Thursday, 17 March 2011

Sustainability Advisory: are the Big Four necessarily the best?

Most corporate responsibility and sustainability teams are skeletal affairs. That keeps them agile and obliges them to work closely with other functions (no bad thing). But the complexity and scope of the sustainability field is expanding fast. Little wonder that sustainability managers often turn to consultants for a helping hand. But who to call?

One piece of the management puzzle where consultancy demand is consistently high centres on performance measurement. Pressure is on corporations to collate and report on a dizzying array of non-financial metrics and targets. The result is a plethora of annual sustainability reports, some good, some not so good. Alone such information is subject to credibility challenges. Who’s to say the company is embellishing the truth or, more likely, omitting the ‘material’? With the stamp of an authoritative third party, these compendia of data begin to carry weight. Which is where the phone call to one of the Big Four comes in.

The Big Four (once eight) - PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Ernst & Young and Deloitte – are past masters at reporting and assurance provision. Even experienced sustainability practitioners can become lost in the modern day maze of protocols and standards. For the Big Four, on the other hand, the likes of ISAE 3000, AA1000 and GRI are their bread and butter. Three factors differentiate them from the rest: scale (Mongolia, Mauritania, everywhere short of Mars, they can cover), approach (labouriously methodical) and brand (centuries in the bean-counting game).

The Big Four might be best to sign off your sustainability report, but what about other tricky management brain-teasers? In response to that question, the all-powerful quartet has sought to beef up their sustainability ‘advisory services’ in recent years. The strategy has partially worked. In certain fields, their knowledge of processes and systems make them hard to beat (and, for many smaller companies, hard to afford). Operational strategy is one such area. Advising on internal audit, due diligence and governance are others. Their service offering in the sustainability space is far from universal, however. For big picture visioning, communication strategies or marketing advice (among others), companies would be advised to look elsewhere. On the strategy side, some of the consultancy heavyweights (Accenture, McKinsey, Bain etcetera) are building their sustainability capacity. For everything else, there now exists a slew of boutique consultancies and one-man bands. The choice can be confounding. Which re-introduces the original dilemma: who you goona call?

For an in-depth overview of the pros and cons of the Big Four’s sustainability services, see Judy Kuszewski’s feature in the latest issue of Ethical Corporation magazine


No comments:

Post a Comment