I think the answer to this has to be no.
But also very occasionally yes, within certain limitations.
I don’t mean to suggest that consultants, engineering, inspection firms and the like, can’t provide a valuable service.
Commercial vendors often do provide excellent value. They would not last long if they could not.
Yet some companies persist in believing that a technical audit of one area, or an overview by a small consulting or vendor outfit, or even a larger one, can provide stakeholder assurance that all is well on issue X or in community Y.
Here’s an salient example of when that approach backfires.
To pay someone entirely profit-minded to ‘verify’ your progress, is not compelling on more complex issues than say, financial accounting or carbon emissions.
To do so is just not convincing to NGOs, to journalists, to your employees and other stakeholder groups.
So who can you work with in areas of increasing complexity and corporate responsibility to provide some assurance that your approach is genuine?
Then there are groups like WWF who will offer comment and expertise, or UN-sanctioned groups such as UNEP, who undertake research sometimes paid for with corporate cash via governments such as Nigeria’s.
But these are open to question too.
One can argue groups like BSR/BITC become too business-friendly and lack expertise in specific, complex areas, that WWF is too keen on business monies, that individual academics like private consulting cash, and that UNEP has become co-opted and is losing sight of its mission.
All of these can be seen as both legitimate groups to work with in your firm, but are also open to attack by your critics.
What then, is the solution?
Perhaps on narrow environmental issues, if international standards exist, and vendors are out there whose reputation is more important than one client, you can use commercial firms to verify, say, your carbon emissions, or a site’s water footprint.
It’s not perfect, but it’s the best you can likely do, unless the issue, company, or site is controversial. If that’s the case, you have a credibility problem no commercial audit can solve.
On broader issues more open to question, the answer is possibly to work with those whose core mission is clearly more important than the cash your project, or other such projects, represents.
So rather than an academic, a research team from one or more University departments.
Or rather than a single, business-friendly NGO or membership group dependent on corporate memberships and consulting cash, a coalition of NGOs, some of whom are independent, or at least multi-stakeholder oriented, such as ETI.
This is of course, very hard to set up and manage to a successful outcome when you start getting into coalition territory.
Even in a bi-lateral short-term partnership, Unilever will tell you how hard that is, based on their experience with Oxfam back in 2004.
But I wonder where else the solution lies, if not in research partnerships with credible academic institutions or groups of NGOs.
On difficult issues, or in the case of controversial companies, perhaps the best you can hope for is to be able to call on the views of those least open to the questioning of their credibility.
No-one said that getting out of a reputation mess, even one that’s not your fault, is easy.