If you conduct a search for me on LinkedIn, you’ll find my current job title is “Sustainability Consultant”. Scroll through my profile and you’ll learn that my work experience includes several consultancy assignments for various corporate clients in the food, fashion and cosmetics sectors mainly. My responsibilities include strategy development, sustainable sourcing, stakeholder engagement and communication.
But you know what? I never thought I’d become a consultant one day. I pictured consultancy to be only for taxes and management issues and a position reserved for a bunch of old white men in suits traveling in business class and being paid to tell their clients about Agile methodology and contents insurance.
Moreover, I grew up convinced I’d work as a campaigner in an NGO or within international institutions such as the United Nations or the EU to change the world for the better.
And I did. For a while.
I worked for the UN on peace issues in the Central African Republic and campaigned at the EU level for international development and sustainable finance. While I loved these experiences, they also taught me that these huge machines are driven by bureaucracy in the worst sense of the term and submitted to the political will of whoever is in charge at that time.
Here’s an example: The EU only made a non-binding statement on palm oil in early 2017 even though the consequences of this commodity on the environment and workers have been known since mid-2000s. And that’s because of existing trade agreements between the EU and Indonesia and Malaysia that make up the basis of the diplomatic relations between these countries.
So based on this observation, I became interested in the power of business when it comes to sustainability challenges. Could a Fortune 500 multi-billion dollar corporation operating in dozens of countries have a bigger and faster impact than national governments and UN institutions? To find out for myself, I took on a job as a sustainability consultant for the private sector having no idea what I was getting myself into.
There’s power in business.
When I first got here, boy was it a change of scenery. My clients included some of the biggest companies in the world in the cosmetics and food sectors. As sustainability consultants, we were supporting them in their “Zero Deforestation” strategy implementation and in managing their relationships with their stakeholders.
I found myself working for companies whose business models were completely against my personal ethics: animal testing, over consumption, increased demand of at risk raw materials to produce even more products. But I also witnessed the incredible power and resources these companies have. Should they be committed to something (read, see the financial opportunity), in this case attempting to reduce and eventually stop deforestation linked commodities to enter their supply chain, they were going all in. Putting money in a sustainability department, hiring consultants, financing projects on the ground and of course.. heavily communicating about all these wonderful efforts.'I found myself working for companies whose business models were completely against my personal ethics: animal testing, over consumption...' Can you work as a sustainability consultant and not lose your soul? Read more...Click To Tweet
But strangely enough, the financial benefits of greening their image and gaining conscious consumers isn’t the only reason for many companies’ eco or ethical efforts.
The CEO is.
I’ve noticed that having a CEO who believes in the benefits of sustainability and who believes that business can be a force for good changes everything and infuses the notion of change throughout a company. Look at Paul Polman at Unilever who was one of the early adopters of zero deforestation policy and who is now investing millions of dollars into research for plastic-free alternatives to packaging.
There’s also Elon Musk who convinced the world that renewable is the future of energy.
Without a CEO and a board who are on board (excuse the lousy wordplay) because they truly see that there’s just no other option, it’s very hard for a company to succeed in its sustainability transformation in the long term and not just appear as a champion of greenwashing.
Remember when Mango and Zara launched a “sustainable” collection that didn’t convince anyone?
Or the huge Volkswagen scandal when it was revealed that the brand cheated on their green house gas emissions tests, making them compliant with legislation when in reality they were 40 percent higher than authorized?
There’s frustration in business…
But working with multinational corporations is also often filled with very, very frustrating moments, especially when you consider yourself an activist at heart. I remember being at a meeting on the top floor of a tower, meeting senior managers at corporate headquarters, and witnessing an absurd conversation about refusing to give 10,000 extra euros (equivalent to US$11,540) for a highly successful project on the ground because “the budget was already agreed upon and recipients should have managed it better”. What?
Or another time, hearing about a situation where several corporations couldn’t agree on an alliance that could have impacted millions of hectares of forest and the lives of thousands of workers because of “antitrust” issues. Congrats on calling yourselves sustainability leaders, I often want to yell when I attend these kinds of meetings.
But there’s also hope business.
So why do I keep supporting these companies in their sustainability efforts when I do not personally believe in their business model, their sourcing strategy, their marketing and never, ever buy anything from them, whether food, fashion or cosmetics?
Because I am convinced that while the eco-lifestyle movement is growing, there are still millions of people worldwide, if not billions, that consume these products everyday, whether for price or convenience reasons. It would take way too long convincing all of them to switch to greener and healthier alternatives. And because these companies have such a huge impact, that even if just a few of them turned green, the positive consequences could massive and global, both on the environment and people. Furthermore, in terms of consumer education, it would take a fraction of the time it would take policy makers to legislate.
Therefore, we need to change these companies for the better; and this is where sustainability consultants come in.
We show them the business case for sustainability, support them in a language they are familiar with to make changes, challenge them where we can and sometimes drop them off if we feel like they’re lying to us or leaning towards green washing. Because yes, and this post is important, I only work with companies who I feel have a real will to change. I draw my red line at coal and oil, cattle and other animal-derived products and businesses, and “bad” lobbyism (aka, trade associations or lobby groups that advocate against environmental measures taken at the policy level).
Some might call me a hypocrite for working with these multinational corporations that responsible for so much bad in this world but here’s what I have to say about this: Until every government prioritizes the future of our planet, until we get out of the current economic system we’re in and until every consumer changes her or her purchasing habits, I am convinced that working with corporations towards more sustainable practices is one of the many actions available in an activist toolbox.
Have questions about what I’ve written? Want to discuss it further? Feel free to leave your questions and comments below. I’d be glad to provide further insights into the work I do!