Sustainability Practitioner, Subject-matter Expert or Gunslinger? Who should you choose?

Recently I was drinking an organic fair-trade soy latte while chatting with a long-time sustainability consulting colleague of mine who asked me what I thought about the sustainability consulting shops that were popping up all over the place.

The short answer – I couldn’t be happier.  For one thing, for sustainability old-timers like me, it further validates the relevance and need for the sustainability consulting marketplace.  For another, it breeds competition and innovation, which I love.  Moreover, I figure, the more people there are making noise the more people will be busy justifying the business case for sustainability, which is quite helpful.

The long answer is a wee bit different, and the focus of this article.  It is the wild west of sustainability consulting right now – awareness is high, but comprehension is low.  There are sustainability practitioners (knowledgeable and qualified), subject-matter experts (knowledgeable in one or two areas that fall under the sustainability umbrella) and gunslingers (armed with the lingo but not the knowledge).

Time to provide a little clarity and guidance to companies trying to assess which of these characters to engage.

What is a Sustainability Practitioner?

It is from the definition of corporate sustainability that the practice of sustainability extends – or at least should extend.  Corporate sustainability is a business management approach that identifies, mitigates and capitalizes on the past, present and future impacts of a corporation’s actions and decisions.  It is an approach that champions transparency, inclusion and value-creation over closed, exclusive value-depletion.

A sustainability practitioner should not just understand this approach but give it life in a corporation.  A sustainability practitioner understands the interactions between environmental, social, cultural, economic and governance issues and how each fits into the corporate mission and strategy.  The sustainability practitioner knows how to help a company enhance its corporate value – that means helping the company grow and protect its profit and share price while helping it preserve and protect natural and social capital.

Now I ask you, the corporation, are you getting all of this help – or are you just getting a service aimed at addressing some of the issues that have been stuffed under the sustainability umbrella?

There are many – climate change, energy efficiency, reporting, community relations and donations, among others.  But just because someone can help address one or two of these issues does not mean that person is a sustainability practitioner.  Subject-matter experts can decode an issue and provide discreet solutions, but do they keep the broader corporate context and strategy in mind in order to ensure economic sustainability for the company?  Gunslingers, those gifted salespeople familiar enough with sustainability lingo to appear credible, can sound the part but often do more harm than good.

Do I Need a Sustainability Practitioner?

Now, for the sake of the argument, let us say you are a corporation looking for sustainability services, such as benchmarking, risk management auditing, policy authoring, corporate reporting, data management, stakeholder partnering, and so forth, how do you determine whether you need a sustainability practitioner?

To figure this out, you need to ask yourself three basic questions:

  • Does my initiative have implications that might affect the corporate strategy or reputation?
  • Will approvals from the C-suite or management team be required?
  • Will employees from more than one area within the company be required to weigh in on the project or product?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then a sustainability practitioner should be your first and only stop.  But even if you answered no to all of the above and think a subject-matter expert would suffice, keep in mind that sustainability practitioners can do not only the subject matter expert work but also provide value-added services that come only with breadth of knowledge and experience a sustainability practitioner holds.

How do I Know if I am Talking to a Bone Fide Sustainability Practitioner?

Determining whether a person is a sustainability practitioner can be a challenge – the acronyms are many and can get confusing – I mean, ESG, CDP, CR, SD, CSO, NFI, KPI – yikes!  You can enhance your chances at separating the wheat from the chaff by asking these key questions and assessing how well the answers match the “ideal answers”:

Question 1: Can you explain the difference between Corporate Citizenship, Responsibility and Sustainability?

  • Ideal Answer 1: A sustainability practitioner will most likely walk you through the sustainability continuum without the use of too much jargon, citing Citizenship as a donation scheme, Responsibility as a tactical approach to reporting on stakeholder issues, and Sustainability as a strategy for collaborative stakeholder engagement and issue management.  Beware those who say that they are all the same.

Question 2: Is corporate sustainability the same as sustainable development?

  • Ideal Answer 2: Sustainable development is a philosophy – meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – whereas corporate sustainability is a management approach that transforms the philosophy of sustainable development to practice.  As above, beware those who don’t understand this critical distinction.

Question 3: If I was to hire a sustainability practitioner, where in my organization does that person belong?

