In summary:

  • To meet market demands, all three have grown significantly, but in different ways over recent years
  • Climate work is the main accelerator for growth, now and for the rest of the century
  • Seeking multidisciplinary approaches and embedding sustainability in solutions are USPs for E&S consultants
  • Creating value for clients and talking their language, and especially that used by their C-suite, and will be critical to break into a market dominated by management consultants

It may well be a ‘golden age’ for environment and sustainability (E&S) consultants, but how are they managing growth in demand and client expectations? Talking to three of the top four E&S consultants – WSP, Jacobs and AECOM – at Environment Analyst’s Boston Sustainability Delivery Summit, its managing director, Ross Griffiths, posed this question.

WSP’s André-Martin Bouchard, global director earth & environment, global executive director ESG, said that over the last five years his company had grown significantly, through "bold" acquisitions as well as organically. He added that that growth was well timed, expanding its headcount and expertise to meet today’s high market demands. But he stressed having purpose is also critical. "We are looking at mega trends, where the world is going, and what our clients need. Whether it’s climate change, biodiversity, or community, shareholder or investor engagement, this all requires more expertise and more interdisciplinary services," he said.

Jan Walstrom, senior vice president, office of global climate response and ESG at Jacobs said the company had switched from focusing on different sectors, such as energy, chemicals and resources, to focus on solutions that are needed to tackle climate change. She described it as, "one of the most significant accelerators that we see, not just as a three or five year trend, but a trend underpinning what the world needs to tackle and will be addressing for the rest of the century."   

She added that the sector has some "continuous learning to do". For example, she asked, how can the principles of sustainability and resiliency be embedded into every solution that is provided? "That's the journey that Jacobs has been on now, particularly in the last three years. How do we work for different kinds of clients across different industries?" 

Focusing on impact

She noted that the world now focuses on impacts, and not just measuring impacts, but understanding how supply chains and partners are affected. "Principally, private sector industrial players are choosing to change their supply chain locations, choosing to do major infrastructure builds, and engaging with communities, so that they embrace what needs to happen from a workforce and community perspective."

Frank Sweet, chief executive of the environment & energy global business line, AECOM echoed these points. He said that his company tries to integrate sustainability into every project it does, although he noted this is challenging for a large organisation like AECOM. Its new CEO has set the tone, and encourages collaboration globally and regionally. "We try to break down barriers and bring everything together. It is important to have a corporate value of selflessness - colleagues first and us last." He adds that four years ago, the company set up technical forums to promote skills and excellence.

The panel agreed that their CEOs also have a role to play in elevating the language of E&S consultants to C-suite level. Mr Bouchard added: "We are part of client organisations. We start in the field and generate reports that engage with clients. But the industry needs to evolve. We need to learn how C-suites talk, so we can take what we learn in the field, add in our science [knowledge], and help our clients connect their bold ambitions with the outside world."  

Ms Walstrom agreed, and pointed out that this is where E&S consultants can differentiate from management consultants. "They can speak, but they can not deliver what they say. They can not do what we can do. They do not offer multidisciplinary services. We need to be more confident in talking about what we can do." She added that the sector needed to get better at talking about how they can create value for clients in a way that speaks to their business models and how they're measured. "That's what the Private Equity guys and Big Four [management consultants] are good at.". 

Accelerating change

Asked about how consultants might accelerate change, Mr Sweet said all AECOM’s employees receive sustainability training. The aim is to ensure, whatever work they do, they are thinking about the best solution, including environmental and social benefits for the client. WSP has a Future Ready program that aims to help influence clients to think "above and beyond" existing standards and approaches, and to consider the mega trends seen across the world. Jacobs has a technical "neural network" established so that knowledge is embedded across the business and there is a focus on how its people can envision, drive and deliver solutions based on technical expertise from across the company. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also expected to have a big impact in the E&S consultancy sector as it could replace a lot of manpower. Mr Sweet noted that AI is going to require some learning and experience to implement, but it has the potential to save a lot of time. The sector will likely have to rethink how it bills clients, moving away from the current "hourly basis" charging to a fixed price approach. He added: "There's a huge inflection point with artificial intelligence, which is going to take a lot of mundane work out in the system. A lot of back office functions will become more streamlined. And a lot of time will be saved, but we can monetize those savings if we're able to create more value for our clients with less effort." 

Mr Bouchard concluded: "We are a very humble bunch of people in this industry. I'm not saying that we should become arrogant, but I think we should become more confident. And trust where we come from. It's a journey and people are at different points. But probably one of the big challenges this industry faces over the next 5-10 years is how we engage our clients’ C-suite. It is going to be an evolving story."