A sustainability consultant advises corporations and individuals on how to produce environmentally sustainable strategies, or how to reduce their carbon footprint.
A sustainability consultant is someone who works with or within a company to plan and deliver sustainable business strategies and working practices – that is to say, business practices which respect and augment the natural environment or ecosystem on a local and global scale. Put another way, the sustainability consultant devises strategies to prevent or minimise the potentially harmful effects that business practice can cause when, directly or indirectly, it constitutes a drain on natural resources.
As well as ensuring the implementation of binding environmental law, the consultant can suggest alternative practices that are not only beneficial to the environment, but financially beneficial to the company with which they are working.
As such, consultants can come at the field from business or from environmental backgrounds, and their focus or area of specialisation varies widely, from ‘greening’ football clubs to implementing international law, from conducting climatological research in the Arctic to working in the big business districts with large multinational corporations in the financial sector.
The sector is young, dynamic, and increasingly important. Sustainability consultants have a detailed knowledge of the scientific and legal issues concerned with climate change, and use this knowledge logistically to devise new ways of living and working sustainably.
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Junior consultants might begin with a basic salary upward of £20,000, rising within the first few years of experience to £30,000 or more.
Senior consultants might earn anything between £25,000 in small consultancies, to 6-figure sums for larger tenders.
Consultants in any field can expect to be earning high salaries at the top end of the market, and sustainability consultancy is no exception. Those few consultants who work out big business and legislative strategies for governmental and top multinational corporations can expect to earn millions for important projects. Similarly, consultants who set up their own consultancy practice can charge high rates, though these positions are of course not salaried so the intermittent rate of pay must be taken into account.
Consultants can be seen to liaise between the increasingly significant needs of the international community in terms of sustainable living, and the ever-pressing demands of the financial market.
Their responsibilities range across these fields, and include:
- Researching and meeting with clients and potential clients
- Researching, writing and pitching tenders to potential clients
- Keeping up with the latest research and developments within sustainable practice. This can involve everything from reading daily news reports to attending networking events and conferences, to conducting and presenting your own research on behalf of a client or employer
- Maintaining an excellent knowledge of the business sector or sectors relevant to the practice of your clients and potential clients
- Project management. A huge portion of professional responsibility falls within this remit. This includes:
- Designing and devising detailed strategic plans which account for everything from staff welfare to finance to a detailed breakdown of environmental impact
- Assuming responsibility for large amounts of money on behalf of clients
- Assuming responsibility for the delivery of sustainable working practice in the long-term
There are no standard qualifications for sustainability consultants, as those working in the sector come from all backgrounds. Many have business qualifications such as MBAs, or a strong background in sustainability or in the environmental sciences, either through educational qualifications, or from former professional experience in the field.
Sustainability consulting involves assuming a number of different professional roles, from the networker to the hard-seller to the academic or researcher. As such, the personal skills required are wide ranging and sometimes taxing. That said, for those with plenty of energy, the variety of this kind of work can be engaging and immensely satisfying. Sustainability consultants tend to have the following skills and qualities:
- A strong work ethic
- A strong academic background
- Technical aptitude or an ability to understand how things work
…And of course, a wide-ranging, infectious and engaging interest and belief in sustainable practice is a must.
For the most part, sustainability consultants work within offices, in safe or standard conditions. However, a significant amount of travel can be involved, and there will be occasional projects which will involve some work out in ‘the field’. Attendant risks and skills must be assessed and discussed prior to the acceptance of contracts.
Governments across the world now consult and contract development and legislation work to expert sustainability consultants within the relevant field.
Many management or business consultancies now exist, employing anything from two or three to hundreds of consultants within the field. Most of these can be found online, as one of the attractive qualities of the sustainability sector is its modernity.
For those consultants who wish to work ‘in-house’ for a company, all big corporations and an increasing number of smaller businesses now employ sustainability consultants within their CSR departments or programmes. Networking events held by these departments can be invaluable for making contacts – check out the online forums (see Related Links, below) for posts advertising such events.
Apart from the obvious opportunity of moving up in their existing consultancy, sustainability consultants tend to go for one of three career paths. It is common to take on an in-house role for a previous client, to move into policy making in the public sector, or to go freelance and set up independently.
Also known as…
- Environmental Consultant
- Sustainability Strategist
- Strategic Consultant
- Management Consultants
- Financial Consultants
- Corporate Social Responsibility Officers
What’s it really like?
Del Redvers, 35, is Head of Sustainability for BMT, a leading engineering and science consultancy.
I’ve been working for BMT for 2 years, but have been consulting to businesses on sustainability issues for over a decade. Before I worked for BMT, I worked for Beyond Green (a specialist sustainability consultancy) where I helped clients develop corporate sustainability strategies.
Before that I ran a consultancy which advised businesses and charities on cross-sector collaboration. I started out in the sustainability sector working for an environmental charity, developing inner city community projects in London
In my current job, I spend a lot of time travelling to projects and BMT offices around the world, which makes the daily experience of my job a varied one. Like a consultant in any sector, my time is spent between winning work and delivering it. But as Head of Sustainability I also have to advise and co-ordinate BMT’s staff around the world who are winning and delivering sustainability consulting jobs.
Among many other things, in a typical week I might:
- Facilitate a training course on sustainable development
- Spend time in clients’ offices delivering a sustainability project
- Write proposals to win new work
- Speak at a conference on some aspect of sustainability
- Provide coaching for other sustainable development consultants in the company
I’d advise those interested in this career to think about finding ways to add value to a client’s business, so you have something worth selling. If you can bring expertise from outside the consulting arena, that’s even better.
You have to be able to sell your ideas and services before you get to deliver anything at all. If you don’t enjoy selling, then you won’t enjoy a significant part of your role as a sustainability consultant, particularly as you progress to more senior grades.
The networking side of the industry is very important. Fortunately there are many sustainability networks and groups out there. I’d advise anyone who was considering a career in sustainability to go and get involved with some of them.
Secondly, although it’s great to be a jack of all trades, there are a lot of those about. If you can define a particular niche which combines sustainability expertise with insight into a particular industry or professional skill, you will be more valuable to the market.
Working with clients to help them understand the challenges of sustainable development and find new ways of delivering their business can be very exciting. Every project presents the opportunity to have a positive impact, sometimes in very significant ways.
Sustainability is a broad and complex subject. Delivery of sustainability consulting can touch on topics as diverse as low carbon innovation, corporate ethics, energy security, international policy and human rights. There is so much variety and always more to learn.
The more frustrating aspects of the job can come forth when there’s an apparent conflict between the client’s desires or resources, and the exacting requirements of a genuinely beneficial sustainable practice. Sometimes what your client wants and what they need are not the same thing and it isn’t always possible to convince them otherwise. So occasionally you might get commissioned to undertake a particular piece of work which you can see is of limited value from a sustainable development perspective.
But that’s trivial really. If you’re passionate about the subject, good at thinking on your feet and enjoy variety then sustainability consulting is a great career option.