Measuring and reporting externalities Let’s now consider measuring and reporting externalities in…

Measuring and reporting externalities Let’s now consider measuring and reporting externalities in greater detail. Are externalities typically measured and reported by an organisation? Historically, most externalities created by organisations have been ignored, and that is why, at least in part, our natural environment is so degraded. For many years, the impacts of industry on waterways, natural habitats, the air and so forth have not been factored into the prices we pay for goods and services.

This has meant that a great deal of damage occurred for years that was relatively unabated. But things are changing (although many people argue that the change is not occurring fast enough). While most of our discussion so far has been about negative externalities (costs), externalities can also be viewed as positive (benefits). An example of a positive externality might be the benefits to the environment from a zoo releasing endangered animals that have been bred in captivity. Should externalities be measured and reported by an organisation? If the externalities are deemed to be significant, then they should be reported by an organisation, as stakeholders reasonably have a right to know about potentially significant impacts. Managers also need to collect the information in order to enable them to manage the impacts of the organisation. For example, people impacted by the disaster at the Deepwater Horizon rig –these would include employees and their families, investors, local communities, fishing people, and environmental groups – all had a right to information. How should externalities be reported? This will not always be straightforward, as the full extent of impacts and the assignment of costs are complicated. It is not necessary to quantify the effects of externalities in monetary terms – describing the externalities in qualitative terms is sometimes the best and most appropriate approach. For example, in relation to a massive ocean oil spill, an organisation’s account of this disaster might include information about the amount of oil spilled, a description of the actions being taken to minimise the impacts of the spill, details of the amount of money being spent on those actions, the actual and expected impacts on vegetation and wildlife, and the impacts upon local communities.

Is the disclosure of information about externalities part of the role of an accountant? Absolutely! Coming up with appropriate disclosures about the impacts created – both positive and negative – by an organisation is not always a straightforward exercise, but this only helps make accounting a very interesting and important practice! If managers accept responsibility for the social and environmental impacts of their organisation, then any related information should be disclosed.

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