The evolving nature of the sustainability agenda

In the field of philosophy, there’s a famous puzzle known as the Gettier problem—named for the philosopher Edmund Gettier who first described it in 1963. In its simplest form, the problem invites us to consider a person—let’s call her Kate—who wants to know what time it is. Glancing down at her watch, she confidently declares that it’s four o’clock on the hour. However, unbeknownst to Kate, her watch actually stopped working a few days ago. But by sheer coincidence, it is indeed four o’clock. Can Kate be said, in any meaningful sense, to know what the time is?

This question may seem innocuous, but entire subfields of philosophy have emerged dedicated to grappling with it. But what does all of this have to do with the professional services market? Well, the Gettier problem should remind us that knowing something to be true is often less important than understanding why that thing is true; that being right for the wrong reasons can be even more dangerous than being wrong. Take, for example, the topic of sustainability.

We have written before on this blog and in recent white papers about our belief that sustainability consulting will play a major role, in one form or another, in shaping the future of the professional services industry. But it’s not enough to simply know that your firm needs to invest in sustainability services because everyone else is doing so. No—figuring out how best to respond to growing interest in sustainability requires more than just being aware that it’s an item near the top of client agendas right now. Rather, you need to develop an understanding of the underlying reasons that explain why your clients specifically care about this topic.

And if we look at the reasons clients give when asked to explain why sustainability matters to them, we can detect signs that we may be in the middle of an important transition period. The forces motivating client interest in the topic today are very different from the forces at play just a few years ago; and in another few years, there may be a whole new set of reasons to care about sustainability. If we step back and take a historical view of the evolution of the sustainability agenda, we can see a clear pattern of movement through four distinct phases.

When the topic first started gaining mainstream traction, it was seen primarily as a moral compulsion. Business leaders were told to invest in sustainability because they had an ethical obligation to do so. Over time, that ethical agenda morphed into something more akin to a compliance agenda as governments and public sector bodies tried to convert that ethical obligation into a regulatory framework. But in both cases, sustainability was an agenda item imposed on organisations from the outside in, so to speak—either by social pressure to “do the right thing” or by regulatory compulsion.

The situation today, however, is very different. Now, concerns about sustainability are rooted, more than anything else, in a genuine sense of material risk. Business leaders are looking at the immense challenges facing society and the planet today—pandemics, climate change, and social upheaval to name a few—and are concluding, quite rightly, that investing in sustainability is a necessary prerequisite for ensuring the long-term survival of their organisations.

However, we may not yet have reached the endpoint of this process of evolution. Already, there are signs that some clients have not only fully internalised the risks associated with failing to take sustainability seriously, but have started to leave that mode of thinking behind them. These clients see sustainability not just as a set of risks to be managed and mitigated, but as an engine for growth. The transition to a more sustainable society will inevitably create opportunities for business models and product categories that simply don’t exist today—and these clients want to be first in line to take advantage of those opportunities.

Understand this trajectory—and where your clients sit along it—and your firm will have a significant advantage when it comes to positioning yourself as a sustainability leader. Consultants ultimately need to be aware not just of where their clients are today on their sustainability journeys, but also where they’ll be tomorrow. Right now, firms ought to be focusing on helping their clients build institutional resilience to sustainability-related risks. But while they do that, they should keep one eye on the emerging opportunity agenda—making sure that they have “oven ready” propositions to bring to the market once their clients are ready for them.