  • Ideal Answer 3: The best place to house a sustainability practitioner depends on the corporation’s motivation and the issues it is trying to address.  If the issue is stakeholder relations, such as Greenpeace hanging a banner from your headquarters, communications or corporate affairs might make a good home.  If the issue is greenhouse gas reduction perhaps engineering, energy management or another operational department would be the right place.  Beware those who volunteer a “perfect fit” as there is no such thing.  A sustainability practitioner is the ultimate cross-enterprise professional whose services touch all corners of the corporation.

Though there are certainly other helpful screening questions, these are a good place to start.

Now What?

So, if you are a corporation in need of sustainability services, know whether you require a sustainability practitioner and if you do, you can now more readily wade through the consultants in the field, including the now detectable gunslinger, and make the right pick for your corporate needs.
Nelson Switzer is President and Chief Sustainability Officer of asherleaf consulting inc., a multi-disciplinary sustainability advisory firm based in Toronto, Canada.  Nelson is a leader in strategic sustainability and innovation.  Nelson is a sought-after speaker on the topic of sustainability and provides pre-eminent advisory services to corporations, governments and not-for-profits around the world.

15 Responses

  1. Jennifer

    This is freaking brilliant. Thanks for the clear explanation — hope that it helps companies separate the wheat from the chaff!

  2. James Watson

    Great article, Nelson! As an aspiring sustainability practitioner myself, I am humbled by the knowledge and experience that giants such as yourself posses. It will be firms like asherleaf consulting inc. that set the bar of excellence within this rapidly evolving sustainability marketplace. Thank you for a great article.

  3. David Hendrickson

    Enjoyed your post!

    I’d like to see the the sustainability practitioner in the CFO’s office or directly shaking the CEO’s cage. As you mention, it depends on the intent of the org, but for CSR to be really transformational, it needs to go where the decisions get made at the top, rather than seconded to PR, communications or another dept.

    I also don’t quite understand your definitional differences between CSR and sustainable development. Why do most cities nowadays have sustainability departs and officials, but not CSR departments? They are dealing with corporate management and governance issues, but use sustainability much more often.

    I would suggest that CSR and sustainability/sustainable development are inter-changeable and it doesn’t really matter what we call it. If the org uses CSR, use CSR; if it uses sustainability, fine use sustainability. What matters is taking action through greater transparency and accountability.

    • Nelson Switzer

      Hi David –

      Thanks for your comments. There is no question that access to decision-makers can greatly increase the chance for change within an organization, but it is by no means a guarantee. The culture of the organization (the people) tends to influence transformation within the organization; rather than one key decision-maker. It is more important how a CR leader or team goes about affecting change than where they are placed. As long as they have access to and ability to “influence the influencers” success often soon follows.

      I think it is quite interesting you point out the challenge with understanding the difference between CSR and SD. While each is, in fact, quite different, the terms are used interchangeably, which you note. Frankly, I don’t think it matters what the team, department or overall initiative is called, as long as they have a mandate that is appropriate, aligned with the goals of the organization and supported by a framework for success.

      Best regards,

      – N.

  4. Lise Laurin

    I am concerned by the statement that Sustainability Practitioners do “benchmarking, risk management auditing, policy authoring, corporate reporting, data management, stakeholder partnering . . .” Where is the action? Measuring and auditing are fine, but they don’t create change by themselves.

    To me, the sustainability practitioner gets the company to take two steps back to look at what they are supplying the market from a broader perspective. Interface’s carpet as a service, Zipcar’s car sharing, and BD’s new Sharps recycling program are examples of how businesses can make real change toward sustainability. While these concepts typically come from within the company, the sustainability practitioner can help them get out of their box to see new solutions to old problems. Benchmarking and auditing, by themselves aren’t going to do that.

    • Nelson Switzer

      Hi Lise –

      Thank you for your comment. I agree, the sustainability practitioner should play that role…see the first two paragraphs in the “What is a Sustainability Practitioner?” section.

      With regard to the services, the list I provided is hardly exhaustive.

      I would add that to inspire a business to change I have found it best to use services and tools that they understand – at least at the beginning.

      Thanks again,

      – N.

  5. Ruth Ann Barrett

    Your descriptions are very helpful given the context of sustainability as a service within Corporations or what you are calling Corporate Sustainability.

