A career in ESG: Aligning passion, values, and CPA

By Leah Giesbrecht
Feb 7, 2024
A career in ESG: Aligning passion, values, and CPA
Photo credit: Bobo Zhao Photography

In this podcast episode, Brendon Dawson, CPA, a manager of sustainability and climate change at PwC in Vancouver, speaks with Leah Giesbrecht, a communications specialist at CPABC. Part of our Coffee Chats with CPABC podcast series.

From integrating sustainability to create long-term value, to measuring a company’s impact on biodiversity, to reporting on income equality, for CPAs who are passionate about business - and the environmental, social, and governance systems that support it - a career in ESG allows them to align their passion, values, and accounting expertise. Someone who knows all about this is Brendon Dawson, CPA, a manager of sustainability and climate change at PwC in Vancouver, who chatted with us about his career evolution, key challenges in ESG, and practical advice for CPAs considering a career in this space.

How does your work drive progress in ESG?

Brendon: My specialty is in the supply chain space. I help companies to map out their supply chain and to understand how they use resources to either build their products or deliver their services and the ESG risks around those resources. I also help companies understand how to reduce the risks to themselves, their stakeholders, and the folks who assemble and build their products and services upstream. I consider myself a bit of a translator, one who's able to understand and convey the financial impact of different decisions and how data is collected and processed through an information system.

All photos courtesy of Bobo Zhao Photography

Tell us about an impactful ESG initiative you're working on?

Brendon: I work with a consumer products company that uses a large amount of pulp and paper products in their supply chain that they source from across the world. They want confidence that those products are sourced sustainably, don't contribute to deforestation, and are used in a manner that's consistent with their public reporting and their public commitments to zero deforestation. We provide assurance over their supplier network to ensure that different risks pertaining to deforestation are managed and that they have a clear line of sight into the actions of all their suppliers, as well as their suppliers’ suppliers.

I find it very meaningful both professionally and personally to be able to play a small role in protecting some of the world's forests, as I’m someone who derives a lot of personal gratification and relaxation from being in nature.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in ESG?

Brendon: My career path was a natural progression of being curious, finding opportunities that aligned with my values, and being open to new opportunities. To be honest, I'm not sure if I knew what ESG was when I started my career. I started off studying economics, then pursued opportunities in Europe and China. When I returned to Canada, I worked in the BC legislature, then at Vancity as an executive assistant. This was a formative experience. Vancity’s core mission is to create positive community impact while still being a profitable financial organization and I saw this in action. I realized that business can not only be profitable, but also contribute positively to the community.

Ultimately, I knew I wanted to build a skill set that allowed me to open doors. I had taken a few accounting classes at university and decided to go in that direction. I was hired by PwC in 2017 in the core assurance practice, doing both financial and non-financial assurance and I obtained my CPA designation in 2020.

Is there a key challenge that you encounter in the ESG space?

Brendon: As ESG regulators and governments evolve their goals toward managing and combating climate change, businesses are being asked with significantly more scrutiny to manage resources and information that they may not have done in the past. The scope of information is significantly larger, as is the integration of information with financial outcomes, including for greenhouse gases, water, land use, communities, and others. Suddenly, we're in the position of having to design information management systems for these things.

The key challenge pertains to data - taking information from a business, client, or entity about their impacts on non-financial items and translating that into financial impacts. CPAs are well-suited for this because financial accounting is robust, systematic, and thoughtful in how it approaches different issues and sets standards and measurement requirements. That rigor positions accountants to contribute meaningfully and lead in this new world of doing business.

Any developments that are top of mind when it comes to ESG reporting?

Brendon: In the immediate term, Canadian companies should follow reporting requirements that they'll soon have to disclose under. Notably, the European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) requires businesses to publish their first report in their 2025 fiscal year. The state of California is also coming out with its own climate disclosure rules, including the California Voluntary Carbon Market Disclosures Bill, AB 1305, which came into effect January 1, 2024. And then, of course, we have our own regulators in Canada who are committing to releasing disclosure rules in 2024.

For a sense of where ESG reporting is at in Canada, PwC recently published ESG Reporting Insights, which reviews the current state of ESG disclosures of Canada's top 250 companies.

What’s your advice for CPAs considering a career in ESG?

Brendon: Do an inventory of your skills. The ability to turn insights from other parts of the business and understand their financial implications is important. Look for opportunities to work with folks from all over the professional landscape like engineers and scientists of various fields because you will learn so much from them.

Become familiar with the standards. See what the International Sustainability Standards Board is doing. See what the CSRD requires of organizations doing business with Europe. Build out that vocabulary and skill.

Think about your passions. What interests you? Is it water? Greenhouse gas emissions? Land? Forests? Read about your interests and become specialized in a particular resource system and learn the vocabulary around it. Talk to professionals working in that space. Build that network.

Finally, when you’re choosing a place to work, look for an organization that's committed to transforming (for example, through decarbonizing its operations) not only with words but with dollars. That's probably an exciting place to be.

Closing thoughts on how CPAs are poised to contribute in this space?

Brendon: Our profession is so well-positioned to contribute to ESG in a meaningful way. We have the core skills that allow us to collect and process information accurately and completely and report it in a high-quality, systematic way. And that's exactly what investors, governments, and stakeholders are looking for.

Quickfire Questions

What do you like to do for fun?

Brendon: I love to go outside. I like to exercise. I like to bake and cook and read.

Any favorite hiking trails?

Brendon: I grew up on Vancouver Island, so I love going to Strathcona Park. I have lots of fond memories there throughout my life and I try to go there each summer and do a hike.

Do you have a favorite book?

Brendon: One I recently read is How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil. Another is Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jędrowski.

What are your hacks for finding work-life balance?

Brendon: Realizing the time of day when I’m most productive and limiting work to those hours, then for the rest of the day, focusing on things that give me energy to allow me to recharge.

Favorite music to listen to when you need to get motivated or inspired?

Brendon: I listen to music to focus - usually trance and other electronic music. To find inspiration or motivation, I like to get that from my relationships, friendships, family, and through reading.

Leah Giesbrecht is a communications specialist at CPABC.

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