March 31st, 2017
by Peter Jones
Despite the bad press they sometimes get, I’d like to think that it isn’t an oxymoron to be an ethical consultant. Certainly, anyone who became an environmental consultant solely for the glittering financial rewards wouldn’t stay in the sector all that long, and many do the job at least in part due to a desire to make the world a greener place.
I work for a company that prominently displays its values, and in the work I do for clients I know I try to deliver the best results I can, both for the client and for the environment. But is that enough to qualify me (or my company) as ethical? Is being ethical something consultants should aspire to? And should clients prefer to hire ethical consultants over the alternatives?
When I say “ethical” I mean to set quite a high bar. I wouldn’t class a consultant as ethical simply because they weren’t unethical. Abstaining from plagiarism or diddling the taxman ought to be assumed, rather than behaviour that deserves commendation.
Nor is it the same as being competent. It’s easy to envisage someone knowledgeable, who works efficiently, and who produces reports and advice that are of a good standard, but who doesn’t stand out as being morally praiseworthy.
If this all sounds a bit arcane, perhaps the issue can be brought to life with a few real-world challenges that I’m sure most environmental consultants have faced from time to time. I’d be interested to hear perspectives on what the ethical course of action would be in each case.
Budging over budgets
One source of ethical dilemmas is when environmental interests and the client’s interests come into conflict. Imagine you’ve reviewed a range of options for a client. One option has substantially better environmental outcomes than the others, but is also significantly more costly. What does the ethical environmental consultant do?
Well, consultants aren’t the same as campaigners, and you can argue that by presenting the facts to the client so that they can make an informed choice, a competent consultant has done their job. It’s up to the client to weigh up whether the benefits justify the costs. But what would an ethical consultant do?
If the client might be persuadable, and you genuinely believe that the benefits are worth the costs, there’s a case for doing what you can to encourage them to take the more costly path. But if they’re unlikely to listen to such arguments, advancing them is unlikely to have a positive effect and may make it harder to have a positive influence in the future (e.g. because they choose to stop working with you!). Or is it incumbent on an ethical consultant to pursue even lost causes?
Sometimes things are more complex. Imagine a situation where two options have roughly the same cost, but the client opposes the environmentally preferable option because it is a harder sell to a critical decision maker – the board, say, or politicians. Now, does this change the ethical position at all compared with the first example? The reasons for the client’s preference may be less tangible, but they’re no less real. Should the ethical consultant try harder to influence their direct client to pursue a path that could be fraught with dangers?
In the ethics of it
Sometimes issues like this are foreseeable at the outset. Imagine a project where it is clear from the beginning that the outcome will be less than optimal from an environmental perspective – and perhaps for the client as well. Perhaps a client is pursuing an integrated solid waste contract that includes a very large incinerator and a very small amount of waste prevention and recycling. Should an ethical consultant take on the project?
Whether or not the consultant takes on the assignment, it’s likely that the project will go ahead – but the argument “if I don’t do it, someone else will” isn’t one that a scrupulous consultant would choose to deploy. But by opting out of such projects, no environmental benefit will be achieved and the ethical consultant loses out on work to their competitors – and any chance to influence the project for the better.
Another situation where the consultant’s ethics may conflict with their financial interests is when deciding whether to get involved in projects that are ill-conceived or appear to serve little purpose. There is often potential to improve a project once it is won, but not always; is it ethical for a consultant to take a client’s money for work that won’t really deliver good value?
I don’t ask these questions because I think they have straightforward answers. If a consultant is going to be ethical, they must first win enough work to survive. But while doing that, if we can’t fully answer questions like this, the ethical environmental consultant should – at the very least – be alive to the quandaries that our role presents and make ethical judgements day by day.