Why Sustainability Needs Environmental Footprint Accountants

By Cassandra Robillard | Editorial, Sustainable Living, Urban Design

Growing up, I always told my mother she was crazy for wanting to be an accountant. But recently it seems that my joint passions for sustainable living and scientific precision may force me to eat my words.

According to research done by the Global Footprint Network, the world’s human population currently uses 50% more resources every year than the planet can replenish in that time. “Footprint” refers to the impact our consumption and waste has on the environment. And while our environmental footprint has been growing, our awareness of it is growing much more slowly.My Footprint

Yearly world resource consumption. Source: Global Footprint Network.

Global footprint through time, presented as the number of earths worth of yearly resources. Image via Global Footprint Network.

As our environmental footprint slowly gains public attention, the “greenness” of our actions also becomes something marketable, and these days it can be difficult to differentiate real sustainable solutions from trendy “green” products. Will buying a company’s energy-efficient lightbulb reduce your electricity use more than if you had simply remembered to turn off the lights? Does my new vegetarian diet make up for the fact that I just let two packages of spinach go spoiled in my fridge? The answer may not always be obvious.

As a scientist, I find nothing more convincing than seeing the numbers. While anecdotes and sound-bites are easy to absorb and communicate to a broad audience, the devil is, as always, in the details.

But you don’t need to be a scientist to understand the importance of quantifying our environmental footprint. The numbers on our bank statements help us make wise spending decisions. The numbers on our environmental impacts will help us make sustainable consumption decisions. And just like our bank statements, those numbers will often be in the red.

My personal ecological footprint. Source: Global Footprint Network, Oct. 9, 2014.

My personal ecological footprint. Image via Global Footprint Network, Oct. 9, 2014.

I went in to conservation biology because I wanted to be on the front lines of saving the world. But the further I explore the world of academic science, the more clear it becomes: the barrier to action is not that we don’t know enough about our impacts on the environment; it’s that we don’t know how to reconcile our environmental values with our desire for comfort and prosperity. We want to get out of debt—but we don’t want to go broke doing it.

Measuring and comparing the environmental impacts of our actions, in tandem with the goals they are meant to accomplish, is an essential first step toward finding a sustainable balance. Your accountant or financial analyst helps you be financially savvy. Now it seems as though I’m crazy enough to join the growing number of people working to help you balance your environmental books.

Sorry Mom, I guess I was wrong.



About The Author

Cassandra Robillard
is a Master’s candidate in Biology and Environmental Sustainability at the University of Ottawa. In order to make effective changes to live and work more sustainably, we need to be able to accurately measure and compare the impacts we have on our environment. Cassandra’s passion lies in ensuring that the footprint of our actions is not only measured, but also communicated in a way that leads to educated sustainable choices. Follow her as she makes the natural (pardon the pun) transition from conservation research to footprint analysis and sustainability communication.