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.

15 responses

  1. As the previous author states, 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.
    Boutique firms,such as Waste Savings, Inc. (WSI), 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. In the case of firm’s like Waste Savings, Inc., it hires subcontractors with experience in the environmetnal services arena such as as waste management and or recycling. The job titles are typically “Senior Associate of Client Services”.
    As background, Waste Savings, Inc. (WSI), is a company affiliated with WIH Resource Group in Phoenix, Arizona. WSI specializes in providing solid waste collection cost reduction, sustainable recycling program development and / or improvement, waste disposal auditing and related cost reduction analysis for various types of clients that generate waste.
    Their clients include: multi-family property management companies, apartment complex owners, retail strip malls, hospitals, schools, commercial businesses, grocery stores as well as industrial manufacturers. They also provide “bundled” solutions to municipalities (Cities, Counties and other Jurisdictions) to assist them in developing sustainable recycling and waste management programs and resources for their local businesses and industrial waste generators. Their Senior Associates of Client Solutions, have developed a multi-step process for evaluating and improving our client’s waste management costs and improving or implementing sustainable recycling programs for them.
    They utilze a general approach and process that we evaluates and improves their client’s waste and recycling programs, focusing on reducing costs. Their team work with their clients in reaching or developing recycling and waste diversion goals, something not just any large consulting firm has the experties in. The Senior Associates are a resource in reducing solid waste collection costs and assisting clients in either developing or improving existing recycling programs.
    Waste Savings, Inc. (WSI)
    34975 N. North Valley Parkway, Suite 152
    Phoenix, AZ 85086
    E-mail: bwallace@wastesavings.net
    Phone: 480-241-9994
    Fax: 623-505-2634

  2. CREA Affiliates, LLC provides sustainability planning, design and research at the municipal level. We take a whole-system approach to city building and design, and apply sustainability principles to governance and service delivery to determine opportunities for carbon neutrality, greater efficiency, reduced waste, social equity and environmental stewardship.
    Our mission is educate, inspire and enable cities to reduce their carbon footprint; enhance their food systems linkages; develop infrastructure that allows for alternate energy generation, and more sustainable water and waste treatment; redistribute density to support transit; and establish services and infrastructure to promote greater equity.
    CREA Affiliates, LLC
    Seattle and Spokane, Washington
    Contact: tjones@crea-affiliates.com
    Phone: 509 484 7251

  3. We have found a lot of excitement about the emerging green market place. The biggest part of the job for any sustainability consultant is in education. Educating our clients, the public and potential clients. This may not be the case on the east and west coast but definitely in the south and midwest.

    Green is coming at business from all sides. They hear they should be green and they want to be green but they don’t know why or how. ReSolutions is a business sustainability consulting firm that was formed to help businesses cut through green clutter.

    We know there is economic and social value in going green and we help businesses find it. With our ReSolutions Process we help companies large and small by starting with green business practices and building sustainability into their business strategy. We work with a variety of other companies and individuals to help our clients reach their goals. ReSolutions also offers offers green marketing programs through its subsidiary, Atticus Communications.

    1740 Oxmoor Road, Suite 120
    Birmingham, AL 35209

  4. Both management consulting and engineering services firms (or engineering & construction firms; ‘E&C’s) are investing in sustainability practices. Management firms are building practices in environmental risk management, sustainability strategy (including organizational design, change management, as well as process design).
    The global E&Cs, such as Bechtel, CH2M, URS Corp, have some type of ‘sustainability’ practice. In many cases, this service offering is focused more on CSR reporting and strategy development; both growing segments.
    I work with the global E&Cs as part of my practice, and I believe the bigger opportunity for ‘talent’ to enter this field is to focus on specific segments such as: buildings / facilities, energy development, water, transportation, and environmental. ‘Sustainability’ is being incorporated into many of these markets; with most of the interest coming from clients who want to manage their energy costs, minimize use (and costs) associated with resources such as building materials and water; and also manage environmental risks associated with past and current practices.
    I actually think there is more potential for professionals who focus on these specific market opportunities in the short term, as industries such as process mfg, discrete mfg, energy development, retail, and real estate, for examples, are all turning to E&Cs for solution development and deployment.

