On May 6 in New York City, what I believe will be viewed as an historic event was held by the Foundation for Accounting Education (FAE) and the Hedge Fund Roundtable—the First Annual Sustainability Investment Leadership Conference.
The world’s foremost thought leaders on sustainable corporate governance practices traveled from across the globe—some from as far as South Africa and Australia—to introduce and stress the importance of corporate sustainability to the American business community. As a 119-year-old organization, founded by the nation’s very first CPA licensees, the NYSSCPA has a long history of this type of leadership in the accounting profession. Hosting the first sustainability conference here in New York is a continuation of that tradition. When it comes to the financial sector, all eyes look to New York. And while New York is a leader in sustainability, the United States as a whole is in many ways behind our European counterparts. We know this needs to change, and in order for that to happen, this endeavor needs support.
The Power of CPAs
As Jane Gleeson-White, one of the conference’s speakers, argues in her book, Six Capitals, or Can Accountants Save the Planet?, the community that can best provide that support was represented on May 6. Accountants often underestimate their value, but they also underestimate their power. Gleeson-White understands the unique power and insight that CPAs have, the conference attendees understand it, and so have others in our profession’s history.
The following was written many years ago by Robert H. Montgomery, cofounder of what became PricewaterhouseCoopers. It appeared as the foreword to Edward Peragallo’s Origin and Evolution of Double Entry Bookkeeping in 1938 and has proven uncannily prescient. Upon reading it, one might think he wrote these words for the very occasion of this conference:
Accounting is the language of finance—a universal language. It is concerned not with eternal verities but with the data immediately before it. These data are not precisely measureable with the rule, the scales or any instrument yet devised by man. They can be measured only to the extent that human nature can be measured, for the value of every item in financial accounts is contingent upon a varying and elusive human factor. Accounting statements and reports are necessarily the expressions of opinion, and no better than the ability and judgment of the accountants who prepare them.
Accounting methods which have endured are those which have met the test of the pragmatists—how well do they serve the given purpose? Accounting has but one purpose, to set forth the results of business operations accurately and truthfully. It draws upon the resources of many sciences but remains an art, varying in effectiveness with the knowledge and skill of the practitioner—this is the lesson of history.
And this from our own past president, Prior Sinclair, who wrote the following in 1947, upon the 50th anniversary of the New York State Society:
In this world of changes, new tasks confront us at all times, new fields of service are presented, new uses and adaptations are found for the skills that are in us. We must ever be in a state of preparedness armed with ever increasing understanding and judgment, filled with the lore of the science of our profession, and must become more practiced and perfect in the art of its application. Only thus can we retain the public recognition and esteem earned in past years and be worthy of public faith in the future.
I would like to restate, as I did at the conference, the NYSSCPA’s commitment to increasing the understanding within our community of what will become a burgeoning field of practice for the profession in the United States—and one that, indeed, might just save the world. This issue of The CPA Journal is dedicated to the topic of corporate sustainability. The words of the panelists and discussion leaders at our conference represent a first step on a journey that can bring together a broad community that will ultimately change the way we do business. Enjoy.