These days, when I’m asked what I do, I tell people I’m a sustainability consultant. But what does that really mean? Sustainability is a broad field that touches on a variety of issues, from resource scarcity to environmental justice to climate change. What does a sustainability consultant do? And more importantly, how do you know if your business needs one?
Historically, environmental consultants were focused on compliance, supporting businesses in ensuring they were following the guidance set forth by regulatory agencies. However, as the green economy evolves, environmental consulting has broadened in its scope. The role of the sustainability consultant has become one of partnership, working closely with clients in both the residential and commercial arena to identify risks and inefficiencies, measure and disclose environmental and social metrics, develop and implement mitigation strategies, and affect behavioral change to sustain systemic and procedural modifications.
Going “green” isn’t easy, but is becoming increasingly important. Ernst & Young report that 66% of companies have seen an increase in inquiries from shareholders about sustainability related issues in the past 12 months. Legislative mandates like Executive Order 13514 are forcing more companies that do work with the government to comply with emission and waste reduction targets. And 67% of 6,000 CEOs surveyed by MIT Sloan said that sustainability is a driving force in remaining competitive.
So, do you need a sustainability consultant? The answer may be yes. Consider the top five reasons for hiring someone outside of your organization to support you.
#1: Strategy Development
Just as business consultants are often called upon to help organizations develop their business strategy, so do sustainability consultants work with clients to help them develop an environmental and social strategy and goals. This can be particularly important and effective if you are just starting out on the road to greening your business. An expert can support you in identifying and developing important developmental milestones in your strategy. Working with a consultant on strategy is also useful if you’ve been dabbling in green for a while but are ready to take your commitment to the next level.
#2: Research, Analysis, and Measurement
Getting green can take work, particularly when trying to identify your organization’s baselines. As a result, hiring a consultant can support the staff responsible for this step, like your facilities or operations manager. By applying their expertise in different areas of environmental operations, a consultant can help you easily and readily gather and analyze information, both inside and outside of your organization.
Take a greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory, for example. Doing a GHG inventory well, and completely, can be a complicated task that grows in complexity as your company does. It also requires specific knowledge about emissions factors, emission scopes, and emission calculations. Hiring a consultant to complete your inventory, or using a software like Mosaic™ that is supported by consultants, may be a good investment if it relieves your staff from having to become GHG experts themselves.
#3: Disclosure, Reporting, and Messaging
With growing emphasis on disclosing and voluntarily reporting environmental and social metrics to agencies like the Carbon Disclosure Project, or at the bequest of investors, the government, merchandisers, or NGOs, there is also a growing need for companies to understand and comply with disclosure and reporting demands.
Disclosure and reporting can be complicated and time-consuming. Depending on the disclosure methodology that is used, it may require considerable investment of internal staff resources to develop and report sustainability metrics. Comprehensive documents like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports are often major undertakings that may involve entire departments to research, write, design, and publish.
Consultants can support the disclosure and reporting process by making it easier for your internal staff. Recently, we worked with a client to develop their first CSR report. As the consultant, we took the burden for the majority of the document creation, using metrics that we obtained from the client as well as our own independent research. While our client was ultimately responsible for reviewing, approving, and publishing the report, our involvement allowed them to hand off a major task to a team that had intimate familiarity with and expertise in the CSR reporting process.
And don’t overlook messaging—getting green can net you good PR. A consultant can help you position your sustainability efforts via web content development, published papers, and/or press and media attention.
#4: Implementation & Mitigation
A consultant’s role can become critical at the strategy implementation phase, since this is where the rubber really meets the road. Depending on your needs, the type of consultant you engage may be very different. Perhaps your goal is to reduce your landfill waste, so you need a diversion expert who can assist you with implementing recycling and composting programs, and reducing your raw material consumption. Maybe your goal is to improve the emissions profile of your entire operation; a supply chain sustainability consultant is what you’ll need.
Consultants who support implementation and mitigation are often specialized experts with a depth or breadth of experience in a specific area. These types of consultants can be particularly helpful because they can help you solve hairy problems and get leverage on your sustainability actions. This is critical—without affecting real change in your organization, your sustainability activities are wasteful and subject to critique by your stakeholders.
#5: Employee Engagement & Training
It’s important not to overlook the value and importance of engaging your employees in your sustainability efforts. For example, let’s say you spend thousands of dollars to begin a recycling program in your operation. If your employees continue to throw their recyclables into the landfill-bound trash cans, your investment is wasted. Not only will you lose money in this scenario, you may also lose face with your employees, who might consider your efforts nothing more than lip-service, aka greenwashing.
Investing in a consultant with experience in leveraging human behavior and organizational and human systems can be money well spent. By working with this type of consultant, you can simultaneously engage your employees (increasing retention) and impact your mitigation/implementation strategies. Employees who are provided with training and the opportunity to get involved are also more likely to become champions of the program itself, another intangible factor in its success.
With all the sustainability consultants out there, how do you know which one to choose? I’ll share more thoughts on that in a couple of weeks with part two!