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Coming soon: The first sustainability certification for professional services firms

Professional services
Metamorworks

After more than two years since its adoption, the first national sustainability standard for the $2.5 trillion-a-year professional services sector is moving a step closer to embracing a formal certification process with the launch of a pilot program. The industry, which includes accounting, consulting, legal, healthcare, public relations and advertising services, is among eight that account for more than half of global emissions.  

The timing is apt as the Biden administration and a growing number of regulatory bodies in the United States and abroad step up their consideration or adoption of sustainability-related and climate mandates. The consequences of non-compliance could be far-reaching, including the inability of companies to land government contracts.

NSF International, the independent standards development organization that cleared the comprehensive ANSI/NSF 391.1 professional services standard in 2019, is serving as the oversight body for the certification program. The standard was developed by an NSF joint committee using an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) consensus process.

The newly launched pilot is expected to last three to four months; the official start of the certification program will follow. Several professional services firms are anticipated participants, and at least one key government agency is expected to be an observer. NSF is seeking to interest other large institutional customers of these services to participate in or at least monitor the project. 

The pilot’s aim is to guide professional services firms through the certification process and give buyers the opportunity to share their views or plans for requiring sustainability and related commitments from their suppliers.

Pandemic-related challenges, plus a lengthy preparation period, delayed the launch of the certification process. Adopted in April 2019, the standard is like that of the LEED green building rating system supported by the U.S. Green Building Council in that it is points-driven and results-based. The customized 391.1 standard establishes 21 prerequisites that serve as a baseline for professional services firms to judge whether they want to seek certification. It is also the first sustainability standard to include a supply chain pillar that is valued equally with the environmental, societal and governance pillars.

The certification pilot program comes as policymakers and regulators accelerate their consideration and adoption of mandates aimed at tackling climate change and sustainable development. For example, the Biden administration is expected to use Executive Order 13693 that President Barack Obama signed in 2015 as a foundation to build on its sustainability-related actions.

President Donald Trump repealed the executive order, which established sustainability goals for each federal agency and made the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Recommendations of Specifications, Standards, and Ecolabels mandatory for federal purchasing, alongside a number of government ecolabels and statutory programs. You can see the full array of current sustainable procurement goals and mandates by purchase category at the General Services Administration’s Green Procurement Compilation website.   

Among other initiatives, the Securities and Exchange Commission is planning by year end to propose rules requiring companies to publicly disclose the risks they face from climate change. Abroad, many public authorities in the European Union are adopting green public procurement policies as part of a broader approach to improving sustainability related to their purchasing, which also addresses economic and social aspects. The EU has also adopted sustainable finance disclosure regulations to provide investors with information and data to reshape global ESG investing.

Further, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has asked members to set a target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner. As part of that initiative, WEF this year urged members to target supply-chain emissions and achieve a net-zero supply chain.

As for the 391.1 standard, professional services firms can use it to differentiate themselves from competitors by documenting sustainable business practices, as well as to meet state and federal procurement guidelines for sustainable services and align their business practices and sustainability programs.

For professional services providers, the certification prerequisites include documentation of ethical codes of conduct, a publicly available environmental policy, a demonstrated reduction of GHG emissions related to company services, a commitment to support nonprofits and/or NGOs or provide pro bono services, and policies to implement supplier diversity and increased spending with diverse suppliers. 

NSF International envisions that some of the professional services firms participating in the pilot will continue onto the certification stage; the learnings will provide others with a solid understanding of what it will take to be certified. The pilot may also yield valuable lessons that could lead to future improvements of the NSF 391.1 standard. Michael Salemi, NSF International’s Head of Innovation, is the project’s coordinator and further information about it can be found on NSF’s website.  

Edelman will be a pilot participant and invites other professional services providers to take part.     

 John Edelman served on a joint committee that helped shape the new sustainability standard for professional services.   

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