Sustainability Consulting: What is it, and am I qualified? Part I
Penned by Christina
“Don’t think of climate change as an environmental issue; think of it as a market issue. In fact, you can remain agnostic about the science of climate change but still recognize its importance as a business issue.”*
As individuals from all kinds of backgrounds and industries push into the field of sustainability consulting, it can become murky as to what that work even entails. This is especially true when considering the different perspectives and methodologies that are employed and adding even more complexity is the variability among clients and their needs. Thus, this quote sums up for me what sustainability consultants are trying to do – they help businesses address and redress the way in which they operate so that they will be better positioned for the market of the future a la decreasing their negative impact on the natural environment. Some argue that like the trends of international business and e-commerce, sustainability will at some point cease to be its own discipline and assume its rightful place within all of business practices. (At which time sustainability consultants will become just “consultants” and we can never have enough of those!)
I am often asked to rattle off sustainability consulting firms so I decided to do just that right here (not an exhaustive list!):
Lesser-Known, Boutique Firms
- InterfaceRAISE (offshoot from well-known sustainability pioneer Interface, Inc.)
- Strategic Sustainability Consulting
- Business Evolution Consulting
- Green Squad (Waste Management endeavour)
- Garretson Group (now Pinyon Partners LLC)
- Five Winds International
There are countless others – not to mention (though I guess I am) many firms that have traditionally focused in environmental consulting (more on the compliance and regulatory side), marketing, law, PR, etc. that are building out sustainability practices and showing up at events such as the Sustainable Brands Conference or Net Impact’s National Conference. If you have friends or a network rooted in a “traditional” field, you should reach out to them to talk with them about what those plans might be. At best, it positions you for the future and at worst, you further educate yourself on where this field is and is NOT going by giving you a sense of the ubiquity of these ideas from an industry and geographical perspective.
I also know of a number of people who have ventured out to create their own sustainability practices. This takes an established network, an ability to display salient work experience, a salesperson’s tenacity and potentially some savings in the bank so you’re not sleeping on the street in between gigs. This is a tough path to forge but if you have all of the above, it is certainly possible…I’ve seen it!
Finally, the lack of a specific definition for what sustainability consulting IS also probably adds to its attraction — it’s easy to think, “Hey, I can help a company turn off its lights more or use fewer plastic water bottles.” Next week, I’ll talk more about the specific skills that are important if this is indeed the type of work you want to do. Through outlining those skills, you should be able to evaluate whether sustainability consulting is really where you fit best or whether there is a different space where your skill set and background is a better fit AND you can still have the impact you want.
* “Climate Change: What’s Your Business Strategy?” by Andrew J. Hoffman and John G. Woody. I recommend this book as it serves as a crash course highlighting the major issues that companies should be considering to be better positioned for the future. It’s a quick read as it is a part of the Memo to the CEO series. (In the interest of full disclosure, one of the authors was my adviser at the University of Michigan and The Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.)