Why are sustainability experts turning down your jobs?


The 2023 financial year will be an uncertain one for many companies. As the post-pandemic job boom gives way to a probable global recession – one that could be 'the longest since records began' in the United Kingdom according to The Economist – CEOs are scaling back. KPMG’s 2022 CEO Outlook survey found that 39% of Chief Operating Officers have already implemented a hiring freeze, while 46% have considered shrinking their headcount over the next 6 months.

Matters are more complicated when it comes to ESG hiring. While 50% of CEOs feel the pressure to shrink their ESG budgets, they also notice the increasing stakeholder demand for improved performance on ESG metrics, with climate and sustainability being a particularly important consideration. Some of the larger professional services firms are still looking to grow their teams to serve ESG-conscious clients, with three of the Big Four looking to grow the ESG reporting teams at some of their UK offices in the next year.

Corporates have cut their external consulting budgets and competition between consulting firms has skyrocketed, meaning that the sustainability practices with the most qualified teams have a competitive edge. Building the most qualified teams involves seeking out mid-level and senior sustainability professionals, particularly those who can speak authoritatively about niche, nascent or technical areas of climate and sustainability, such as carbon markets, biodiversity or carbon capture and storage.

Finding these individuals is a difficult task for any talent acquisition team. Most candidates in the market fall into one of two categories: those with strong sustainability backgrounds but relatively few years of corporate experience, or those with substantial corporate experience who have only branched into sustainability in the past 2 or 3 years. For clients already well-versed in climate, it may well be the case that neither candidate has the pedigree or authority to advise them. Moreover, many climate- and sustainability-focused qualifications have only gained traction in the past few years. The prestigious Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership for the University of Cambridge, for instance, is a relatively new option, having welcomed just its 13th cohort in 2022. All of this leads to a candidate-scarce market where candidates with the requisite skillset, expertise, and years (or decades) of experience are few and far between.

The most successful talent acquisition teams have widened their nets and expanded their lists of target companies. Poaching from a direct competitor can reap benefits but these firms rarely hesitate to propose substantial counteroffers or accelerated career progression to retain talent, making onboarding such talent expensive. An alternative is to bring in the individuals that BCG CEO Christopher Schweizer described in his Financial Times interview as “climate activists”: individuals who value sustainability-focused work over prestige and pay, but who could potentially benefit from the larger platform of more established companies. Many of these individuals started their careers
at top banks and consulting firms in the early 2000s and 2010s, when the sustainability agenda was a fringe topic, and moved to the purposeled boutique firms innovating in the field. Some became independent consultants and started their own firms.

In our 2021-22 mapping exercise, we spoke to over 300 sustainability professionals in the Climate & Sustainability space. Here are 4 reasons why experts turned down opportunities with consulting firms:

1. Job satisfaction

Of the 337 sustainability professionals we interviewed, the vast majority (71%) were not actively looking to move. Common reasons included getting on well with their team, clear progression opportunities and strong company ethics. “I received 4 offers before choosing to work for my current firm,” one energy Senior Manager said, “The most important thing for me is the team. I wouldn’t move for just any reason,” he added. A carbon pricing consultant was similarly reluctant to leave: “I’ve been working at [my company] for 5 years and it feels like home,” she said.

Pay for most individuals was not a major factor in their decision to turn down an opportunity. However, several individuals from the banking and asset management sectors noted that the compensation packages offered by top consulting firms did not compare favourably to their
current packages.

2. Greenwashing and ethical concerns

Many sustainability experts voiced concerns that the more traditional consulting firms were insincere in their aims to expand their sustainability arms. “I respect BCG but I haven’t seen much of them in the biodiversity space, neither in France nor internationally,” one biodiversity expert mused. Another sustainable finance expert also had doubts, partially based on her prior experience with top management consultants when working at a well regarded bank: “My questions are…how genuine? How strategic? Who are the people?”

A minority of experts cited historical projects with oil and gas companies, drug companies or corrupt governments as reasons for not wanting to work with specific firms, but most were open to conversation if the firms had recently worked on innovative and ethical projects to redeem past

3. Mature companies, immature teams

Closely linked to concerns about greenwashing was the fear of joining a newly built team with less combined expertise than their current team. While almost all sustainability experts recognised the top consulting brands and respected their work across multiple sectors, some felt that the gravitas of more traditional companies did not trickle down to their sustainability teams. “Some top consulting firms are new to certain sustainability topics and don’t know what they are doing,” one sustainable finance expert observed. Another expert at a top energy firm mirrored this: “I have noticed that a lot of companies are building out their carbon markets teams but there aren’t many people with the
requisite experience.”

Others felt that traditional firms were not able to utilise their skillset effectively due to underdeveloped sustainability teams, or that they would be forced into ‘starting from scratch’ to better fit the new company’s rigid modus operandi. Anna*, an ex-McKinsey consultant specialising in the circular economy, cites this as one of the reasons she left, and is reluctant to join a larger company again: “My sustainability experience wasn’t taken into account; they tried to retrain me as a generalist over a 2–3-year period, [which was] a waste of expertise.” She has since moved to a boutique consulting firm that is “getting some of the top sustainability projects” in the market.

4. Culture fit and work-life balance

Many of the ‘early adopters’ in the sustainability space have been women who sacrificed higher salaries for the more collaborative culture and work-life balance at smaller firms. Anna, like many of the working mothers we interviewed, finds the work-life balance at many of the top consulting firms to be untenable: “It was difficult to combine work commitments at McKinsey with 2 children.” A London-based carbon pricing consultant agrees that smaller, lesser-known firms are more flexible: “[My company] offers a lot of flexibility in terms of working from different locations.”

Another sustainability professional, had heard “horror stories” from consultant friends at larger consulting firms, was sceptical that a more traditional consulting firm could compete with her current firm on work-life balance, if “a good day means signing off a 10pm”.

Click here to download the whitepaper in full: White Paper Why are sustainability experts turning down your jobs.pdf

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