The top five skills of a sustainability consultant

The top five skills of a sustainability consultant

It was all over the national news a couple of weeks ago: according to a new assessment from IPCC, limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

One of the key messages that stands out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the extreme consequences of 1°C of global warming through rising sea levels from diminishing Arctic sea ice, droughts, deforestation, species extinction and much more.

Scientists have warned that we only have 10 years left to fix this situation, and the United States of America, which is one of the countries with major responsibilities for global warming, is currently turning a blind eye to the situation.

It really is as scary as it sounds.

Now, do these frightening facts about the devastating reality of climate change make a dent into people’s conscience, I wonder?

I’m currently working with a European consultancy practice as a BREEAM AP. So far, the projects I’ve been contracted to advise on have all been fairly large shopping centres that include a variety of functions. Some of these are commissioned by clients that have no clue about sustainability; some show a genuine willingness from the client to be seen as ‘green’ – large solar panel installations and tons of bike racks are the visible signs of the latter.

However, we always get appointed once the main contractor is already on site digging up. They have to go through BREEAM for planning or GRESB reporting, but it feels rather like they have to have a root canal done.

For us, the late appointment means it’s a mad rush to squeeze a square peg in a round hole.

In the best-case scenarios, when the client, design team and contractor have some mild disposition towards sustainability, we need to do a giant matching exercise to ensure what they have already done – pretty much everything – complies retrospectively with the BREEAM standard. This means losing lots of opportunities along the way, especially those that can make a difference, like carrying out a Life Cycle Assessment, or an extensive early consultation exercise with all the involved stakeholders.

The sustainability consultancy team go through hundreds of documents, look for every single criterion in the BREEAM manual, and painstakingly map it back to the project.

And what’s the point of such an exercise, anyway? Is it really going to make that building any more sustainable? It either was at the beginning, or else, it will never be.

Sometimes, the client has spent an enormous amount of budget and time on procuring photovoltaic panels. But they never considered the efficiency of the building fabric and M&E systems to drive the energy demand down first. They have hundreds of cycle racks, but no cycle lanes. The list goes on.

On the other hand, in the worst-case scenarios, we have to start from telling the stakeholders what this exercise implies, and then we see their faces dropping, and they start making excuses at every hurdle.

Being a sustainability consultant is not an easy job; illuminated clients and design teams are a rare breed. And the challenges are many, including working with assessment systems that are cumbersome, battling through regulations, pushing sustainability when the only argument people have ears for is money and being appointed always too late to make a significant impact.

Can you see the contradiction there? Ordinary people being shocked by a TV programme like Blue Planet II are really starting to take notice of the amount of single use plastic they consume, down to refusing plastic straws in cafes, versus many corporations and giants of the construction industry not even considering, unless their arms are twisted, doing the bare minimum to act and take responsibility for their own impact.

Although we know we can’t change our clients over night, how can we start shifting the balance in our daily work? How can we make it more impactful?

Of course, there needs to be some campaigning by the profession about the value of starting sustainability appraisals and assessment as early as possible. However, sustainability consultants can obtain better results by strengthening a few key personal skills, as advocated by IEMA via their Sustainability Skills Map.

But what are the top skills of successful sustainability consultants?


They are technically sound


They know sustainable technologies, they know the standards inside out, they know the sustainability theory really well. This is the basis they build upon.


They have a strategic overview and strong management skills


Rather than chasing one little element at a time, they can paint the big picture of how to reach stretching goals by being more efficient in the management of their projects, by specifying systems and exercises (like running an LCA) that are ticking numerous boxes, they have clear targets from the beginning.


They have strong influencing skills


They can persuade people, they can aggregate people, they can lead by example and get people to follow. They listen to others, respect their opinion, but can stand their ground and are able to read between the lines to use their audience’s problems and frustrations and provide solutions, not further problems.

They have a crystal clear message, which they communicate through storytelling

They know how to paint the sustainability picture in a clever, structured, polished and simple way, so that they can get people excited about the project at hand. Have you noticed that CEOs and public figures speak in very simple, almost trivial terms? That they don’t use jargon? Have you noticed how every TED talk starts with “let me tell you a story…”? Successful people tell stories and make them personal and colourful to get the emotional buy-in from their audience.


They can "sell" sustainability


It’s not as awful as it sounds. Everyone sells, every day. When you convince your kids to eat one more bite of their meal, you are selling that bite to them: it’s good for you (reasoning), it will make you grow strong (inspiring), do it for me (using emotions), if you don’t eat this there is no pudding (using fear). These are all persuasion skills that we forget we have, but that we use every day. You can do the same with sustainability, if you know your stuff and you prepare properly.

You can’t often take the inspirational, naïve path and talk about how we are all destroying the planet with our reckless behaviour. Entrepreneurs and business people have P&Ls to deal with on a daily basis: for them, that’s scarier that the coral reef disappearing from our oceans, even if on a personal level they might genuinely care about coral. I suppose, as human beings, we are often unable to see the big picture.

The only feasible solution at the moment, before sustainability becomes routine for businesses – and I’m hopeful it will happen as some point - is to start learning your clients’ language: talk about money. Become an advocate of sustainability as a fantastic business opportunity – because it can be. Become articulate in matching the exact benefits sustainability brings to different stakeholders. A developer that wants to build and sell immediately will not be interested in operational savings; they will be more interested in risk management and saving money during the construction process. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an owner-occupier will want to see how their capital investment saves them money over the lifetime of the building, and even how it will contribute to staff productivity, which in turn has an enormous price tag attached.

Green Gorilla works with sustainability consultants to strengthen their personal skills, as well as giving them a project management framework to streamline their workloads. Additionally, we instil the right value arguments so that they can persuade their clients and get them on board.

Start the new year in an impactful way, join the Green Gorilla Masterclass Programme.

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