Feb 032011
I’m sometimes asked what criteria I use when deciding whether or not to work for a particular company. All environmentalists have to strike a delicate balance when deploying what might be termed the ‘smell test’. There’s absolutely no point in only working with companies for whom the green agenda is second nature – they don’t need the help as much as others, and consequently both the intellectual challenge and the sustainability impact of advising them is reduced. That’s not to say even the most forward-looking companies don’t benefit from fresh eyes and perspectives on the next trends and issues coming down the track. In fact, the most progressive companies are successful precisely because they are always thinking about the next set of improvements they can make. But the business of sustainability advice is most effective and powerful when there is real systemic and value-driven change on the table. I have no difficulty in working with companies who are miles behind where they should be, albeit with some important caveats which I list below. Of course, we all have personal moral reasons for avoiding some companies or sectors. Some people, for instance, refuse to work with tobacco companies. Others, myself included, won’t touch defence firms. For some, (not me), energy companies with investments in nuclear or food companies with GMO divisions are out of the question. Others may have religious (or anti-religious!) views that prevent them from engaging with particular clients. All of that must be down to the individual. 

There are, however, some key principles that I think any sustainability advisory firm should abide by. They are the ones that I use when weighing up these issues:
  • I will not work for any company whose starting position is to see sustainability simply as a ‘hygiene factor’ with which compliance is commercially expedient but in practice means doing as little as it can get away with. There are simply better things to do with one’s short time on this earth, and even the best advice won’t change a firm or brand such as this.
  • I will not work for any company that engages in the darker side of public relations, using a range of tactics to undermine the environmental agenda. Such tactics include commissioning bogus ‘science’ to create confusion  around or reduce the potency of environmental concerns where the overwhelming body of research clearly shows there is a problem. The climate deniers’ ‘think tanks’ are a good example of this. Such groups nearly always have their roots in public relations motives, not scientific ones. A lot of nonsense is currently being spouted by pseudo academic institutions about the ‘development benefits’ of destroying Indonesian rainforests for palm oil and paper. I won’t play that game and I don’t want to be paid for it.
  • I am not interested in being paid by companies whose public relations and advertising on sustainability issues dramatically overclaim their true performance. Businesses who proactively purport to be green when they are precisely the opposite aren’t ones that would derive any value from anything I would want to say to them.
  • Some companies carry on business as usual whilst squeezing as much marketing noise as they can around one or two ‘showcase’ initiatives, designed to create the impression they are green when in fact such ploys are generally smokescreens for doing virtually nothing. If there is the appetite to use these projects as catalysts for broader business model change, then fair enough. But if they are simply to fill empty website pages on ‘our values’ or ‘CSR’, good luck with it!
  • Lastly, it is impossible to work in companies where the client is a well intentioned small team of people who are really committed to change, but are obstructed either in policy or budgetary terms at every turn by their peers in other departments or their superiors. It just never works, and therefore time and money could be better spent doing other things.
Many consultancy firms have yet to define these issues adequately for themselves. Few go beyond bribery and corruption metrics, regulatory compliance or very basic due diligence (if they’re lucky).  I think that will change – and certainly in my own business I plan to go significantly further than that. The exciting opportunity lies in helping companies go on what is, after all, a very long and often truncated journey towards more sustainable business practices. If the journey is carefully navigated, there are huge commercial, communications and marketing opportunities as the values and performance start to radically change. Provided I can satisfy my personal prejudices on one or two sectors, and meet the 5 criteria above, I’m up for it. 

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