Susan McLaughlin registered for environmental accounting during her MBA coursework at the University of Texas in Austin in 1994 to tie together her business and environmental interests. The two proved more compatible than she thought.
The class, offered by the UT Natural Resources and Environmental Management Department, teaches MBA students to approach problems like pollution prevention from a business standpoint, McLaughlin explains. "You learn to think about environmental issues in financial terms. Someone who wants to effect change needs to understand how businesses consider these things, from pricing to investment analyses, to design and so on," she says.
Today McLaughlin co-manages the EPA's Environmental Accounting Program, teaching employers to integrate environmental costs into strategic decision-making. Not everyone can turn environmental accounting into a new career like McLaughlin, but the knowledge could help boost the career you already have.
Chris Stinson, Ph.D., who teaches the UT course, explained environmental accounting to a roomful of industrial hygienists at a professional conference earlier this year: "From the perspective of the CEO, EHS costs is money that could have been better spent. But we find that by spending money to improve an asset, like repairing environmental contamination, companies get a positive market response."
Stinson's course helps people like environmental health and safety professionals, accountants, and management consultants understand and talk about environmental issues in a language that gets the CEO's attention. Says Stinson: "So many people in health and safety say they don't know how to show their value." Environmental accounting gives them the tools.
Management consultant Jim Campobello, another of Stinson's former students, says his science and engineering training and 20 years of petrochemical industry experience hadn't equipped him for dealing with environmental issues as business issues. "I saw environmentally driven costs as a subset of other costs," he says. The class taught him how to "take the range of environmental impacts and put them in a purely business context to make decisions," he says.
"Typically companies don't consider environmental issues to be within their purview to control like other uncertainties. But with this class you become able to treat these the same as other unknowns."
Accountant Steve Chase with KPMG Peat Marwick in Dallas applies what he learned in the UT Environmental Accounting course to evaluate his clients' environmental health and safety functions. Chase sums up the classic EHS dilemma: "If the company asks, 'What value are we getting from you?,' and all you can say is 'I'm keeping you out of jail,' they're not going to see you as value-added."
By making yourself more knowledgeable and becoming fluent in their language, you can show the value added from your own work, says Chase.