Over the past five years, organizations ranging from the United Nations, the G20, the World Economic Forum and the International Organization of Securities Commissioners (IOSOC), are pushing for companies to expand on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) information and uphold sustainability standards for business. Across Europe, we see the European Directive requesting 500+ companies to report on a variety of non-financial metrics. Similar requirements extend to non-European companies.

ESG or sustainability metrics provide a picture of an organization’s environmental and social performance and serve as a business sustainability measure for making improvements. To effectively navigate these metrics and green initiatives, sustainability consulting is often a helpful tool for businesses.

In this article, we’ll discuss why sustainability consulting is useful for businesses, the different forms of consulting, and how to implement consulting services effectively.

Why Sustainability Consulting is Useful for Business 

Sustainability consulting is used to help businesses understand their sustainability impact, the associated metrics, and how to make improvements and attain goals. Sustainability consulting supports businesses as they transition from conventional business models and practices to the higher standards of social and environmental responsibility.

Sustainability consultancy does this by:

  • Setting clear targets and goals: Data and information on business operations are collected and analyzed to set clear sustainability targets and attainable goals.
  • Creating a plan of action: Sustainability consultancy helps establish guided plans and action items for companies to get where they need to be.
  • Conducting analysis as needed: A thorough analysis of business operations helps identify system flaws and opportunities for continued improvement.
  • Ensuring a business remains compliant: Business operations are assessed for compliance maintenance.

Sustainability Consulting Takes Many Forms

Expert advisors and organizations offering sustainability consulting services will fall under the following categories: audits, testing, and verification; technical support; and strategy and planning.

Audits, Testing, and Verification

Sustainability auditing, testing and verification are methods for measuring and validating a company’s sustainability performance and environmental responsibility. This form of consulting involves collecting and analyzing business data – this may be data from a given corporate project, facility, service, or product – and then using it to evaluate and compare a company’s performance against established benchmarks, standards and best practices. Verification is given in the form of certification.

There are several international organizations that have established sustainability standards and certifications for businesses:

  • Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI): The BSCI is a European non-profit organization focused on improving social compliance in the global supply chain.
  • ISO-International Organization for Standardization: The ISO has developed over 18,500 International Standards on a variety of subjects. Of particular relevance are ISO 9000 (quality management systems), ISO 14000 (environmental management systems), ISO 2600 (social responsibility), and ISO 31000 (quality management systems).
  • Green Business Bureau Seal: Enables businesses to understand, prioritize, implement and certify green initiatives and sustainable business practices. The GBB seal is official validation promoting an organization’s green commitment and accomplishment.
  • European Eco-Label: This is a voluntary standard used to encourage businesses to market products and services that are kinder to the environment.

Often third-party advisors are hired to conduct audits within a business, but there are a few self-serving certification programs such as the one offered by Green Business Bureau. In this instance, companies utilize their own staff to make decisions surrounding sustainability and conduct an internal audit. As long as staff are provided accurate and credible standards to follow, internal auditing often makes it easier and more cost effective for businesses to measure their sustainability performance.

The Benefits of Sustainability Auditing, Testing, and Verification

  • Generates hard data that can be used to set benchmarks
  • Identifies operational flaws and opportunities for improvement
  • Helps in forming an actionable plan backed by data
  • Provides a means of tracking sustainability performance
  • Ensures compliance with environmental regulations
  • Supports today’s recognized industry standards and best business practices
  • Provides validation of sustainability performance
  • Allows companies to be transparent with stakeholders

Technical Support

Sustainability consulting in the form of technical support uses engineering and design experts to advise on-site projects within a facility or division. Consulting projects typically involve building design and construction, renewable energy and energy efficiency, waste diversion, recycling, and water waste services. The aim is to create buildings that are energy and resource efficient, affordable to build, and good to inhabit.

Technical support consultants help companies meet the technical requirements for green building and energy projects as well as retrofits. Technical support follows rating systems, such as:

  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design): LEED is the most widely used green rating system in the world and is available for virtually all building types. This system prioritizes building efficiency, decreases operational costs, increases asset value, and ensures productivity, comfort, health, and wellbeing of occupants.
  • BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method): BREEAM is a sustainability assessment method used for projects, infrastructure, and buildings. Standards are set for the environmental performance of buildings through the design, specification, construction, and operation phases – to be applied to new development or refurbishment schemes.
  • CASBEE (Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency): CASBEE is a method for evaluating the environmental performance of a building and the built environment. Focus is placed on wellbeing and reducing the environmental loads of buildings and the built environment, from a single home to a whole city.

The Benefits of Technical Support

  • Increased asset value, with green building design and construction giving a 7% increase in asset value relative to traditional buildings.
  • Improved employee productivity, with workers in green, well-ventilated offices recording a 101% increase in cognitive scores.
  • Improved energy efficiency. It’s estimated that green buildings and construction could save $280-410 billion globally.
  • Reduced emissions, with green buildings and construction having the potential to reduce emissions by 84 gigatonnes of C02 by 2050.

