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Sustainability: a people-centric problem?

We live in a time where the challenge of building a sustainable future for the human race has never felt more daunting. And it is very easy to look at the threats currently marshalled against us—issues like climate change, the biodiversity crisis, social upheaval, increasing inequality, and so on—and assume that, if solutions to these problems are to be found, they will most likely be technological in nature. After all, new technologies have historically played a key role in helping our species respond to major challenges, both social and environmental. Had scientists not discovered alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons, we wouldn’t have been able to shrink the hole in the Ozone layer; and many have argued that without the invention of household appliances like the washing machine, the women’s rights movement would have had a much steeper hill to climb and there would likely be far fewer women in the workforce today.

Follow media discourse around sustainability-related issues and you could easily get the impression that solving these challenges is just a matter of waiting for scientists and engineers to come up with the right breakthroughs—sustainable packaging materials, hydrogen fuel cells, carbon capture technologies, and so on. And so a professional services firm in the process of launching a sustainability sub-brand might consequently decide that the way to guarantee success would be to focus solely on advertising its technology know-how to prospective clients.

In our view, however, that would be a mistake. In a recent report, we asked buyers of professional services to tell us what they saw as the most important steps their businesses needed to take in order to become truly sustainable organisations. The most common responses all had one thing in common: They were, fundamentally, people-centric in nature.

This is not to say that technology will not have a key role to play in creating a more sustainable society—it certainly will. But right now, clients who care about sustainability are not, for the most part, asking technology-related questions. Instead, their focus is on questions like: “How do I make sure my employees feel invested enough in this business to stick with us through times of crisis?”; “How do I build a culture where sustainability is actively considered at every level of the organisation?”; and “How do I create the resource flexibility I need to be able to rapidly redeploy people in response to new threats and opportunities?”

It’s clear that convincing your clients you understand this topic is not just a matter of throwing around the right bits of technical jargon. No, you have to be able to prove that you’ve invested serious time and energy into thinking about the human dimension of sustainability. Your go-to-market propositions ought to focus as much on helping clients reskill their people and build a culture of sustainability as they do on facilitating the introduction of sustainable new technologies into their organisations—if not more so.

This also means that there is a potential opportunity here for firms that have traditionally operated in the people advisory space to play a more active role in growing the market for sustainability consulting. To date, most of the energy in this nascent field seems to be coming from firms that have strong technology heritages—firms that have been able to use their deep rosters of designers and developers to help clients find innovative ways of using new technologies to address their big sustainability challenges.

But if what clients really need right now is support on the people side of the sustainability equation, then consulting firms that really understand human capital—perhaps even executive search firms that have a talent and people advisory arm—look poised to be the big winners. Expect, going forward, to see more of these firms make a real push into the sustainability space—and to lead the way in developing a new generation of truly human-centric sustainability propositions.