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How to Hire a Sustainability Consultant

As the corporate world wakes up to the fact that consumers are looking for more sustainable products, and that there is a strong business case for sustainability, many companies are hiring sustainability consultants to help them navigate these changes. But how do you find a sustainability consultant, and how do you know if they are the right fit for the job?

In this post, we will answer common questions about finding and hiring sustainability consultants, including:

  • What is a sustainability consultant and what do they do?
  • What is the difference between a sustainability consultant and an environmental consultant?
  • How do you find the right sustainability consultant?
  • What interview questions should you ask a sustainability consultant?

I hope you enjoy!

What is a sustainability consultant?

Sustainability consultants help to align and drive business success with environmental success. They allow companies to understand and reduce their environmental impacts while also strengthening their business overall.

"Sustainability consultants help business clients improve their organization’s environmental performance" (ECO.ca). "Most sustainability consultants work either on a team in an environmental consulting firm or alone as independent consultants. Companies rely on sustainability consultants for expert guidance on how to lower their carbon footprint, develop environmentally-friendly products, and comply with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building standards. Sustainability consultants play a central role in helping their clients meet their business objectives using an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable approach."

What does a sustainability consultant do?

ECO Canada has a great description of what sustainability consultants do:

  • Analyze the operations of new clients in various industries to develop sustainable business solutions.
  • Design programs and processes to help your client mitigate environmental risks.
  • Interact with other sustainability professionals employed by your clients to understand their reporting requirements.
  • Research best practices and new technologies related to sustainability, corporate social responsibility and environmental monitoring.
  • Recommend effective corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives for clients and your employer.
  • Conduct online research to review large governmental reports and retrieve updated Greenhouse Gas (GHG) unit conversion factors.
  • Advise clients on the best ways to measure their energy consumption metrics to effectively calculate their CO2 and other GHG emissions.
  • Actively network with potential clients and other professionals in the environmental sector.

This list is not exhaustive, and depending on the expertise of your consultant they may or may not be able to perform the above functions. Many consultants are well-versed in performing financial analysis and building the business case for their clients' sustainability projects. They should also understand sustainability communication & reporting, change management, and other business disciplines.

Sustainability consultant vs environmental consultant

You may be wondering what the difference is between an environmental or sustainability professional. The short answer is that there is a lot of overlap, and the terms are often used interchangeably. However, there are a few key differences between sustainability consultants and environmental consultants.

Where sustainability consultants work with organizations to measure and reduce their environmental impacts while also managing the business implications, environmental consultants tend to focus on issues such as water pollution, air quality, and soil contamination. They dive into deeper depth on the core ecological problems and solutions, with less emphasis on how it affects the organization in question. Many situations demand environmental consultants and engineers, including lifecycle assessment, environmental site assessments and remediation, etc.

Sustainability consultant vs CSR consultant

Like the comparison above, these two groups have much in common. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) consultants have even more overlap. Many companies and professionals use the terms CSR and sustainability interchangeably, however there are differences.

CSR was a commonly used term in the corporate world before sustainability was. At the birth of CSR, it had more to do with purely social causes (including labour rights, stakeholder engagement, etc) rather than a blend of social and environmental as the term sustainability implies. As these departments were already monitoring and reducing the negative social impacts of their organizations, they were often the first to volunteer or be 'voluntold' to shoulder the environmental obligations and opportunities. So the early adopters of corporate responsibility practices adopted the moniker of CSR (for example, Cisco), but many of those companies have either refocused their CSR practices on broader sustainability, or in some cases to simply changed the name. The result is that nearly any sustainability professional can competently work in a CSR environment, and vice versa.

When and why do you need a sustainability consultant?

The short answer is: right now, because you may be missing a big opportunity or ignoring a serious threat.

The long answer is that it depends. There are all kinds of projects that can be aided by the right advisor. These include but are not limited to when your organization has a need for environmental footprint assessment, requests for ESG disclosures from investors, if you're evaluating your risk assessment framework, developing an environmentally conscious product or service, or more. Essentially, when you are looking for advice about how your business interacts with the environment, you would benefit from a sustainability consultant.

How to find the right sustainability consultant

When looking to hire someone for one of the above projects, there are a few key things to consider in your search:

  • The firm: have you heard of them? Do you trust their reputation?
  • What certifications or credentials does the consultant have?
  • What is their experience? Have they worked on projects like yours? Ask about past clients and projects.
  • What is their pricing model? Different companies and consultants may have different pricing structures.
  • Fit with your company culture. As with any new hire, a sustainability consultant should have the right fit with how you do business.

Interview questions for sustainability consultants

The Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series outlines a list of great questions to ask consultants in the interview process:

  • What makes you think that your sustainability consulting firm is the right fit for us?
  • How do you measure the success of your sustainability consulting engagements?
  • Who will be working on this project?
  • What obstacles do you see in reaching full and effective implementation of most engagements?
  • What kind of status updates should I expect to receive from you?

In addition to that list, we always like to provide our clients with answers to these questions up front:

  • Will you help us build capacity to perform these tasks for ourselves in the future?
  • Who have you worked with in the past? What work can you show examples? Do you have any testimonials?
  • What is the business case for your recommendation?

Why hire Circle Environmental Solutions?

Since you're here, you may be interested to hear that Circle offers advisory services in a variety of sustainability, CSR, and environmental fields. We have experience in a wide range of industries, helping our clients to understand their environmental impacts, find opportunities for growth and development, and aligning their environmental goals with their sustainability goals. If you're looking for someone to do sustainability roadmapping and strategy, environmental impact assessment and target setting, sustainability reporting, or more, don't hesitate to reach out!

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