Sustainability is often seen as an ethical issue; sustainability consultants treat it as a business concern. They help firms understand the issue, as well as show them how to cost-effectively make their business more sustainable. Sustainability is a very hot topic at the moment, so while there is demand for consultants, there’s also a lot of competition. Understanding key issues, as well as bringing a diverse skill set to the table, is important to success.
What do sustainability consultants do?
They help businesses become better positioned to operate successfully and profitably in a world where sustainability and carbon-reduction are high on the priority list for politicians, organisations and consumers. Businesses are not automatically turned off by greening their operations, they just may not be able to understand how they can do so without affecting profitability. Sustainability consultants help demonstrate how cost-effective steps can be taken that will help the business become more sustainable, and more green, with the minimum effect on cash flow.
What skills and knowledge will I need?
Being a sustainability consultant is hard, because every business is different. To help businesses become more sustainable, you need to have an in-depth knowledge of how businesses work, and what challenges they face when having to adapt to new cultural and political agendas.
An in-depth of awareness of current sustainability issues facing businesses is key – and the focus must be on business. If passion for the environment drives you to become a sustainability consultant, that’s great, but your emphasis must switch. You need to think like your audience. This means being aware of how sustainability trends – legislation, precedents set by major companies, scientific announcements – affect how companies operate.
You should also be aware that sustainability consulting is as much a science as an art – more so, in fact, when you start looking for ways complex businesses can become greener. Analytical skills are therefore essential; you may have gained these from a mathematics or engineering background, or through on-the-job activities or training. Some companies will want in-depth analysis of their supply chain and product lifecycles for areas where sustainability goals can be met – you must be able to handle data in a methodical way.
Greening v top-line growth
The majority of new sustainability consultants will focus on ‘greening’ a business i.e. helping them find ways to reduce their impact on the environment and be more conscious of the way their business choices impact the environment. This is an important job as the rapid need for businesses to become more eco-friendly has sent many into a spin, particularly if they have limited knowledge of the subject.
At the other end of the spectrum, larger and more established consultancies will focus on top-line growth; how the company can leverage new markets and products to increase the company’s return from the sustainability market in the future. This is a much more complex area; companies are likely to want to see extensive evidence of your effectiveness.
Training and development
Most training opportunities will be short courses from private organisations, often from one day to several months for the longest courses. These may be generalised or focus on one specific part of sustainability consulting e.g. workflow auditing, carbon reduction.
Another route is to take a general consultant training course and then specialise as a sustainability consultant. These courses are much more common and are available for a range of budgets and lifestyles. Don’t be afraid to ask for reviews before you buy, and make sure the course syllabus suits your future career goals.
You may also want to take a skills-based course to bulk your skill-set, for example in Excel, to help you more easily analyse relevant business data and draw the right conclusions.
Like all consultancies, start-up costs can be minimal. Your main costs will be branding, travel costs, and the associated overheads of maintaining a professional image and a respectable website. In the early stages you won’t need commercial premises, and there’s no real need to work out of a public-facing location as businesses don’t always want to advertise their associations with consultants. Discretion will form part of the service for many of your clients.
Because of the relatively immaturity of the sustainability industry, businesses are understandably tetchy about getting involved. It’s a good idea to have some cash reserves to tide you over during dry spells, until the industry matures and more and more clients come on board.
Insurance and compliance
Consultants give advice, and although no advice can be guaranteed, businesses typically expect the advice to produce positive results. If they don’t, they may complain, and potentially take further action. Public liability insurance and professional indemnity insurance are therefore essential for sustainability consultants – make sure you have suitable policies taken out before you begin seeing clients.
You’ll also need employer’s liability insurance should you take on staff members – this protects you against lawsuits brought against your company by former or current employees.
Depending on how you structure your company, there may be tax issues you need advice on. For example, many consultants offer their services through an intermediary such as a personal service company.