What if consultants gave up flying?

  • Edward Haigh

On Easter day this year my conscience flicked a switch. Like most people, I suspect, I’d become used to more or less carrying on as usual against a backdrop of increasingly cataclysmic predictions about the future of our planet. I felt concerned about the situation, and had made some changes in my life, but the facts still overwhelmingly told a story of hypocrisy: My home life might have been relatively low-impact from a carbon perspective, but my need to travel was leaving a massive and dirty footprint on the world.

I guess what happened at Easter was that a threshold of evidence in my mind – one that I hadn’t known was there – was crossed. I’d seen and heard enough. In truth, this wasn’t the Damascene moment it should have been: My life was completely intertwined with an economy based on a foundation of extractivism and remains that way now. I profit, personally and professionally, from what the earth gives up, and would have to change my life to an extent that I’m not yet brave or selfless enough to do, in order to put that right. But in that moment, I committed to trying in whatever way I felt able.

Having entered a few bits of information into an online carbon calculator, the stark conclusion was that my major focus needed to be on air travel. It was relatively easy to commit to giving up flying completely in my personal life, and once I get back from a trip to Portugal that’s what I plan to do. But as the leader and major shareholder of a company whose business still relies on its employees flying all over the world, there was little point in me attempting to do the same for work: That would simply shift air miles onto other people while I continued to profit from the business that resulted from them flying. It would, plainly, be better to resign. But I could, at least, try to reduce my flying.

Though there will doubtless be many readers of this blog who are unmoved by my story, I suspect there will be at least some with whom it resonates. And that’s a bit of a problem when those people are consultants. So, if you’re one of them, what would happen if you gave up flying? Well, we’ve just surveyed a load of clients in the US to try to find out, and the resulting report (which is free, by the way) is out now.

At its heart is a paradox: The good news is that your clients will think you’re great—they’ll admire your commitment to the environment and may even be more inclined to buy your services than they were before. The bad news is that if you’re not in their office at 9am on Monday morning, they may well start looking for someone who will be.

Confused? It’s actually very simple: What clients are saying is that the fact that you live a long way from their office is your problem, not theirs. They’d love you to be able to get there by bicycle, and would certainly rather you didn’t have to get there by airplane, but they want you to figure that one out for yourself.

Nor do they expect their need for you to be on-site to diminish any time soon—in fact an interest in skills-transfer may even lead to it increasing, as may a growing need for the softer, more human side of consulting—so don’t get your hopes up that technology is going to give you a licence to serve them remotely. The tech gets to stay at home; you don’t.

But before you dismiss your chances of ever being able to combine a career as a management consultant with your commitment to the environment, there do appear to be five conditions under which things could work:

  1. Your client trusts you
  2. You can convince your client of your ability to deliver high-quality work remotely
  3. You’re a video star
  4. You show your clients how you not flying can benefit them
  5. You pick your projects carefully

We explore each of those a bit more in our report, but there’s something that, I think, runs through them all, and may even help to resolve the paradox described above: Talk to your client. Tell them what you’re doing and why. I suppose that’s partly what I’m doing here. Because this really matters to me. And if it really matters to you, too, then let’s try to figure it out together.

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