Top 7 ESG certifications and courses to consider

The best ESG and sustainability certification, workshop or course is the one that is right for you. Here are seven that work for a wide range of business and IT professionals.

To stay up to date on developing sustainability requirements, more professionals should consider taking ESG courses or acquiring certifications in this rapidly developing area.

Regulations related to environmental, social and governance issues seem to be growing at an exponential rate, and understanding the basics of ESG reporting as well as the top frameworks and standards is critical. ESG reporting is a type of corporate disclosure that provides transparency into an organization's practices around a host of issues, the environment, climate change, human rights, diversity and executive compensation. It's meant to hold organizations accountable for their operations and set them on the path to more sustainable decision-making.

That said, the ESG regulatory environment can be confusing, as not all frameworks have been adopted globally and different standards might or might not apply to your organization. Failing to report certain information can result in hefty fines or even affect investor decision-making when they see your organization is not aligned with ESG goals. Thankfully, a variety of tools and resources are available today to help you get up to speed.

7 ESG certifications/courses worth exploring

The list of ESG certifications and courses below is a small fraction of what's available and should serve as a starting point for those interested in learning more about sustainability trends, requirements and practices. Here's a look at the criteria used to create this list:

  • Relevancy. The certification or course should cover or test on the most up-to-date and widely used ESG standards and frameworks.
  • Credibility. The certification or course should come from one of the governing bodies, an institution that is highly respected with a storied history in the industry, or an organization that directly engages with governing bodies to ensure compliance with top standards for ESG reporting and disclosure.
  • Compatibility. The certification or course demonstrates a level of alignment with top ESG frameworks.
  • Subject matter. The certification or course subject offers broad but in-depth subject matter. For example, a course can provide a high-level overview of ESG concepts but must also get into the practical application of ESG reporting. The best education supplies both knowledge and the skills to apply it.
  • Audience. Many ESG certifications or courses are aimed at investors, but those listed here are aimed at a broader user base, with the goal of encouraging wider adoption and understanding of ESG reporting across the organizational structure.

The list is in alphabetical order.

1. The CCGP Certification from the Society for Corporate Governance

The Society for Corporate Governance is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that focuses on empowering professionals with knowledge and tools to enhance corporate governance around the nation. The Society is composed of corporate secretaries and business executives who engage with policymakers in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress to impact ESG-related issues and disclosure.

The Certified Corporate Governance Professional (CCGP) Certification is a test geared toward governance professionals to help them meet eligibility requirements and rigorous national accreditation standards. Corporate governance-related roles in this context include roles in legal, compliance, investor relations and stewardship, enterprise risk management, corporate responsibility and sustainability. The certification is also broadly applicable across industries and organizations, whether they are public or private.

The test must be taken at Pearson VUE test centers, and candidates can study for the exam with the Society's Governance Professional Handbook, which can be purchased separately or bundled with the test. This handbook gives an overview of essentials such as corporate security functions, activities, laws and regulations and ESG standards.

2. CDP Workshops

The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) is an international nonprofit that helps organizations around the world disclose their environmental impacts and is often viewed as the gold standard of environmental reporting. CDP's scoring methodology is aligned with Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and many other major environmental standards, and at the time of writing, more than 23,000 companies and 1,100 cities, states, and regions have reported and disclosed environmental information through CDP.

CDP conducts annual scoring based on questionnaires ESG reporters can fill out and submit to the organization. Navigating the lengthy report can prove challenging, however, due to the sheer amount of detail required. Unfortunately, CDP does not offer any type of certification or course to help reporters with this process, but they do provide workshops to help users generate the most useful data and streamline the reporting process.

These workshops typically occur on an annual basis and take place in dedicated regions, such as North America and Europe. Interested participants can purchase an in-person or virtual ticket to attend a workshop, where they can learn more about CDP's platform, the current ESG landscape, and other valuable insights into disclosure and climate action. CDP also provides a variety of reporter services, including a free glossary of sustainability definitions, on its website to help ensure everyone is able to fill out their questionnaires competently.

3. The EFFAS CESGA Program

The European Federation of Financial Analyst Societies (EFFAS) is a nonprofit organization that aims to promote the development and dissemination of international professional ESG standards. EFFAS has particular expertise in European capital markets and regulations.

EFFAS offers several certifications geared toward investment and finance professionals. However, the organization also provides a certification intended for broader specialists, such as sustainability officers, investor relations, auditors, corporate consultants, asset managers and financial planners. This program is called the Certified Environmental Social and Governance Analyst (CESGA) program.

