Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Finding a sustainability consultant you can trust

By Eric Brody on September 19, 2008

After working in sustainability at two amazing companies (Nike and Nau) for the last decade, I decided it was time to launch a sustainability consulting business. As someone who used to select and hire consultants to assist in projects, I have tried to take those lessons learned to provide excellent service in my own practice. Sustainability may sound easy at first, but when companies start to dive in they realize the ’devil is in the details‘ and that due diligence is where a consultant can really help.

The challenges come in all shapes and sizes. Examples include quantifying sustainability metrics for products and production in meaningful and relevant ways, tracking and verifying material claims through the supply chain (which, for many companies, means diving much deeper in their supply chain than they ever have before), and communicating corporate initiatives to customers who are becoming more savvy.

Now that sustainability is the ‘new black,’ many have entered the field. However, they may not have relevant experience, or they may charge a small fortune for meager results. For example, it is critical to know how to communicate with suppliers of various sizes and cultures, how to roll out programs that will result in buy-in, or how to integrate sustainability into a product without jeopardizing the performance or significantly impacting the costs.

Here are a few tips to help weed out inexperienced consultants from the valuable experts:

Know what you want — the more you know about the subject, the more able you will be to ask the right questions, have reasonable expectations, and find credible expertise. Talk to your suppliers to understand what other customers are asking of them. To find out the latest trends, challenges and accomplishments in the industry, speak to companies and organizations, such as BSR and GreenBlue, involved in industry working groups tackling sustainability issues.

Ask around — talk to people in your networks and ask for recommended consultants. Speak to the same groups mentioned above for recommendations. In the arena of sustainability, companies and individuals are more apt to share information and even help out competitors. For example, if you are looking at green building consultants, the U.S. Green Building Council has a large network of professionals. For packaging consultants, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is a great way to network with professional at all levels of the supply chain.

Look for relevant expertise — sustainability means different things to different people and spans such topics as energy, water, construction, packaging, and product design — to name just a few. Make sure the person you work with has relevant industry experience and not just theoretical knowledge. Sustainability is not rocket science (unless you are working to make the space shuttle more sustainable), but it does get complex when you start talking about integrating sustainability into business operations, data management, reporting systems, supply chain, products and logistics. For example, many companies are creating balanced scorecards that integrate sustainability metrics with quality, delivery and cost metrics. Identifying the appropriate items to measure and then how to report it in a way that is meaningful to the decision makers in the business is critical to success.

Get references — talk to as many people as you can who have worked with the consultant. Ask what types of problems they were engaged to solve, what types of projects, and what the outcomes were. This will be your most valuable source of information for how well the consultant works with teams — and how effectively.

Start small and test the waters — this is not always possible depending on the timeline and needs of your company, but if you can start on a small project this allows you to see what kind of results you get, and how well you and the consultant work together.

Finding the right consultant can make a big difference in the success of your sustainability effort. He or she can flatten your learning curve, reduce confusion and costs, and ensure that the entire organization will begin to move toward sustainability seriously — because your project was successful. Feel free to enter your question in the response box below, or share your experiences with consultants.