Charles Cho is shifting how we count costs 

By Dawn Wiseman

In his recent book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (Penguin Press, 2008), Columbia University Professor and UN Special Adviser Jeffrey D. Sachs speaks of “externalities”; social and environmental costs which fall outside the profit/loss calculations of governments, businesses and individuals.

For example, the higher initial price tag of incorporating geothermal heating into new buildings, and subsequent higher mortgage payments, can dissuade people from using this alternate energy source, even though it reduces the production of greenhouse gases and results in long term energy savings.

Sachs argues that we will have to collectively shift the way we count costs in order to ensure our ongoing prosperity and well-being.

Charles Cho (Accountancy) and a small (but growing) number of accountants world-wide are trying to do just that.

As he explained, “Social and Environmental Accounting (SEA) is the process of communicating the social and environmental information and activities of an organization to its various stakeholders,” and bringing externalities to bear on the bottom line.

The field has existed for about 30 years, and been based largely in Europe and Australia, although recently, its reach has extended in other parts of the globe. Cho explained it remains predominantly an academic endeavour. “The issue has been (and still is) to link our research to practice, and get managers and executives interested and, more importantly, committed,” to adopting SEA in their business practices.

Cho was introduced to SEA early in his PhD at the University of Central Florida by his supervisor, Robin Roberts and Den Patten (from Illinois State University), two of the leaders in the field. “I ended up doing my PhD thesis on SEA,” he said.

When he arrived at Concordia in 2007, Cho very much wanted to highlight SEA practice and research within his department.

For the last 20 years, the Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting Research (CSEAR) at the University of St. Andrew’s (Scotland), has hosted the CSEAR Summer School, a relatively small, informal and intense gathering where researchers and industry professionals discuss and debate current issues associated with social, environmental and sustainability accounting and accountability.

CSEAR Summer Schools had been hosted in other countries, but never in the Americas.

Cho feels, “ we need to move towards fostering this type of accounting research in the North American continent,” and so from July 7 to 9 this past summer he brought CSEAR to North America for the first time.

More than 50 specialists from 11 different countries attended the 3-day event, the highlight of which was a plenary address by Rob Gray, Founding Director of CSEAR.

Cho underlined that one of the Summer School’s strengths is its small size, “With a limited number of people, it creates the opportunity to engage in multiple conversations and meaningful discussions.”

The event was such a success, that he hopes it becomes a biannual affair, perhaps alternating between Concordia and the University of Central Florida.
With his hosting duties complete for the moment, Cho spent last week at the UK CSEAR Summer School, the “mother” conference.

“This was be my fourth attendance since 2005. I have always presented a paper because this is where the feedback is the greatest.”

His paper, “Corporate Disclosure of Environmental Capital Expenditures: A Test of Alternative Theories”, is co-authored with Den Patten (Illinois State University) and Marty Freedman (Towson University).

This year Cho was not the only Concordian in attendance, Martin Martens (Management) and PhD student Michelle Rodrigue (Accountancy) also presented.

Given that Cho believes, “SEA needs to increase its visibility to new emerging scholars in order to foster the research and make it viable in the long run,” he’s made a pretty good start in a short period of time.


Concordia University