What "Sustainability Consulting" Is (and Isn't)


As August is winding down and summer is coming to an end, we thought this would be a good time to share an old blog post from January 2013: 

In today’s marketplace, sustainability consulting is a catch-all term, used to describe multiple professions. It is important for readers to pay careful attention when an author predicts the growth of the “sustainability consulting industry” since it can be defined in so many ways.

We believe that many of the firms that claim to offer sustainability consulting services are, in fact, offering something quite different. Sometimes it is a narrower subset of services (like energy auditing); in other cases it is simply traditional services (like public relations) focused on sustainability initiatives. 

So how do we define sustainability consulting?

In general, organizations purporting to offer sustainability consulting services fall into the following broad categories.

Sustainability Strategy: these consulting firms provide planning and strategy services—usually for an entire organization or division. Sustainability strategy firms help businesses use sustainability as a lens through which to make good business decisions. Their goal is to help clients innovate, gain competitive advantage, satisfy stakeholders (especially customers), and empower employees to integrate sustainability into their day-to-day jobs. This type of firm usually has staff with extensive training in management, business administration, organizational development, and/or change management. Example: Strategic Sustainability Consulting.

Technical Support: these firms focus on one or more technical aspects of sustainability, such as green building design and construction, renewable energy and energy efficiency, waste diversion and recycling, and water and wastewater services. Rather than help the company integrate sustainability into its overall business decision-making processes, these firms tend to tackle discrete projects within a facility or division. Their staff generally has engineering or other technical degrees. Example: ERM.

Testing, Auditing and Verification: these firms provide third-party review of sustainability data—either on a corporate/facility level or a product level—and may provide assurance, auditing, or verification services. A firm in this category may exclusively cater to sustainability data (e.g. third-party assurance of a sustainability report), but will often provide non-sustainability services as well (e.g. third-party assurance of annual reports). Example: UL Environment.

Visioning and Facilitation: these firms focus on the “big picture” of sustainability, working with clients to brainstorm and create new mental models for companies, communities, and societies. These firms tend to be smaller and more radical, since the market for their services is smaller and their goal is to push the boundary of “business as usual.” The principals of these firms come from a variety of backgrounds, but often have training in facilitation techniques like Open Space, World Café, and the Art of Hosting. Example: The Natural Step.

Sustainability Marketing: these firms help clients tell their sustainability story. They range from public relations firms to graphic designers, and have varying involvement in the crafting of the story versus the delivery of the message. Staff at these firms usually has marketing, advertising, design and communications degrees. Many smaller firms in this category will focus exclusively on sustainability marketing, but larger companies will often have only one division devoted to sustainability and focus most of its effort on other communication areas. Example: J. Ottman Consulting.

Sustainability Software: one of the fastest growing areas of the sustainability marketplace is the development and sales of sustainability software—including carbon accounting, EHS management, and sustainability reporting platforms. Many of these companies offer some kind of consulting support, but it is generally related to the set-up and implementation of the sustainability software. While there is some overlap between this category and the Technical Support category, we distinguish the two because the Technical Support companies generally provide a service (e.g. an energy audit) while Sustainability Software companies generally sell a distinct product. Example: Credit360.

Check out our past blog “State of the Sustainability Consulting Industry” to learn more on the background for these findings.

SSC's Supply Chain Gets a Bit Greener

Back in February, we did a little investigation into our key suppliers and found that one of our favorite service providers, Dropbox, didn't have any green or sustainable initiatives (or weren't willing to talk about them). Here's what we said then:

"Of course, there are always a few weak spots in a sustainable supply chain initiative--and we're no exception. We use Dropbox for file storage and back-up. When we contacted Dropbox staff for information about their sustainability initiatives, we got a note back that said, "Unfortunately, Dropbox doesn't currently have any public information on our sustainability goals." Boo."

But today we were delighted to see some pretty cool news about Dropbox:

"[Dropbox's] new San Francisco office, which is LEED Platinum certified, will feature a solar energy system designed by UGE, a global distributed renewable energy company. The 25.2 kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic system will supply enough energy to offset the electricity used in the six-story building designed by William McDonough Partners. The PV system will feature 84 300-watt solar panels."

Nice work, Dropbox! 

6 Ways to Get the Go-Ahead for Your Sustainability Idea

You've got a great plan to bring sustainability more comprehensively into your organization's planning process. The opportunities are huge, the timing is right, and the idea is brilliant. So how do you get executive management on board?

In a recent Fast Company article, author and thought leader Laura Vanderkam recently explored what it takes to get a bold idea into play. Her thoughts, captured in How to Get the Green Light for Your Big Idea, provide a great starting point for sustainability professionals (or "regular Joes with a big green idea”). 

Be Excited 

Passion for sustainability--and more specifically, for your particular sustainability idea--is the foundation upon which everything rests. While you can't ride your enthusiasm all the way to the Board room, it is imperative that you can speak with authentic eagerness about all aspects of your idea. 

Get Visible 

As Vanderkam writes, "It’s nice if the big ask isn’t the first time you’ve said hello." You may need to do some homework before you start pitching your idea. Who are the key decision-makers? What do they care about? Where can you get to know them -- and how can they get to know you? Bonus: this homework will also help you uncover office politics that will inform your approach.

Look for Open Ocean 

"New ideas are often welcome when the old ideas are obviously broken," writes Vanderkam. So it makes sense to clearly distinguish between your idea and others that have come before it. How is your approach different, better, more engaging, or more innovative than what's been done before? Are there area where your organization has struggled to make progress, and does your idea help close that gap? If so, make that story a key centerpiece of your pitch!

Show a Path to Success

You better be ready to answer the question, "how is your plan going to help us achieve our organizational goals?" Of course, the first task is to fully understand your organization's short and long-term goals, and the key strategies currently underway to achieve them. The second task is to frame your idea in relation to those goals. Does your plan save money? Generate revenue? Engage employees? Help attract younger talent? Build supply chain resilience? Reduce risk? You must be able to draw a straight line from your idea to bottom-line objectives.

Have the Answers

Don't spout platitudes about how sustainability is good for business--be ready to break it down into specifics. Consider alternative scenarios ahead of time (what if our market changes, what if prices drop, what if we lose a key customer, what if we merge with our competitor) and be ready to explore what shifts in business mean for your idea. Obviously, you can never be prepared to address any circumstance, but doing your homework ahead of time will pay dividends. "If you don’t know an answer, make it clear that you know who you need to talk to," writes Vanderkam.

Get a Champion 

"Even if you get the yes, implementation is never easy," Vanderkam notes. "You may be asking lots of people to change things, and it’s always easier not to." Getting an executive-level sponsor on board will go a long way to bolstering the organizational will to push through the inertia. Plus, the more you get to know your organization's leadership, the easier it will be to push through your next big idea!

Looking for ways to become your own sustainability champion? Download our white paper to help figure out how to take your sustainability initiatives to the next level.