Emerging Careers: Sustainability Consulting

Note: Fore more on Sustainability Consulting, see our special archive here.

earth-280.gifManagement consultants live near the top of the economic food chain. They have the ear of Global 1000 executives, spend heavily on business research, and are constantly looking for new ways to reduce client costs and increase client competitiveness – core services that help keep them in business. In this sense, they are naturally positioned to introduce sustainability to senior executives: It’s a topic that business executives often don’t fully understand, provides exceptional fodder for erudite reports and papers, and offers attractive, understandable ways for businesses to reduce costs and increase competitiveness, particularly in an era of rising energy costs.

So it’s no wonder so many consulting firms are joining the sustainability party. Firms like Accenture, Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and A.T. Kearney all have practice areas or publications devoted to sustainability and have been jockeying to position themselves as thought leaders. While the sustainability practice groups of these firms are often relatively new, they are growing, and represent an emerging area of opportunity, particularly for MBAs and mid-career experts.

In some cases, these firms offer sustainability as a component of risk management. Where it’s far more exciting and innovative, of course, is when it looks at a wholesale transformation of business strategy. Over the last 20 months A.T. Kearney, for example, has created a sustainability practice but also integrated sustainability thinking into all its other practices. Kearney has also created a far-reaching internal program to go carbon neutral by 2010 – an ambitious goal, considering how much consultants travel, and one that might have a correspondingly positive affect on work/life balance in an industry where work/life balance is notoriously out of whack (despite the good efforts of many firms to improve it).

Energy costs and climate change are two key drivers of many companies looking for green solutions. It’s not surprising then that specialized (as opposed to general management) consulting firms have also put together practices. IBM, for example, consults on greening data centers. CH2M Hill and Arup have practices looking at greening building, reducing the energy use and carbon footprints of their clients.

Those who want to do sustainability work and looking to join a big firm should be cautious, however. “A lot of the firms have offerings that are standard. Other firms have terms like business sustainability, which sounds a lot like what firms did in the late 90s, when firms added an ‚Äòe’ in front of their offerings,” said Jess Scheer, a senior analyst at Kennedy Information, which tracks the consulting industry. Asking questions during interviews to determine the true nature and scope of the firm’s work are important. What clients have they worked with? What work have they accomplished? What are the bona fides of their practice leaders? Will you get to work on sustainability projects full time or will it be an occasional engagement? If you’re just out of school, will you get selected to work on sustainability engagements before other, more senior, consultants?

The practices at large consulting firms are part of much broader industry and service-based offerings, with the priority these firms place on sustainability shifting along with business trends. Boutiques, on the other hand, tend to have consulting services focused squarely on sustainability work that tend to be offshoots of the founders’ passion and philosophy. Most offer internships, which provide an opportunity to get to know the firm and for the firm to get to know you, and can be an excellent route to a full-time job offer.

The service offerings and approaches of boutiques can vary dramatically, however. Some firms focus on strategic work. Others work with companies to measure and manage carbon and address climate change-related liabilities. Still others work to help companies develop sustainability scorecards, which has a public relations and marketing dimension. Some draw on the expertise of long-time industry leaders: Hunter Lovins at Natural Capitalism Solutions, Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute, and William McDonough and Michael Braungart at McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry.

In San Francisco, Blu Skye Consulting has been doing strategic work with such heavyweight corporations as Wal-Mart and Hilton Hotels Corporation. Seattle-based Paladino & Company consults on green building processes and practices. Clear Carbon Consulting in Arlington, Virginia and Point Carbon in Washington D.C., Boston, and various international locations provide a range of carbon services, from climate policy analysis to greenhouse gas inventories and energy site audits. Other boutiques include Domani, with offices in New York, Chicago, and Denver; Natural Logic, in the San Francisco Bay Area; YRG Sustainability Consultants in New York and Boulder, Colorado; and the recently formed Green Canary, in Austin.

Over time, analysts expect the larger management consulting firms to buy up boutiques as a way to bolster their practice area. At this stage, however, the market is still forming, and will likely get a push from climate change legislation expected to be passed during the next Presidential Administration (both Obama and McCain favor carbon emission cap-and-trade programs that could be a boon to consultants). Boutiques tend to have the more innovative and targeted offerings, but established strategy consulting firms have deeper pockets and greater resources to develop their practices. Those looking for consulting opportunities can find worthy careers at both types of firms.

Are you a consultant? What is your firm’s hiring plans and strategy for building its sustainability practice? Please share your experiences in the comments section!

Frank Marquardt is the author of The Solar Job Guide and Green Careers, and a contributor to How Green Is Your City? He has contributed to 100s of career guides over the past 10 years. Frank is also director of content strategy at Native Instinct, an interactive agency.