Becoming a sustainability consultant: Why systems matter and boundaries don’t

A materials flow analysis

By now, the field of social entrepreneurship is an established career path, and MBA programs all over the country have launched tracks dedicated to its study.

But another field of work, also geared toward environmental and social sustainability, has flown under the radar: sustainability consulting. With unemployment near ten percent and the market sagging, full-time jobs are hard to come by. Being a consultant is a way to use your skills for good and get paid while building up experience.

Ariana Bain is an industrial and urban ecologist, and she currently works as a consultant forExcept, a company dedicated to helping businesses achieve sustainability. (Industrial ecology, Bain explains, is the study of the flow of energy – water and materials – through systems at different time and space scales, and of the environmental and social impacts of those flows.)

Here Bain shares with Dowser some tricks of the sustainability consultant trade.

RS: What is one experience in your life that led you to do what you do now?
Bain: The most central point was when I was 21, and I stopped eating dairy and soy for medical reasons. I had to read the packaging on everything I ate. I started digging into what was going on with the industrial food system. I started focusing on life cycles – the trajectories of consumer goods. I use those same analytical tools now, within my field of industrial ecology. Looking at the life cycle of a human, a society, an object – you can use the same analytical framework.

What is a typical day at work like for you?
The main thing I do is work with companies and organizations to deliver a carbon footprint for a product or an activity. I usually split my days into content and management days. It’s important to think about ways we can be more productive. One of the challenges in this field is that we have to know how to do a million things – and do them efficiently, to feel that we actually accomplished them and then move on to something else. It’s really about allocating time.

How do you find technology helpful in your work?
For one, there would be no way to run this company [Except] without free, cheap, and abundant communication tools, because we are split between the US and the Netherlands. We’re in the process of launching our use of an enterprise wiki – which should aggregate all of the other social media and communication tools that we use. We’re committed to Open Source software like Open Office. I’m a numbers person, and some of the functionality is lost–it doesn’t compare to Microsoft Excel. But we avoid having a lot of resources tied up in software licenses. We have to use certain things, like Adobe programs such as InDesign – we haven’t found an alternative. All our office computers run on Linux.

Our principle is that information should be abundant and available. Knowledge should be in the common space so that we can all create solutions. When we publish our work we publish it with Creative Commons so that everyone can access it.

What is something you are learning in your job? Something that

Ariana Bain

challenges you? 
The biggest challenge I have, and I think this extends to my company, is that we are a hierarchically flat company – we have no hierarchy. When it comes to management, we assign roles for each project based on peoples’ skills rather than how long people have been at a company. But the hardest part within that is learning how to tell someone what to do, and do it in an equitable way. It’s a question of creating a fluid organization, when people shift back and forth between organizational and content positions.

Tell me more about the consulting firm you work with.
Except is a collaboration between people, some of whom met in graduate school at Yale. Tom Bosschaert founded the company in 1999. It’s a model for developing a consulting company free of any initial capital investment. A consulting company is not an investible vehicle – so the next way to fund it is to each work really hard to find as many clients as you can, individually, and then building up and merging everything together.

Our work is mostly corporate sustainability and planning work, and we focus on product development. For example we’re doing a carbon footprint project with a coffee exporting company in Nicaragua. We’re working with them to develop this as a product to sell to future clients. We have about eight projects like this right now where we’re working with other partners to develop a product we can use repeatedly.

What’s the trick to a successful consultancy?
In consulting you don’t want to be doing one-off projects all the time. Sooner or later, unless people have huge margins on their work, doing projects where you have to reinvent the process flow and the content is not a way to run a business. You need to have a scalable product – and this means developing proprietary databases. The first time you develop a carbon footprint it takes forever, but once you’ve made it you can re-do it pretty quickly with energy and material data. These are startup costs to having a consulting company – doing all that work in the beginning. This is why LEED has been successful – it’s a known product, it’s a certification, it has a set process.

What is the most important advice you’d give to someone who wants a career that creates sustainable change?
My advice is very oriented toward certain brain types – people who like to think in systems. A lot of people in the sustainability world like to think this way. I wouldn’t think about a career trajectory in terms of boundaries like NGO versus government. I know people working in venture capital positions in government, and others who earn $20,000 a year in the private sector doing jobs they believe in.

The important thing is for people to decide what level within a system they want to work at. An example of that would be: there are some people who are really good with their hands. So whether that’s being an urban commercial greenhouse grower, or running a kids’ program at a farm, that’s one way to work within a system – whereas other people like myself like to work at a design and numbers level. I am never happier when someone gives me a problem and tells me to work it out and I’m crunching numbers in a spreadsheet. So people need to see where they are most happy and can be most effective within a field.

Interview has been edited and condensed

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