VIEWS: What Makes a Good Sustainability Consultant?

As I look back over the last year and a half, I'm amazed at SSC's success. We've gone from a 1-person shop to a consultant network with more than 50 professionals representing all kinds of sustainability-related expertise. As SSC continues to grow, I am particularly proud of our ability to assemble teams of consultants specifically chosen for each project—a depth that few other consultancies can match.

As we continue to add highly-qualified consultants to our network, I spend a lot of time talking with potential consultants about the state of the "sustainable consulting industry" and how they can get more involved. Just this week, I got an email this week that asked a question I hear frequently:

What skills or training do you look for in consultants? Is a Ph.D. useful or would an MBA be a better degree? Are there particular certificates, like LEED, that are useful?

I can't tell you how often that question has been posed—and how unprepared I feel to answer it. Since I'm in a position to see a lot of the trends as they happen, I thought I'd give it a shot. But first want to clear up some misconceptions:

1. You can't just be a "sustainability consultant".

This is a common mistake, especially from recent graduates who approach me with "great interest in getting into sustainability" but nothing more specific. The more I learn about sustainability, the more I realize that EVERYTHING is about sustainability: energy, waste, diversity, culture, attitude, infrastructure, transportation, community, stakeholder engagement, life cycle, product design, process flows, climate change, transparency and disclosure, human rights, unionization, accountability, and the list goes on…

One person CANNOT do it all, and the first step is to figure out where in the *big* picture you fit. Don't forget to think about your industry expertise too—in fact, I suggest that new consultants make an issue/industry matrix to help flesh out exactly where they can play in this growing field.

2. Sustainability means environmental AND social issues.

This is another problem I see a lot—people tend to divide into one group or the other. If you find that all of your expertise (and interest) lines up in one field or the other, perhaps sustainability isn't the right terminology for you. There is no shame in being an "environmental management consultant" or "energy consultant" or "social justice consultant". So be honest—are you committed (and qualified!) to work on the bridge between environmental and social issues, or are you more comfortable focusing on one area or the other?

3. Education may get you in the door, but it's experience that counts.

I have a cutting-edge graduate degree in "Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability" from the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. That looks GREAT on my resume, and I can honestly say that I learned many valuable things about sustainability that have made me a better consultant. That degree has given me a level of credibility that I didn't previously have—but it would never have been enough on its own.

I rely on my practical background in corporate social responsibility, in socially responsible investing, in ISO 9000, in shareholder advocacy, and in organizational accountability systems to run my business. So when people ask me "should I go back to school" my immediate question is: what does the rest of your resume look like? If you have years of hands-on experience, then maybe a degree is all you need. But without a significant portfolio of projects to point to, an aspiring sustainability consultant is unlikely to find another degree worth the necessary time and effort (and money!).

And now, some advice:

Consulting is a complicated business—with lots of variations. You can work for one of the "big 4" accounting firms within their burgeoning sustainability divisions if you like the sort of high-budget, business suit atmosphere those places convey. You can pair up with an NGO, many of whom are now partnering up with companies to form strategic alliances around sustainability. Or you can find a boutique consulting firm that caters to your specific expertise.

I've found that the old adage is true: discover what you love, then find a way to get paid for it. When I started Strategic Sustainability Consulting, I wasn't sure there was a market for it—I just knew that it was something I was good at, something I could be passionate about, something that was needed. The rest took care of itself.

So to all the would-be sustainability consultants out there: worry less about a particular degree or specific certification. Figure out:

  • What you're already qualified to do—sustainability touches so many things that often you don't need a radical change to get involved
  • Where the market is—are there already businesses involved in this area of sustainability?
  • What kind of work-life balance you want—how much money you expect to make, what sacrifices you're willing to make, etc.

Then—and ONLY then—are you ready to start thinking about additional schooling and training.

(But let me get off my high horse and be direct: I see green building and energy as the two fastest growing sustainability areas. So if it turns out that you're just plain excited about sustainability, look into LEED certification, renewable energy contracts, and energy efficiency auditing. Just a thought.)