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pollution villeAs the Climate Change conference set to take place in Paris at year’s end approaches, Consultor takes a look at sustainable development’s role in strategy. A discreet topic that is nonetheless not completely absent from missions.

Was sustainable development consulting merely a fad? That is the impression that strategic consulting firms are creating through their discretion on the matter. The vibrancy resulting from the 2007 “Grenelle de l’environnement” led to the creation of a number of specialized firms, and for a while it was most fashionable to at least touch on the topic in each and every marketing brochure – but the soufflé now appears to be sagging.

Thomas Gault’s trajectory is exemplary in this regard. Following early days with Masaï, in 2008 the consultant and two partners created Auriverde, an operational strategy firm. “Al Gore’s movie, Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston’s book Green to Gold… they provided the illumination that helped us understand that the notion of sustainable development’s increased costs is most often false if you act with ambition, by placing the issue at the heart of companies’ strategy and business model, in connection to the principal cross-company functions,” outlines Thomas Gault.

Sustainable development as value creation? This stance rather quickly proved to be a successful one, as Auriverde successively signed two large projects in 2009, one in the restaurant industry and the other with a family business, respectively set to take place over one and a half and two years. “The second project in particular was an excellent synthesis of what we wanted to do: seeing all of a company’s major issues through the environmental lens and reducing costs as a consequence,” Thomas Gault continues.

But in 2011, as the next wave of the economic crisis crashed to shore, the enthusiasm of clients waned as they focused on more immediate concerns. This new context as well as a growth crisis within the small firm marked the end of the Auriverde adventure at the end of 2012. Thomas Gault has since been recruited by EY to work in a sustainable development practice gathering 80 people.

More or less affected sectors and functions

However, this is not necessarily indicative of the major strategy firms’ models. “Sustainable development is not alotted a specific practice and we do not have a dedicated unit with specialized consultants, although we do have a worldwide network of experts who, through their different approaches, have both interest in and experience with the topic,” contributes Laurent Dumarest, senior partner with A.T. Kearney.

Indeed, some sectors are inherently more auspicious for missions linked to environmental challenges. Energy, with challenges such as renewable energy or energy mix, chemistry, with green chemistry or healthcare among its stakes, or agribusiness. Some functions – supply chain, sales – are similarly more affected.

Still, there has been some overall dilution of these stakes within companies. Perhaps less frequently on the frontline as they were in the past, environmental and societal topics – the two most relevant aspects of sustainable development – have spread throughout business functions. Thomas Gault sees some progress in this: “Topics that were previously handed over to communication departments are now starting to be associated with operational functions, or are led by sustainable development management,” he says with conviction.

And Laurent Dumarest is even more optimistic: “Sustainable development is at the heart of many investment, growth strategy or competitive decisions. Ultimately, no project can completely ignore it,” he concludes. The fact remains that clients are still strangely quiet about the matter.

Gaëlle Ginibrière for Consultor.fr

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