No prerequisites are required to become an EFFAS CESGA Holder, and the program involves 10 modules of study that cover everything from recent developments in ESG integration, reporting, and regional developments (including the Asia Pacific, Latin America, and North America regions) and how to systematically assess different ESG reporting standards. The CESGA program also covers the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive.

4. The FSA Credential from the IFRS Foundation

The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation provides the de facto global language of ESG reporting, with 145 jurisdictions around the world requiring the use of IFRS Accounting Standards for all or most publicly listed companies. These Accounting Standards aim to bring transparency, accountability, and efficiency to reporting, and given their widespread use, it's wise to become familiar with their terminology and structure.

With this in mind, the IFRS created the Fundamentals of Sustainability Accounting (FSA) Credential to help professionals of all skill levels navigate the sustainability disclosure landscape. The FSA Credential involves two exams: The Level I exam covers the historical basis for disclosure as well as the IFRS Sustainability Disclosure Standards and their guiding principles, while the Level II exam covers sustainability-related risks and opportunities facing companies and how to connect sustainability information to a company's revenue.

The IFRS provides registered candidates with a study guide and recommends candidates spend between 30 and 50 hours studying for each exam, which can take place in-person or remotely within three designated testing periods. The exams are offered at a variety of prices at the individual and group levels, with discounts for those in low- and middle-income economies.

5. Fundamentals of ESG Certificate from AICPA and CIMA

The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) are a combined alliance of two prestigious organizations that provide guidance for accounting and finance professionals around the world. Together, they curate a variety of certifications and courses for individuals and organizations to help cultivate a more sustainable future.

AICPA and CIMA offer a Fundamentals of ESG Certificate that aims to help participants learn about the landscape. The course emphasizes the importance of sustainability today and introduces participants to the key bodies that have created ESG reporting standards and frameworks. Other topics include existing reporting requirements, key aspects of each area of ESG and the business case for implementing sustainable practices.

6. The IASE's International ESG Certifications

The International Association for Sustainable Economy (IASE) is one of the leading international institutions establishing and promoting professional criteria for ESG performance.

As an independent body, the IASE offers certifications for professionals and students who want to establish or enhance the ESG practices in their organizations. With this goal in mind, the IASE offers certifications for different career stages, ranging from beginner to expert levels. These stages are broken into Level 1 (Advisor), Level 2 (Specialist), and Level 3 (Expert) certifications.

The certifications are also split by market, with the International Sustainable Finance certification, which targets professionals in finance who want to incorporate ESG criteria into their decision-making, and the International Sustainable Business certification targets professionals in other business fields who want to incorporate sustainability concepts into their decision-making.

The IASE also offers preparatory courses for each certification level, all of which are fully remote and accessible online. These courses feature several modules each that cover topics like ESG criteria and impact on capital markets, the environmental sustainability of supply chains, and more. Study time ranges from around 30 hours to 120 hours over 6 to 24 weeks, depending on the certification level.

7. Sustainability & ESG Designation and Certification from Competent Boards

Competent Boards provides online ESG and climate education programs geared toward board members, business leaders, investors, and other experts to help bring ESG-centric decision-making to boardrooms and C-suites around the world. The organization offers several certifications, but the broadest one is the Sustainability & ESG Designation and Certification, which involves studying everything from climate change and human rights to DEI, regulatory requirements, geo-political issues, and beyond.

The Sustainability and ESG Designation and Certification This program is designed for board directors and senior leaders who want to improve their ESG competency. The program consists of 12 live interactive sessions that take approximately 1.5 hours each and cover subjects such as sustainability upskilling, elevating sustainability competencies, studying international sustainable business management practices, responding quickly to ESG risks and opportunities, getting up to speed on global ESG trends and regulations, including the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

Each module comes with reading and support materials, which take roughly two to three hours to complete, and the program ends with a boardroom simulation that puts participants through a real-world scenario. Recordings are available for all live sessions in case participants miss one. In addition, Competent Boards also offers a fully online version of the program. US registrants can earn up to 47 hours in continuing legal education credits, too.

The importance of understanding ESG

As more companies must uphold sustainability and ESG, the need for study also becomes more important -- from understanding basic terms to knowing why generative AI has negative environmental impacts.

Whether you're a business leader, an IT professional, a governance officer or a CPA, it's important to consider ESG certifications and courses. They can help you fully understand the basics of sustainability compliance and reporting in the modern regulatory landscape.

Jacob Roundy is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in a variety of technology topics, including data centers and sustainability.

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