Her expertise is built on some pioneering work in the field of environmental accounting, which has become an increasingly important concept in modern business thinking.
“At the start of the 1990s it was considered a fringe discipline and many people did not understand the concept,” she said. “Now when I tell them I’m an environmental accountant they say ‘oh yes, the triple bottom line or the Global Reporting Initiative’. So they understand it’s become mainstream.”
It’s also regularly changing, in keeping with business and societal evolution. The environmental component of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has tended to dominate in recent years because issues such as climate change have been front of mind, but Prof Tilt notes a return to a greater emphasis on social concerns such as human rights and sweat shops.
“You can’t really look at one without the other,” she said. “Protecting the environment has an impact, particularly in developing countries. We see a lot of developing countries telling us ‘it’s OK for the west to tell us we shouldn’t be polluting but we are trying to make a living – we have to develop to feed our people’. That contradiction forces us to think in a more integrated way. We have to think about the needs of the environment and the needs of people together.”
Understanding this global response to CSR is one of Prof Tilt’s current research interests. Her PhD students are examining the way countries as diverse as China, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia are defining and responding to the issues they see as central to their place in a globalised world.
She is also studying the emerging concept of integrated reporting, which argues that the days of having separate financial, environmental and social reports are long past and that all organisations must develop single reports that cover all aspects of their operations. This has already been mandated in South Africa.
“My interest is in what that means for sustainability and environmental reporting,” Prof Tilt said. “The integrated reporting framework is about the value to the firm whereas sustainability reporting is about the value to society.”