    And I hope you take my disagreement with your general orientation to heart. The reason I think it is important to disagree with the boxing of sustainability as a service is because sustainability ultimately addresses, no matter the context, consciousness and connectedness. I think the President of Aveda, Dominique Conseil gives the perspective of sustainability that you relegate to the term, sustainable development, in both of his interviews on – one the Culture of Sustainability and the other, Changing Our Habits.

    He is but one of many. Nearly every leader coming out of the profit sector has described their adoption of sustainability at the strategic level, not tactical and in stories mostly, describing their experience, firstly, as a personal epiphany, starting with the courage of Ray Anderson, an early sustainability champion, who described his feelings at that moment of his awareness as a “stake through his heart.”

    Coming out of high tech we didn’t use the term, gunslingers, but evangelists and champions for those in the organization who moved innovation in technology forward, not at the product level, but at the strategic level, the level of consciousness and connectedness. This didn’t preclude later the hundreds of consultants cropping up, mostly all along product lines to help with implementation once a significant number of businesses became not just aware and conscious, but active.

    The question I would ask, not of the prospective client, but of the sustainability consultant is “Who would You Choose?” to be your client. In that answer is the value you add and the leaders who will influence your prospective client to be strategic, not tactical, about sustainability, as we have reached the point where it is no longer business as usual.

  6. Isobel O'Connell

    Hi Nelson,

    Very refreshing article – an ABCs approach – to keep in the back pocket. However, I think you are missing two important aspects – leadership and engagement of practitioners with in the SD/ CSR/ sustainability arena. Both these aspects are key, and are often being looked over by organisations (public, private, NGO) when engaging a practitioner to undertake SD/ CSR/ sustainability work. New sustainability/CSR practitioners are constantly appearing, all vying for a share of the market, and looking less how to engage with each other. In my opinion, with such a range of options, distinguishing between practitioners can be a difficult task.

    The challenge of any organisations as a consumer of SD/CSR/sustainability services is to ensure that money is helping to fund a quality project/ initiative. For example, as a “student” of carbon management/ offsetting, leadership and engagement are ongoing issues to funding a quality offset project. Both aspects are key to providing basic information about carbon offsets to organisations when they are making informed decisions. The same can be true when considering SD/ CSR/ sustainability services and providers. Looking forward to the next installment!

    Cheers, Isobel O’Connell

  7. Marilyn Mehlmann

    When I ask clients or workshop participants what are the qualities of a good leader, we get a long list that reads like a cross between Bill Gates and Mother Theresa. I suspect the same is true of sustainability consultants. I applaud your attempt to explore your own interpretations of these rather slippery concepts.

    Like you, I’ve been in the Sus Biz for a very long time. I have mixed feelings about the new wave of consultants. On the one hand I absolutely agree that it’s good news. On the other, there are a lot of opportunists out there – and some very naive people who think it’s enough to have done the course and got a certificate.

    After several decades in this profession I become more and more conscious of how much we (I and, it seems, everyone else) DON’T know about sustainable development; and in particular about translating good intentions into good results. It would be wonderful if we could find more effective ways to learn from each other, so that we AND the opportunists and ‘naivists’ can help our clients get outstanding results. We don’t have TIME to keep reinventing the wheel – and not everyone will have time to accumulate my 30+ years of experience.

  8. Chris Jarvis

    Thanks for being willing to address this issue in your article Nelson. I agree – there is quite a bit of confusion and difference of opinion when it comes to the terms and competencies in the field of CSR/Sustainability/Corporate Citizenship/etc.

    I’ve discovered that much of the difference depends on the vantage point of the individual. What are their priorities? What’s the ethos of the corporate culture that they operate within? What’s their job/department? Each of these factors (and dozens of others) lead each person to talk about these issues using various terms and emphases.

    For example, from my perspective, that of my clients, and some fairly large global trends (discussed here Corporate Citizenship is a broad and complex topic.

    I’m not sure your description of ‘donations scheme’ is accurate – even if we account for an attempt at brevity.

    Here’s a great article outlining “The Concept of Corporate Citizenship in a Global Environment” –

    I highly recommend it to your readers.

