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Companies, from accounting firms to financial corporations, are hiring sustainability experts to meet the demand for green and upcoming financial regulation.Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images
  • The big four accounting companies are spending billions to bolster their ranks sustainability experts.
  • The hiring and training comes as companies seek to track emissions and comply with proposed SEC rules.

Growing numbers – from carbon levels to global temperatures to invasive species – tell the story of the climate crisis. Now, sustainability consultants can be added to the list.

Big companies like Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and KPMG are spending billions to build vast global networks of sustainability experts to help companies measure their greenhouse gas emissionsrespecting climate and diversity commitments, redesigning supply chains and complying with future regulations.

The fees for all that work could of course be a boon for these companies, but the hiring frenzy also underscores the complexity of injecting sustainability into their clients’ business models.

In April, Deloitte announced a $1 billion investment in its sustainability and climate practices, including providing training to all of its 340,000 employees. KPMG said in October it would spend more than $1.5 billion over three years to expand its environmental, social and governance, or ESG, practice and train its 227,000 workers across the Americas, Europe and the United States. ‘Asia Pacific. A year ago, PwC unveiled the biggest push of the big four accounting firms with plans to invest $12 billion over five years and make 100,000 new hires in ESG and artificial intelligence.

“It’s not unlike digital disruption, when businesses had to figure out how to adapt to the internet,” said Bruno Sarda, practice lead for climate change and sustainability at Ernst & Young. The company offers its 312,000 employees worldwide the opportunity to obtain a master’s degree in sustainable development. There are around 2,400 employees worldwide working on ESG issues, Sarda said, and the company is always hiring more.

“Sustainability is now everyone’s business,” he added. “It’s no longer limited to a handful of people who have it in their job title.”

Traditional Big Four accounting and auditing work is growing as regulators, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, prepare to force public companies to report climate information in traditional financial documents. Companies will have to disclose their climate risks, carbon footprint and any plans to mitigate them.

But the jobs in demand go beyond that. Companies also rely on sustainability consultants to analyze data on emissions, water use and waste; develop an ESG strategy with objectives; implement software to track progress; and publish brilliant reports for investors.

When David Murgio took over as sustainability director of Ranpak, a paper packaging maker, in 2019, one of the first things he did was call Ernst & Young for help. Ranpak was privately held before being acquired by One Madison Group, a long-term investment company.

“What drew us to Ranpak was sustainability,” said Murgio, who previously served as chief operating officer and general counsel at One Madison Group. “I knew his product was sustainable, but there was no data collection. We had to build this from scratch.”

Ernst & Young taught Ranpak how to develop an ESG report, which involved pulling utility bills to analyze energy and water usage and converting them into emissions data; create a system to track these numbers; and the development of a comprehensive sustainability strategy.

Murgio said he also wants to start mapping the carbon footprint of Ranpak’s supply chains, also known as scope 3 emissions, which will require a consultant.

“When you call a supplier and ask them what emissions are associated with the product we bought from you, that’s a very difficult question,” Murgio said. “It requires digging into databases, making assumptions and doing modelling.”

Sustainability work is not limited to a few industries

It’s not just the big accounting firms that are hiring. Companies large and small are building their own internal sustainability teams, as are public relations and lobbying boutiques.

Megan Starr became the Carlyle Group’s Global Head of Impact three years ago with a mission to expand the team and has since added five people.

The private equity giant aims to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 across its portfolio but, unlike some of its competitors, continues to invest in fossil assets while working with them to reduce their carbon footprint . The company is also increasing its renewable energy portfolio.

Starr said the company is looking for “flexible athletes” in a range of expertise, including environmental responsibility, health and safety, and workforce engagement. The company, which has $325 billion in assets, typically holds businesses for three to five years, and Starr’s team works with them to collect data and set short- and long-term climate goals.

Carlyle Group always works with external sustainability consultants. Boston Consulting Group is a partner with the goal of standardizing ESG measurement and reporting in the private market, for example.

The larger question is whether the sustainability consulting boom will have an impact beyond cashing in on the ESG buzz.

“It’s a big moneymaker, but I’m not sure it will drive change,” Laura Gitman, chief operating officer at Business for Social Responsibility, which advises companies in the United States, Europe and in Asia on ESG. The consulting firm has recruited 70 people in two years.

“I hope this is an indicator that companies are serious” about issues like climate action and human rights, she added.