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Counting the cost – pioneer of environmental accounting recognised

23 November 2021

University of Canterbury 2021 Research Medal winner, UC Business School Professor Markus Milne, began researching ways to account for the social and environmental impacts of business some 30 years ago, when the field was very new.


UC Business School Professor Markus Milne is a winner of the University of Canterbury 2021 Research Medal for his work investigating the social and environmental impacts of business.

He is known today as an international pioneer of social and environmental accounting (SEA). SEA uses various methods to measure the impacts of organisations’ resource use and social and environmental consequences, alongside economic benefits. 

“I don’t think anybody in the late 1980s envisaged how corporate practice might develop towards environmental accountability,” he says. “It was even thought to be a fad. While reporting frameworks have emerged, questions remain over the level of genuine accountability they deliver.”

As awareness of climate change and human impacts on our planet’s ecosystems increases, particularly in the wake of the United Nation’s COP26 conference, the importance of Professor Milne’s work has gained recognition internationally.

He arrived in Dunedin from Lancaster in 1988 and met visiting Professor David Owen, co-author of a new book Corporate Social Reporting: Accounting and Accountability. “I realised I could take the kinship I felt for nature, animals, and wilderness and align it with my professional world,” he says.  

The late Emeritus Professor Rob Gray, from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, was his other influential mentor. He encouraged Professor Milne to write his first academic article for a special “green accounting” issue of a journal he was editing.

Professor Milne’s research output since then spans over 100 academic journal articles, professional and community contributions, book chapters and guest editing for special theme journal issues – making Professor Milne Aotearoa New Zealand’s most cited accounting academic.  

He has been awarded an impressive three Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund grants worth $1.6m.

University of Canterbury Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research Professor Ian Wright says Professor Milne’s research has consistently highlighted the importance of sustainability in the business world.

“Professor Milne walks the talk. He takes his business sustainability students on a field trip to connect with Canterbury’s incredible natural environment and gives them a real sense of the need for businesspeople to have a social and environmental conscience.”

Tramping and climbing in nature has indeed been a motivating force for Professor Milne over the years.

“Apart from an obvious adoration and awe for the natural world that builds from immersing yourself in it for days, I think the thing you most learn from multi-day tramping trips is that you must take everything you need and nothing you don’t. It disciplines your thoughts and behaviours about pure essentials, and how you can be happy and fulfilled with very few possessions,” he says.

“I think that frugality and simplicity spills over into everyday living and that is essential for humanity to behave sustainably. It teaches you humility. At times, the consequences for survival of not fitting in on nature’s terms are all too grim and obvious. That is a lesson as a species we seem reluctant to learn.”

Now nearing the end of his career, Professor Milne is unapologetic in speaking out about the need for businesses to be more authentic, transparent and accountable in measuring their carbon emissions and their environmental and social costs.

“We somehow need to transform to a post-consumptive, post-materialist existence,” he says.

“In Western democracies like Aotearoa New Zealand, we operate with a light-handed regulatory touch, and that certainly reduces compliance costs and other frictions on business, but it also extends latitudes that require considerable trust. I think business needs to embrace a genuine accountability ethic.”

Covid modellers dual winners

University of Canterbury Maths and Statistics Associate Professor Alex James and Professor Michael Plank, who used their expertise to create a series of mathematical models informing the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, were dual winners of the 2021 UC Research Medal alongside Professor Milne.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Rua Murray won the University of Canterbury Teaching Medal. The UC Medal winners, along with recipients of the UC Teaching Awards, and Early and Emerging Career Awards, will be presented with their awards at Pō Whakamānawa, a ceremony celebrating excellence, on Wednesday, 24 November.

Find out more

Listen to Professor Milne:

Read Professor Milne’s Conversation article explaining the triple bottom line here.

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