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Stranger In A Strange Land: Sustainability Consulting

Can I be brutally honest? (Of course I can, this is my blog, right?) I love what we do at Melaver & Associates. But I hate the moniker “consultant.” I love the fact that we work every day to help make places—businesses and communities—the very best that they can be by reducing their impacts on the environment. However. Coming from a merchant background—my paternal side was in the grocery business, my maternal side made its living from selling drygoods—I was hardwired from an early age to think of people being divided into two types, those who did and those who told others what they needed to know. If you are with me so far, it doesn’t take much of a leap to guess that this second category was held in fairly low regard. Maybe what’s called for is a new vocabulary.

Likewise, sustainability consulting means that we enable a client to see that what they have always done (the familiar) has powerful, innovative consequences (the unfamiliar).

I like to think of what we do as having a lot in common with how Percy Shelley defined the poet and poetry: that which makes the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar unfamiliar. OK, that may be a bit grandiose. We wear lots of hats as you see from our website: strategist, financial analyst, change manager, operations specialist, educator, marketer. But basically, we function as a cultural anthropologist (or sociologist, I can never keep those two straight): We observe, study, and analyze the culture of a business or community and we come up with a program to help ensure that this culture thrives in the decades to come.

This is fundamentally the role of an outsider. And in that role, I think we are adept at seeing the day-to-day activities of insiders in new, interesting, and valuable ways. Also in that role, we are good at finding those seemingly exotic and innovative ways of doing things and translating them so that they feel comfortable and familiar to our client. To be a bit less abstract, a major part of sustainability consulting means that we enable a client to see that reducing its environmental footprint (the unfamiliar) is very much a part of what it has always been about (the familiar). Likewise, sustainability consulting means that we enable a client to see that what they have always done (the familiar) has powerful, innovative consequences (the unfamiliar).

So, for example, with one of our corporate clients, we have successfully managed to demonstrate the linkages between its strong emphasis on lean operations to notions of doing more with less, reductions in waste, etc. And with one of our community clients, we have similarly demonstrated the connectivity between its long-standing practice of comprehensive planning and the need for collaborative design and implementation.

That still makes us outsiders. However, as we begin to take a sustainability strategy and shape this strategy into an implementable action plan, we find ourselves becoming more and more identified with our client. This is particularly true when it comes to training and education, where we find ourselves becoming engaged with the folks who are charged with managing change. Our passion flows into their passions. Their challenges become ours. Even our very language—“here’s what you need to do” —subtly shifts into a collective voice: “here’s where we need to go.” Almost invariably, folks ask us how long we’ve been working at their place of work. In the parlance of cultural anthropology, this phenomenon is often called “going native.” Think of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s not intended to be a compliment.

But I think if we are doing our job properly, we end up straddling the line between insider and outsider. We need the perspective of distance to differentiate the familiar from the unknown. We also need the credibility to convey that we have “skin in the game,” that we are personally committed to the changes we are promoting.

I’m open to any suggestions for what we need to call this.