmental or carbon footprint is becoming very important for many investors and stakeholders. Many companies now publish sustainability reports and the Top 200 Australian companies on the ASX all publish sustainability reports.”
“But my question is first of all, how useful is EMA internally to support data collections and decision making processes about sustainability management? And why and to what extent do Australian companies and Sri Lankan companies adapt and implement EMA in their actual management practices,” asked Dr Lee?
In his latest completed project, Dr Lee was successful in securing funding from the UK’s peak body for management accountants, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), who are one of the world’s largest bodies of management accountants.
The project titled ‘An exploration of the implementation and usefulness of environmental management accounting: A comparative study between Australia and Sri Lanka’ has created a foundation for EMA knowledge and highlights how sustainability practices are being introduced commercially in each country.
“It took more than two years to get this project accepted and to get the funding. When I organised the EMAN Asia Pacific conference for the first time in 2013 at the Gold Coast, I applied for a conference support grant from CIMA London and fortunately I was awarded,” said Dr Lee.
“The relationship advanced when four managers from CIMA London office travelled to Australia to sponsor and attend the EMAN conference. They engaged with delegates on behalf of the Institute and their sponsorship was good enough to cover our costs for running the event.”
EMA tools have been evolving for over a decade to assist companies and organisations overcome the challenges with corporate sustainability management, and to improve operating efficiencies and environmental sustainability in business practices.
“The area of EMA is positioned between strategy and management accounting. Management accounting is a tool to support corporate decision makers with the internal management control,” said Dr Lee.
“As Toyota did with Prius, the first hybrid car in the world. For the initial five years, they could not make any money from Prius model, as consumers were not ready to buy it. But then luckily the Japanese government decided to purchase the first 5,000 units every year.”
“This motivated the developer (Toyota) to continue to produce Prius after the first five years. Following this period the developer was paid nicely for the car in Japan and US. Now Prius is well recognised as the green market leader and early mover champion.”
“When the CEO or leader can see the kind of market trends and that consumer preferences are changing, then they should consider what’s next in our 5-10 year strategic plan.”
Dr Lee’s report explains two EMA information systems — EMA can be regarded as the identification, collection, analysis and use of two types of information mainly for internal decision making: physical information (on the use, flows and destinies of energy, water and materials) and monetary information (on environment related costs, earnings and savings) (Burritt et al., 2002).
In essence, it is a decision support tool which facilitates the environmental management strategies of an organisation. Some EMA tools and techniques include; energy accounting, water management accounting, material and waste accounting (including material flow cost accounting), life cycle accounting, sustainable balanced scorecard, carbon management accounting and eco-control.
The study explains the main EMA subjects — Environmental management accounting is an emerging field. Together with traditional accounting, the use of EMA practices in environmental aspects such as carbon and energy is increasingly becoming mainstream practice in companies.
EMA goes further than just having an environmental management program in an organisation. It is about trying to reduce environmental impacts through central accounting and management systems that track, measure, monetise and reduce consumptions of resources and outputs such as energy, carbon and waste.
“The question for me is on the actual implementation of EMA tools and techniques by companies. What is the kind of status of actual EMA implementation, and what is the value of this application in business practices? And why and to what extent is EMA applications useful in corporate sustainability management practices?” asked Dr Lee.
“Another beauty of EMA is we can really demonstrate the physical value into monetary value. So for example a hundred tonnes of electricity for energy consumption, how much will it be in dollars? And what can you save with reductions or save in other areas, such as recycling, etc.”
In the study a comparison between EMA practices in Australian and Sri Lanka have uncovered some interesting differences between the countries, along with the key reasons why EMA is gaining popularity with management accountants in both countries.
In Australia 90% of the Top 200 ASX listed companies provided some level of reporting on sustainability factors, according to the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors and this supports Dr Lee’s research. Some of the reasons for this reporting are to enhance corporate reputation and to attract investors.
“For Australian companies managing risk is the key internal motivation, but at the same time, also cost reduction is the second most important internal motivation. The external driver pushing companies to implement EMA, is they really want to publish sustainability reports and attract more investors,” said Dr Lee.
“Most companies in Australia have already adopted sustainability management and reporting practices. Many companies feel they are already familiar with environmental and sustainability topics.”
“They also want to demonstrate how good they are in corporate sustainability management. They try to demonstrate they are very sound and a safe place to invest. And they are looking to attract more investment from national and international investor groups.”
Dr Lee’s study found — Energy and carbon accounting emerged as the most applied EMA practices in Australia and in Sri Lanka. Half of the Australian companies have been engaged in carbon accounting for more than five years compared to only 20 per cent of Sri Lankan companies. However, almost 50 per cent of Sri Lankan companies have begun to implement carbon accounting in the last five years, which can be attributed to the high energy costs that make up a large portion of the cost structure in Sri Lanka. A focus on energy efficiency is increasingly regarded as an opportunity for cost savings.