    Again, thanks for bringing up this important issue and generating all this great feedback!


  9. Andrea Learned

    Having just (literally) finished writing a thesis on corporate sustainability leadership, this piece resonated. What I found was that the people who will make the best leaders in this realm have strengths in and experience using their relational skills. Sustainability demands a person who is more holistic, systems thinking, future-oriented and collaboration seeking. This is all on top of their already great pragmatic and linear business skills. Kira Gould and Lance Hosey quote Jane Talkington in their book – “Women in Green” on “The Sustainability Equation”: “Sustainability equals wisdom plus compassion. Wisdom has to go beyond education and technical knowledge. It only becomes life sustaining when compassion is added. So our biggest challenge is how to teach compassion.” Thanks for starting the conversation, Nelson.

  10. Niall Enright

    Nelson and all,

    I was intrigues by the distinction between “new on the block” gunslinger” and the “honourable, wise – dare I say it, venerable – sustainability practitioner”.

    Having been in this business for a long time as both a domain expert (energy efficiency) and a broader Sustainability Director in a large infrastructure firm, I recognise your categorisation of our profession.

    However I wonder if we can really ever claim to be “sustainability practitioner” if what we actually do doesn’t actually result in greater sustainability.

    I believe that there is a deeper test. Please bear with me…..

    Sad to say that much of our profession – if we are honest to ourselves – is about sustaining a status quo that is unsustainable. We create Environmental Impact Assessments that enable developments to go ahead; we support planning applications for retail malls which depend on car journeys and draw people out of town centres; we create CSR and “stakeholder” campaigns which may simply divert attention from client’s unsustainable business model based on exploiting natural resources. Fact is that the biggest spenders in our field are oil and gas corporations and the biggest consultancies have a huge focus on the resources sectors. That is not to say that resource extraction per se is bad, but we sure do need to acknowledge that it is rarely sustainable.

    In facing this conundrum I have long formed the view that “preaching to the choir” is wrong. I can happily name companies like BP and Rio Tinto or BAT amongst my clients. I am proud to say that I have helped those organisations, in some small way, reduce the damage that they do.

    My deeper point is that we as sustainability practitioners need to apply some principles to the service we provide, we need to put our work into the wider context of our power to do good or our power to support what is bad.

    Just as a medical professional adheres to a “Hippocratic oath”, perhaps to consider ourselves truly a profession we should adhere to some fundamental values. Here’s my “back of a fag packet” “Sustainability Practitioner Oath”:

    1. I pledge that my first priority must be to meet the needs of my clients, not allowing any personal considerations to influence the provision of my service; {we must not let current or future fees influence our advice}

    2. I will at all times give honest, impartial advice and opinion based on best available knowledge and practice,and will not allow through silence or incomplete communication for a falsehood to be conveyed. {we have an obligation to “speak truth to power” where needed, and not stay silent….. }.

    3. I pledge that under no circumstances will I use my skills or knowledge to violate human or natural rights, or damage the potential of future generations to enjoy those rights. {thats the big one… we pledge to advance sustainability.}

    4. I will lawfully respect the confidentiality of my clients at all times. {lawfully means that if the client is breaking the law then we don’t have to remain silent.}

    5. I will practice my profession with honesty, dignity and commit myself to maintain my knowledge and to support the development of my profession.

    Thus, in essence, to be a sustainability practitioner surely we have to deliver sustainability! That pretty fundamental. Anything else would be a tautology.

    So what I am suggesting is that the real test is just like the test for the medics. It is based on outcomes.

    I can see from the threads earlier that Marylin, Ruth and Lise are all articulating that it is what we change that matters.

    Thus an enthusiastic new kid on the block with all the jargon mixed up could actually be delivering sustainability better than a cynical old pro who really is helping that fossil fuel company burnish its image and pump a few more barrels out of the ground. A “gunslinger” leaves a trail of destruction – and heavens knows that it isn’t some of us old pros (who can tell the difference between CSR, Sustainable Development and Corporate Citizenship etc) who are the real “gunslingers” only we’re using automatics not pistols.

    Time for us to have some fundamental principles to sort the wheat from the chaff. And time for us old dogs to learn from the new kids on the block!

    Keep up the good work.

    All the best,


    P.S. to see what I am up to check out my website