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Can paid consultants be credible voices for corporate responsibility?

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.

But doing so is not without risk. Another example of how consultant views can be mis-represented is here.

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?

One option is non-profit consulting outfits. Like Verite on labour or BSR/BITC more generally. Another option is a group such as FSG.

A different approach is to work with academics, like Ethan Kapstein at Insead, or the University of Sussex.

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.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Toby,

    there seems to be quite a bit of consultant bashing going on these days around the CR world. I even hear it coming from some of the 'not for profit' organisations you mention, who quite frankly are all but consultants in name. They are certainly the organisations we find ourselves competing with and who charge consulting fees similar, equal or sometimes in excess of our own (in one recent case double our fees).

    just because they are 'not for profit' does not necessarily make them better. i've been a consultant 20 years, and 15 years in this area, building up massive experience in a wide range of industries and topics. i believe fundamentally in using a business model for my operations – why not if you are advising businesses? it has not always been easy, business membership organisations and non-profits skew the market. Further, at times we have made our life harder by not being a lapdog for our clients, we have walked away on occasions rather than be that lapdog.

    We work with our clients on largescale change programmes that make a major difference to the way companies operate. We are employed often because we are that critical friend and we challenge, and hold a place of integrity – and keep our clients to the task.

    As always generic statements are dangerous and a blanket damning of consultants is far from justified. There are consultants who operate with the highest levels of professionalism, independence and integriy – and there are clients who value this. we have had an immature consulting market for many years in this field, clients are now becoming more discerning – which is good news for all those professional consultants looking to make an honest living!

  2. Hi Luke,

    Excellent comments, many thanks. I tried to make the point in my piece, probably badly, that:

    A) Many consultants do a great job
    B) There are different models but non-profit is not necessarily a better model (I actual think it's worse)
    C) Most importantly: The point here is NOT to bash consultants, but instead to make the point to companies that they should not use them in the wrong way. I still come across lots of companies who think a consultant's report exonerates them or is convincing evidence in their defence. I disagree that this can be the case, for various reasons as stated.

    The point of my post is that companies need to get smarter in how they convince stakeholders of their good intentions and progress, but not to bash consultants in the field. There are many good ones, and some bad ones, as in any area of business or non-profits.

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