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Sustainability Practitioner, Subject-matter Expert or Gunslinger?

Recently I was drinking an organic fair-trade soy latte while chatting with a long-time sustainability consulting colleague of mine who asked me what I thought about the sustainability consulting shops that were popping up all over the place. The short answer – I couldn’t be happier. For one thing, for sustainability old-timers like me, it further validates the relevance and need for the sustainability consulting marketplace. For another, it breeds competition and innovation, which I love. Moreover, I figure, the more people there are making noise the more people will be busy justifying the business case for sustainability, which is quite helpful. The long answer is a wee bit different, and the focus of this article. It is the wild west of sustainability consulting right now – awareness is high, but comprehension is low. There are sustainability practitioners (knowledgeable and qualified), subject-matter experts (knowledgeable in one or two areas that fall under the sustainability umbrella) and gunslingers (armed with the lingo but not the knowledge).

Time to provide a little clarity and guidance to companies trying to assess which of these characters to engage. What is a Sustainability Practitioner? It is from the definition of corporate sustainability that the practice of sustainability extends – or at least should extend. Corporate sustainability is a business management approach that identifies, mitigates and capitalizes on the past, present and future impacts of a corporation’s actions and decisions. It is an approach that champions transparency, inclusion and value-creation over closed, exclusive value-depletion. A sustainability practitioner should not just understand this approach but give it life in a corporation. A sustainability practitioner understands the interactions between environmental, social, cultural, economic and governance issues and how each fits into the corporate mission and strategy. The sustainability practitioner knows how to help a company enhance its corporate value - that means helping the company grow and protect its profit and share price while helping it preserve and protect natural and social capital.

Now I ask you, the corporation, are you getting all of this help – or are you just getting a service aimed at addressing some of the issues that have been stuffed under the sustainability umbrella? There are many - climate change, energy efficiency, reporting, community relations and donations, among others. But just because someone can help address one or two of these issues does not mean that person is a sustainability practitioner. Subject-matter experts can decode an issue and provide discreet solutions, but do they keep the broader corporate context and strategy in mind in order to ensure economic sustainability for the company? Gunslingers, those gifted salespeople familiar enough with sustainability lingo to appear credible, can sound the part but often do more harm than good.

 Do I Need a Sustainability Practitioner? Now, for the sake of the argument, let us say you are a corporation looking for sustainability services, such as benchmarking, risk management auditing, policy authoring, corporate reporting, data management, stakeholder partnering, and so forth, how do you determine whether you need a sustainability practitioner? To figure this out, you need to ask yourself three basic questions:

• Does my initiative have implications that might affect the corporate strategy or reputation?

• Will approvals from the C-suite or management team be required?

• Will employees from more than one area within the company be required to weigh in on the project or product?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then a sustainability practitioner should be your first and only stop. But even if you answered no to all of the above and think a subject-matter expert would suffice, keep in mind that sustainability practitioners can do not only the subject matter expert work but also provide value-added services that come only with breadth of knowledge and experience a sustainability practitioner holds.

How do I Know if I am talking to a bone fide Sustainability Practitioner? Determining whether a person is a sustainability practitioner can be a challenge - the acronyms are many and can get confusing - I mean, ESG, CDP, CR, SD, CSO, NFI, KPI - yikes! You can enhance your chances at separating the wheat from the chaff by asking these key questions and assessing how well the answers match the “ideal answers”:

Question 1: Can you explain the difference between Corporate Citizenship, Corporate Responsibility and Corporate Sustainability?

• Ideal Answer 1: A sustainability practitioner will most likely walk you through the sustainability continuum without the use of too much jargon, citing Citizenship as a donation scheme, Responsibility as a tactical approach to reporting on stakeholder issues, and Sustainability as a strategy for collaborative stakeholder engagement and issue management. Beware those who say that they are all the same.

Question 2: Is corporate sustainability the same as sustainable development?

• Ideal Answer 2: Sustainable development is a philosophy – meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – whereas corporate sustainability is a management approach that transforms the philosophy of sustainable development to practice. As above, beware those who don’t understand this critical distinction.

Question 3: If I was to hire a sustainability practitioner, where in my organization does that person belong?

• Ideal Answer 3: The best place to house a sustainability practitioner depends on the corporation’s motivation and the issues it is trying to address. If the issue is stakeholder relations, such as Greenpeace hanging a banner from your headquarters, communications or corporate affairs might make a good home. If the issue is greenhouse gas reduction perhaps engineering, energy management or another operational department would be the right place.

Beware those who volunteer a “perfect fit” as there is no such thing. A sustainability practitioner is the ultimate cross-enterprise professional whose services touch all corners of the corporation. Though there are certainly other helpful screening questions, these are a good place to start.

Now What? So, if you are a corporation in need of sustainability services, know whether you require a sustainability practitioner and if you do, you can now more readily wade through the consultants in the field, including the now detectable gunslinger, and make the right pick for your corporate needs.

Posted by Nelson Switzer. Nelson is President and Chief Sustainability Officer of Asherleaf Consulting Inc., a multi-disciplinary sustainability advisory firm based in Toronto, Canada. He is a leader in strategic sustainability and innovation. Nelson is a sought-after speaker on the topic of sustainability and provides pre-eminent advisory services to corporations, governments and not-for-profits around the world.

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