Strategy and Planning

Finally, sustainability consulting can be categorized under strategy and planning. Sustainability strategy involves defining a course of action or set of decisions on how best to achieve green goals and optimize performance. Sustainability consultants help businesses formulate a guided plan and action items that are unique to their industry needs and long-term sustainability mission.

A successful sustainability strategy requires it to be embodied by the entire organization and implemented across all divisions, and so it is integrated into the business’s core operations via the following elements:

  • An understanding of context: Considers all global and local sustainability issues that a company is related to and could be impacted by.
  • A clear sustainability vision: Maps out a company’s principles and long-term sustainability agenda and is often most successful when communicated through a written sustainability mission statement.
  • An action plan: Prioritizes sustainability goals and defines the strategies and steps required for achieving them.
  • A timeline: Organizes and schedules the delivery of goals as well as period checkpoints.
  • Effective communication and reporting: Clear, meaningful, and consistent messages are used to demonstrate authenticity, transparency, and progress to internal and external stakeholders.

Sustainability strategy and planning is “forward-thinking” in that it tackles issues in the present in order to fulfill and secure the needs of the company and its stakeholders in the future.

The Benefits of Strategy and Planning 

  • Ensures companies can align with the latest best practices, environmental regulations, and sustainability trends so as to not miss contract opportunities.
  • Acts as a guide for navigating sustainability initiatives and how best to implement them.
  • Leads to cost-savings, long-term profitability and continued improvement. Studies show organizations following a sustainability strategy outperform their unsustainable counterparts in the long-haul, both in terms of accounting and stock market performance.
  • Presents a unique selling point amidst a growing trend of eco-conscious consumers, giving a competitive advantage that attracts more customers, employees and partners.

How to Implement and Use Sustainability Consulting Effectively

There are two ways sustainability consulting can be implemented within a business:

  1. By hiring external sustainability consultants for a third-party review
  2. By utilizing internal teams to make decisions around sustainability

Hiring External Sustainability Consultants

There has been a growing tendency for companies to have their sustainability reports voluntarily assured by a third-party. For instance, the number of N100 companies investing to obtain independent, third-party assurance of their sustainability information exceeded 50% in 2020.

Before hiring an external sustainability consultant, it’s important to decide on the scope of assurance needed and what areas of your company you are seeking to improve. E.g. Do you want third-party assurance on audit results or sustainable strategy deployment? Will you only need expert advice in one area within your company or across all divisions?

Combined with this information, select an appropriate sustainability consultant by considering:

  • Breadth of experience: In what industries and fields of sustainability does the consultant have expertise? Does their background align with the data and answers you are seeking?
  • Depth of experience: How long have they been working as a sustainability consultant? Do they have any qualifications or credentials to support their work?
  • Diversity: Working with consultants of different ages, genders, ethnicities and cultures provides a range of perspectives and solutions.
  • Capacity Building: Does the consultant work for an organization that promotes ongoing skill strengthening and learning to ensure consultants present accurate information and reliable services? Unless they have credentials to support their work, purely self-promoting consultants can be a questionable option.

Utilizing Your Staff

Sustainability improvements can be made by using your own staff. Rally together a team of passionate personnel with well-developed practical skills in conceptualizing, coordinating, and analysis. Your dedicated green team will collaborate to define and manage goals, report progress, and encourage employee buy-in of sustainability ideas. Internal consulting is not only cost effective but it also can be convenient when your green team is already familiar with company operations and policies.

To follow the latest sustainability practices for business, green teams should use tools such as the green business certification program offered by Green Business Bureau, business process management software, and other project management tools. These tools make it easier for teams to effectively collaborate and take action by providing a guided framework and tracking progress.

Sustainability audits, technical projects, and sustainability strategy each encompass their own metrics, standards, and procedures for succeeding in sustainability performance. Deciding which path to pursue really depends on what your sustainability needs are and your staff capacity for handling sustainability decisions. Often, businesses use a combination of the three forms of sustainability consulting along with deploying its own green team to manage sustainability goals.

Conclusion: Let Your Employees Drive the Cause 

Businesses looking to move quickly and make large leaps in sustainability will benefit from leveraging third-party consulting to understand sustainability drivers, metrics, how to make improvements and attain goals. But in most cases, it’s more practical and cost effective to let your employees drive the cause. Your company likely has employees passionate about becoming greener and more socially responsible. Engaging them will help create a great purpose-driven culture and save you from having to hire expensive consultants and auditors.  Let your staff and green team decide what consulting is needed. The assessment, planning, and implementation tools from a company like Green Business Bureau may be enough to get you where you need to be.

About the Author

Jane Courtnell is a Content Writer for Process Street. With a Biology degree from Imperial College London and further studies at Imperial College’s Business School, Jane has an enthusiasm for science communication and how biology can be used to solve business issues, such as employee wellbeing, culture, and business sustainability.

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