  5. Scott, thank you for your excellent insight and breakdown of the types of opportunities within the E&C sector. As you know, the consulting industry represents a broad range of different types of practice areas–from strategy to engineering services and beyond. To the opportunities you highlight I’d add carbon management/strategy services, which intersect with the work of the E&Cs, though seems to me a distinct (and rapidly growing) area of opportunity. /Frank

  6. We have been working with creative agencies, retail, and event companies for some time now. Innovation through Sustainability is vital. Business leaders need to understand that this “blue-green” model will NOT fade away. Much like the internet was at the “DIRT ROAD” stages. Sustainability and Corporate Citizenship is a new ground layer to the foundation of 21st century business.


    3.ZERO is a Chicago-based Sustainability Consultancy. Our collective utilizes “green” methods not just as an environmentally conscious tool. We also provide ways to develop competitive advantages in your everyday business practices through innovation. Sustainability is a competitive advantage, which can help you “out behave” your competition. 3.ZERO will deliver an environmental and socially responsible business model, which will be a positive changing program for business internally and externally. This will help the planet, help people from all around the world, and bring new revenue streams to your business, which will maximize your Return On Investment.

  7. This is a very informative article.
    At MicroAgility, our agile, passionate, and experienced consultants work together with organizations nationwide manage their Program Office for the Sustainability and/or Green Initiatives.
    Sajid Khan, Your Business Partner
    212-731-2248 Ext 30
    MicroAgility, Inc.
    Washington, DC | New York, NY | Priceton, NJ http://www.microagility.com

  8. Very informative article and comments. My question is how does one go about becoming a sustainability consultant? What education and experience would be required and how would one begin acquiring the experience transferring from a separate industry?

  9. Michael, great question. The answer depends on your experience and where you are in your career, as well as what type of firm you’re targeting. The path into a boutique sustianability consultancy and a larger one with a sustainability practice will be different. One tactic would be to approach some target consulting firms about an internship. This gives you experience and contacts. The path into general management consulting jobs offer clues, too; these often involve an MBA or expertise in a specific industry or function, and gathering experience on business processes related to sustainability–such as supply chain, carbon, etc.–will provide valuable experience. The best thing you can do now is to start networking. Find firms you’re interested in, call them up, explain your interest, and ask for an informational interview. Good luck!

  10. The trend in sustainability consulting has been toward the market issues involved such as carbon trading and resource reductions. This is great for trimming the fat, but ten years down the line there will be a wall. Energy reductions are not energy solutions. As more traditional consulting firms jump on the bandwagon, expect to see a further emphasis of the man-made side of business – insurance and investment vehicles, cleantech investments, carbon trading, energy efficiency.
    What we will see after that, however, is a move toward more holistic, cultural changes. Adaptability to environmental pressures, cradle-to-cradle production cycles, relocation of operations due to climate change issues, and business opportunities which take advantages of geographic alterations in agriculture, disease, migration, and seawater. The consulting firms that begin to attack these issues will stand out from the mass of business consultancies.
    ProBorea is a sustainability and climate change consulting firm in New York. We are most interested in the non-anthropogenic (read non-market)business opportunities present in a changing climate.
    We look forward.
    445 Park Avenue, 9th Floor
    New York, New York 10022

  11. Sustainability of an engineering consultancy firm depends very much on the owners and their vision for the firm. I have observed some good consultancy firms shrinking due to unwillingness to retain their top engineers,consequently resulting in loss of capacity to perform and value-add to their projects.
    I believe the solution is to develop a organisation structure that allow automatic ownership for growth and sustainabilty. Ownership scheme should be friendly to the staff and easy for them to acquire.

  12. It shouldn’t be the job of consulting groups to educate businesses on how to save money using green technology, these strategies should be broadcast to a much wider audience and available for free so as to encourage faster adoption.

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