Board oversight of sustainability and ESG

Laura Leka

Laura Leka, Principal at the International Federation of Accountants’ (IFAC) thought leadership team, on how boards today are effectively discharging their responsibility for sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) oversight

The board of directors are ultimately accountable for the long-term success of an organization, and it is important as part of modern corporate governance to embed sustainability and ESG into decision-making and long-term growth strategies. Therefore, companies on a sustainability transformation journey need strong board leadership and members with adequate sustainability literacy.

How boards discharge responsibilities for sustainability and ESG oversight varies widely depending on the company, the industry, and the jurisdiction. With most boards around the world having at least one professional accountant board member, there is an enormous opportunity for the accounting profession to influence sustainable governance practices in boardrooms. An important responsibility for professional accounting organizations is supporting their members serving on boards to stay up to date with relevant developments in sustainability and ESG.

To explore current practices for overseeing ESG, IFAC’s Professional Accountants in Business (PAIB) Advisory Group was recently joined by a panel of experienced board directors, Nancy Tse, Deputy Chair of the PAIB Advisory Group and an experienced board director herself, moderated the discussion between panellists, who included: Nicholas Allen, Independent Non-Executive Director, CLP Holdings Limited, and Chairman of Link REIT; Susan Angele, Senior Advisor, KPMG Board Leadership Centre; and Alan Johnson, Outgoing IFAC President, and Non-Executive Director at Imperial Brands plc, William Grant & Sons Ltd., and DS Smith plc. Some key learnings from the discussion include the following:

Incorporating sustainability and ESG into purpose and strategy is not a separate exercise

For a purpose-driven organization, its purpose and strategy are fundamentally based on doing the right thing for society and various stakeholders. With this premise, embedding sustainability and ESG is not done in isolation; it is a core part of how an organization responds to challenges, risks, and opportunities affecting value creation in the context of the needs and expectations of stakeholders, and in line with planetary boundaries. Sustainability and ESG affect all organizations of all sizes and across all industries and sectors, including the public sector, and accountants serving as board directors are at the centre of sustainability discussions.

Aligning sustainability and ESG priorities throughout the organization can be a challenge

A key challenge for boards is ensuring a common understanding of, and alignment on, sustainability and ESG priorities throughout the organization. Chief financial officers and finance functions have an important role to play in supporting the board by helping to break down organizational siloes and foster an integrated mindset to think, measure, manage and report in a more integrated manner.

Boards are focusing on the key metrics and KPIs

Companies are using various standards, reporting frameworks and metrics to measure and report on sustainability, but this can often result in much complexity. In the board’s strategic capacity, using sustainability or ESG as a lens to think about strategy, risk and opportunity can help them to identify the five or six metrics that will focus their attention on key strategic issues making a real impact and that will align performance to sustainability targets and goals.

Many targets are longer-term. Therefore, it is important when setting targets to work backwards in shorter periods to effectively monitor goals over time against set milestones.

Ensuring an appropriate oversight structure

Individual companies decide (within any legal mandated requirements) the most appropriate board structure, the committees needed, and if and when the board delegates responsibilities to its sub-committees. Companies are increasingly evolving their committee structures and mandates to ensure effective oversight of ESG and sustainability. Approaches include the establishment of a dedicated sustainability committee or the incorporation of sustainability across the mandates of existing committees.

The most appropriate committee structure will depend on factors, such as the jurisdictional legal requirements and corporate governance codes; size and structure of the company; and complexity of sustainability and ESG risks in a particular industry.

Regardless of structure, boards must ensure minimal overlap or fragmentation of duties, while at the same time maintaining connectivity between committee agendas where relevant. They must ensure that the board is fully engaged in topics of importance. Having board members serve across more than one committee can be an effective way of achieving this.

Audit committees have an expanding role

Audit committees have an existing mandate to oversee high quality financial reporting and internal and external audit, and as such are well placed to expand on this by providing oversight of mandatory sustainability/ESG disclosures and related systems and internal controls; ensuring the financial impacts of material climate-related risks have been considered and, where appropriate, are reflected in the audited financial statements; ensuring the consistency of sustainability/ESG disclosures across general purpose financial reporting and other public disclosures; and overseeing sustainability/ESG assurance, including internal audit activities, as well as the appointment of external auditors and ESG assurance providers.

Board members must be well-versed in ESG matters

Many professional accountants serve on boards and must have adequate knowledge, awareness and literacy in the ESG issues relevant to the company and its industry. Although subject matter experts and advisors can be brought in where necessary, board members cannot be entirely reliant on outside expertise. Board members are responsible for ensuring they keep up to date with emerging issues and continually learn new areas relevant to their organization and industry.

This article originally appeared on the IFAC Knowledge Gateway. Copyright © 2022 by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). All rights reserved. Used with permission of IFAC.

Add to Bookmark
Text size
Related Articles
Accounting profession
April 2024
A Plus talks to Institute members in five specialized areas, highlighting a diverse range of career opportunities
Carbon market
January 1970
Hendrik Rosenthal, Director – Group Sustainability at CLP Holdings Limited, on the importance of new rules that define high-integrity in carbon markets
BCG & ESG Awards
January 2024
Key highlights based on the awardees of the Institute’s business awards which celebrate achievements in corporate governance and ESG
January 2024
Key considerations for smaller enterprises amid companies gearing up for the ISSB standards
January 2024
How can accountants support transition finance and planning for businesses?


We use cookies to give you the best experience of our website. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to the use of cookies for analytics and personalized content. To learn more, visit our privacy policy page. View more
Accept All Cookies