In Sri Lanka the research indicates a high number of professional management accountants compared to other countries and EMA leaders are using their expertise in environmental sustainability for market development opportunities, while others are advocating for EMA to be integrated into accounting systems. This is supported by a large CIMA membership base in Sri Lanka.
“Interestingly when I compare the findings from Australia to Sri Lanka, companies in Sri Lanka also take advantages from EMA practices to identify potential new markets. Sri Lanka is a small country and they are keen to export, and are looking for international business partners,” said Dr Lee.
“When I organised the EMAN conference in Sri Lanka in 2015, delegates discussed how they adapt and implement EMA in their business practices. But they don’t know how to enable this into accounting practices. They do carbon and energy management accounting and measurement but they don’t call it EMA. They simply used ‘energy management’ or something like that,” said Dr Lee.
In both countries, Dr Lee’s research has found there is a gap between management accountants having the strategic alignment to be able to implement EMA practices into core accounting functions and business strategies, while having an environmental management system in place.
“More or less there are some common issues in Australia and Sri Lanka, the main issue is they do collect environmental and sustainability data and information, but they do not really integrate this data into their actual core business functions or strategies,“ said Dr Lee.
“Organisations might be operating a project for carbon or waste management and have a system, but they don’t classify it as EMA due to a lack of awareness and education.”
EMA and sustainability practices in different industries have different challenges and Dr Lee’s research indicates the services sectors have an implementation advantage. Also involvement with long-term strategic planning and core accounting systems is advised for best practice outcomes.
“Compared to manufacturing the services sector naturally has an advantage, because there is not much business consumption issues. It’s relatively easier for them the highlight what they are doing with energy and carbon,” said Dr Lee.
“But in manufacturing sector, I understand there are some cost issues and ongoing challenges about the machinations and the contributions, etc. For me doing more on sustainability management is also about the time issue. You can’t really bring only short-term outcomes every year. Instead, companies should consider longer-term commitments and sustainability performance outcomes. ”
“If you are concerned about sustainability management issues then you have to invest longer term. This means an integrated systems approach is embedded into the organisation working as a system. So no matter what happens, e.g. we have a new CEO or boss, the system is still operating.”
In many companies and organisations one of the issues identified by this research is that EMA is outside the mainstream accounting functions, and external to normal role accountabilities and positioned away from standard financial processes.
“What I can say from my study is there are many managers and practitioners well aware of sustainability management practices, but they are very much on separated tasks to the mainstream business management functions,” said Dr Lee.
“For example who is going to collect environmental management data or sustainability performance data? Will the verification safety manager, or the sustainability manager or a peer manager do it? The sustainability issues are isolated from the mainstream business functions.”
“So people are aware, we know about sustainability management practices in our company, but they don’t want to link more importantly to central business systems.”
Over the horizon, Dr Lee would like to develop an executive educational course for chief sustainability officers, executives and managers in sustainability departments, management accountants and controllers, professional accounting bodies and people working in the Environmental Protection Agencies, and develop further quantitative research on EMA and sustainability practices in Asia Pacific countries.
“We are trying to demonstrate if you do more in sustainability management, you can save costs and increase efficiencies. I am trying to convince business leaders, why don’t you take this opportunity to save more costs, increase your profitability’s and enhance your reputation. You can really demonstrate this using EMA and sustainability management practices,” said Dr Lee.
“I think it’s a mixed picture with the EMA outcomes. One of the common internal barriers is organisations need more experts having the knowledge about EMA. One of the missing points is they are aware of the EMA tools and practices, but they don’t have the actual knowledge how to use it. So they need more education and trained accountants or finance staff who can implement EMA.”
In Sri Lanka formal sustainability education for management accountants in university has commenced partly due to the assistance and information provided by Dr Lee, and hopefully Australia will be able to provide this education in the near future.
“A positive outcome from the EMAN conference in 2015 is a group of academics from one of the oldest universities, the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, in Nugegoda Western Province Sri Lanka, engaged with me to develop EMA education,” said Dr Lee.
“Once they attended the conference in 2015. They learned about EMA and kept asking how we can introduce environmental and sustainable accounting in our curriculum. So I shared my materials and experiences and now they have established an accounting course in the area of sustainability, that is popular with students.”
“Many companies now are talking about their positive outcomes with sustainability, but the question is maybe more than half of them are under the lip service (or green washing) category,” said Dr Lee.
To learn more about Dr Lee’s EMA research and sustainability practices or for educational materials please contact Associate Professor Ki-hoon Lee.