Which firm will be the Tesla of sustainability transformation?

I know next to nothing about cars. Talk to me about engine sizes, horsepower, or miles to the gallon and I’ll glaze over in boredom. Suggest watching an episode of Top Gear and I’ll run a mile. There are too many models, with too many features that change too regularly, and I’m just not interested enough to keep up. But if you asked a question about cars I could answer, like name a fast car? Ferrari. Name a family-friendly car? Nissan Qashqai. 

I wonder if clients sometimes have a similar approach when asked about consulting firms. At the end of last year we asked clients to tell us what they thought of different firms’ ability to deliver sustainability projects. They tend to rate strategy firms most highly, while the Big Four are towards the bottom of the pile. But I think this says far more about where clients’ minds are at with sustainability, and about the competitive efforts between firms so far, than anything about actual capability in this area. An “area”, incidentally, that we think could be the next digital transformation for the consulting industry

A few years ago, a CEO of a blue-chip company told us: “We’re working on our digital strategy. I have no idea what that means.” Many clients probably feel equally at sea about their sustainability strategy. They know it’s a big deal. They know they need to do it. They know consumers want it. But what does it actually look like? How do they even get started? Which of the myriad paths ahead should they take? They’re in that foggy phase at the beginning of major change where nothing seems clear, and they want experts to help them make sense of it. Hence, I think, strategy firms having the edge in our most recent survey—they’re the natural choice for helping figure out the path forward. 

Firms themselves haven’t done much to challenge this view. One reason is likely to be because there’s a lack of consensus around what exactly sustainability services constitutes, so in the absence of a definitive answer, firms have fallen back on what they know. Strategy firms talk about business model change and transformation; technology firms talk about specific technology solutions; the Big Four focus on risk, regulatory compliance, and tax implications. None have made moves to create an integrated sustainability proposition that grabs the market’s attention. Sure, some have made acquisitions, and some have dedicated sustainability teams lurking in various offices around the globe, but expecting clients to keep up with that level of detail is like expecting me to know the difference between the latest Audi and BMW models. Unless it’s something bold and radically different, clients won’t pay attention. Instead, they will fall back on what they know—seeing each firm through the lens of its historical strength.  

All of which begs the question: Which firm will be first to make a move? And which will do it with enough of a bang to get noticed?* 

*For those who thought the question would be, “What car do I actually own?” I’m the proud owner of a second-hand Audi A3. And, no, I don’t know whether that’s better or worse than an A2 or A4.