It’s official: The first sustainability standard for professional services

It’s official: The first sustainability standard for professional services

Businesspeople point to a darts aiming at a common target.

After five years in the making, the first sustainability standard for the professional services sector has been published. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of celebrating the launch of NSF/ANSI 391.1: General Sustainability Assessment Criteria for Professional Services (NSF 391.1),which provides points-based criteria for professional services firms to address environmental, social, economic and sustainable procurement issues.

Developed by NSF International and a balanced committee of stakeholders using the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard development process, the standard is remarkable for several reasons.

The professional services sector contributes about $2.1 trillion to the U.S. economy annually, and up until now, was without a sustainability solution to reference throughout its sustainability journey. Leadership in this sector is increasingly moving towards instituting sustainable practices as public opinion proves that trust lies less in government and more in NGOs and others in the professional services sector.

Sustainable practices are no longer a nice-to-have commodity, but a must-have policy driven by the demand of stakeholders.

The professional services sector recognized the expectations of stakeholders to act environmentally and socially sustainably, which continue to grow today. Employees stage walkouts in protest of their companies’ lack of climate action, and thousands of citizens have participated in climate action strikes worldwide. Government action is also growing at the local and federal levels globally, such as the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which followed other states’ commitment to more sustainable policies, and the mandatory Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS) for organizations in the United Kingdom.

As the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer shows (PDF), most people around the world believe CEOs have the ability to positively affect not only their profits, but also the economic and social conditions surrounding it; and CEOs should take the lead on change, not wait for government. A call to action to define responsible leadership for 2030, as laid out in the United Nations Global Compact’s recent report The Accenture Strategy: CEO Study on Sustainability 2019 (PDF), shows how the professional services industry is ahead of the curve. The NSF standard puts clear language and guidelines to the strategies and practices that firms in this industry have been implementing for years.

Sustainability differs sector by sector, as reflected by the Responsible Business Alliance, the Consumer Goods Forum and the Sustainability Consortium, among others. But up until NSF/ANSI 391.1, there was never a standard to guide and evaluate professional services companies’ sustainability efforts on conditions relevant to the market. Even as firms in the industry vary in their reliance on material products, this standard covers procurement processes, carbon emissions, governance and employee training.

This new framework allows professional service firms to address concerns specific to their entire industry while at the same time offering room to set themselves apart from their competitors as a more responsible business partner. The standard is guided by legal requirements and standards set forth by other entities such as the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and World Resource Institute.

The standard uses a unique points- and results-based performance system. Notably, NSF 391.1 measures environmental, social, economic and supply chain efforts — no other industry standard includes supply chain as a distinct pillar or gives it as much weight as the other three categories.

To achieve certification, professional services firms are required to achieve a base level of 50 points with a minimum of 10 points across each of the four pillars, along with 10 more points from a variety of other key performance indicators (KPIs).

The KPIs include metrics specific to the professional services sector and are categorized under the four core pillars of sustainability identified in the standard. A third-party auditor then certifies that the firm has met the standard.

The new standard has emerged at a time when professional services firms are grappling with how to address the increasing numbers of new business — and investor — requests related to their sustainability efforts and how to report on them across a variety of platforms.

General surveys of this nature seek information on topics ranging from hazardous waste disposal to indigenous population — many of which do not affect professional services firms — and that often lead to "survey fatigue." The new standard solves for this by allowing professional services firms to demonstrate sustainability performance by certifying to NSF/ANSI 391.1 in lieu of questionnaires.

NSF/ANSI 391.1 is the first standard to provide a roadmap to guide professional services organizations, wherever they are in their sustainability journey. For more information about the published ANSI standard, visit this link.

John Edelman contributed to developing the new standard as a member of the NSF 391.1 joint committee and chair of the Social Working Group Task Force.

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