Based on the World Economic Forum's 2020 report, climate change is ranked first among the risks facing businesses. It is therefore necessary and urgent for private actors to commit to a sustainable development approach. Faced with this issue, we might ask ourselves how consulting agencies can support companies in their environmental transition? What are the specificities of the sustainable development consulting profession? What is the responsibility of consulting firms? To answer these questions, I interviewed an energy & climate consultant at I Care & Consult.
Environmental issues increasingly taken into account by companies
According to a PwC report, 72% of companies mention the Sustainable Development Goals in their reporting publications, particularly measures to combat climate change. This illustrates the growing awareness of the importance of environmental issues, with varying reasons depending on the company.
For some, the sustainable development approach is inseparable from the business project. This is the case of Patagonia, a firm that produces eco-designed technical clothing for mountain sports and surfing, whose values include causing the least possible environmental impact and protecting nature. To this end, Patagonia aims to be carbon neutral by 2025, and it makes commitments to consumers to repair, reconvert or recycle their clothing at the end of its life.
Nevertheless, for the majority of companies, the desire to make an "environmental transition" is mainly driven by pressure from various stakeholders. In addition to new regulations in favour of the environment (certain single-use plastic products have been banned from sale in France since 1 January 2020), investors, employees and consumers support companies taking concrete actions towards the environment. For example, according to a GreenFlex report, 74% of Europeans say they have changed all or part of their consumption behaviour to reduce their environmental impact.
However, whatever their reasons for reducing their environmental footprint, companies need to be supported, as they do not have the experience, skills or tools to make these changes. This is what environmental transition consulting agencies are all about.
Ecological transition consulting agencies
To support companies, environmental transition consulting firms offer different types of services, such as product life cycle analysis, construction of global circular economy strategies, implementation of solutions for sustainable agriculture and design of policies to reduce air pollutant emissions. The consultant I interviewed mainly carries out missions related to greenhouse gas emissions. Initially, he conducts carbon footprint audits to evaluate the environmental impact of companies or communities. He then develops low-carbon strategies in order to propose various levers to the client to reduce its carbon footprint, such as the consumption of green electricity or improving the energy efficiency of its infrastructures.
In addition to consulting firms specializing in sustainable development, such as I Care & Consult and Carbone 4 founded by Jean-Marc Jancovici, other players have positioned themselves on this buoyant market, such as strategy and organization consulting firms and certification agencies. While the interviewee is convinced that the sector's activity will grow over the next few years, he believes that the increase in the environmental transition offer of generalist consulting firms will contain the number of players in this sector. This implies a change in recruitment policy, as environmental transition consulting is characterized by the scientific dimension of the profession.
Consultant in ecological transition: a job with a scientific dimension
According to the consultant questioned, the scientific dimension of his profession is omnipresent. He deals with technical subjects, where it is necessary to stay informed about studies concerning climate change and all the technologies able to reduce CO2 emissions and save energy. Passionate about his job, he finds that "it's great to do a job where you learn things you're interested in".
Nevertheless, the scientific dimension is also at the origin of the difficulties he may encounter. Indeed, he sometimes has to make decisions on complex subjects where little or no literature exists. For example, when conducting a company's carbon footprint audit, he must take into account carbon dioxide capture and storage technologies. However, no rules are defined on this topic and even experts have divergent opinions. He tries to retain the best hypothesis, with a possible significant impact for the company and the climate, without being fully certain that the hypotheses of the moment will be confirmed in a few years. This raises the question of the responsibility of consulting firms in the ecological transition.
The responsibility of consulting firms?
According to the interviewee, consultants are responsible for "best translating what science says" and being as transparent as possible with their clients. To do this, they must try to master as well as possible the technical subjects on which they carry out their analyses and propose recommendations. Furthermore, consultants must adopt an ethical behaviour, i.e. not give in to pressure from companies to change figures in a carbon footprint audit or to overestimate the impact of a future measure for example. Finally, they must, whenever possible, try to challenge the client. Of course, the final decisions belong to clients and sometimes it is not possible to explore promising paths because of a lack of additional budget for the consultant's mission.
"Make the planet great again": a global approach needed
Given the importance of the environmental issues, there is no doubt that consulting firms can position themselves as key catalysts in the ecological transition of companies. This requires in particular a global approach to consider the direct and induced ecological footprints (investments, subcontractors, end-of-life recycling). Furthermore, all private and public actors must engage in a process of reflection to change our economic models for another type of growth, which should not be correlated with energy consumption.
 World Economic Forum, 2020. The Global Risks Report 2020. [online] Available at: <http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risk_Report_2020.pdf> [Accessed 18 October 2020].
 PwC, 2019. Creating A Strategy For A Better World - How The Sustainable Development Goals Can Provide The Framework For Business To Deliver Progress On Our Global Challenges. [online] Available at: <https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/sustainability/SDG/sdg-2019.pdf> [Accessed 18 October 2020].
 Greenflex and ADEME, 2020. Baromètre Greenflex-ADEME 2019 De La Consommation Responsable.