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Meet the new LEED-like standard for professional services

For the first time, ad agencies, legal firms and consultancies would get a scorecard for leadership on supply chains, diversity and more.

A significant economic sector  professional services  has joined the growing number of major industry coalitions developing and adopting specific approaches to address climate change and other global sustainability challenges. Consequently, the first sustainability standard for the professional services sector could be a reality by early 2018.     

Several members of the Professional Services Sustainability Roundtable, of which I am a member, have contributed to the NSF Joint Committee for NSF 391.1: Sustainability Assessment Criteria for Professional Services, designed as a performance and results-based American National Standard. It will be available for public comment Sept. 22. The Roundtable is an affinity group of the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, but Roundtable members worked together independently on the standard.

We believed that if we worked as a collective voice on these issues, we might be able to develop something more user friendly and streamlined for suppliers and buyers.
This project started to take shape several years ago when the federal government began to align areas of spend using a category management framework. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), an independent executive federal agency in charge of the government-wide professional services category, helped us get a better understanding of the breadth and depth of services included in one of the largest categories of spend at $66.9 billion (FY16). This insight was instrumental to shaping the sustainability standard.

The GSA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has participated in NSF International’s standard development process for a professional services standard. NSF International is a global public health organization that writes standards, and tests and certifies products to minimize adverse health effects and protect the environment. 

At the same time, we in the professional services sector were detecting a growing number of RFP client requests across platforms seeking information on how our firms dealt with hazardous waste, indigenous populations, housing and other issues not necessarily relevant to our sector. Sometimes, these requests took the form of a questionnaire of 100-plus questions, a third-party platform or some other methodology that, frankly, led to "survey fatigue."

We believed that if we worked as a collective voice on these issues, we might be able to develop something more user-friendly and streamlined for suppliers and buyers. Working with NSF International, an American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-accredited standards developing organization, we initiated the ANSI standards development process, which requires consensus from a balanced group of stakeholders to ensure open discussion, input from stakeholders and an appeal process.

(In six years as CSO) I have seen increased stakeholder expectations move sustainability from a 'nice to have' to 'must have' status.
Slowly but steadily, sector by sector, coalitions have formed or are emerging to move forward on a low carbon future as well as other environmental and societal issues. The Sustainability Consortium, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, among others, are active. On a larger scale, the coalition of 773 We Mean Business companies and investors and the 1,200-plus businesses, cities and states that comprise the We Are Still In group are acting on societal issues.

In doing so, they are reinforcing meaningful insights from the Edelman 2017 Trust Barometer, which illuminated a deep desire of people worldwide for businesses to actively help solve societal challenges.  

We’re proud that NSF 391.1: Sustainability Assessment Criteria for Professional Services will be introduced for public comment today. The proposed standard includes many new aspects that make it a truly innovative solution that addresses an important need. They comprise:

  • A points-driven and results-based standard such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for buildings that addresses all areas of sustainability, not guidance or a framework.
  • Four sections that encompass environmental, social, economic, environmental and sustainable supply chains, each worth 25 points on the standard’s scorecard.
  • A scorecard that requires achieving a base level of 50 points with a minimum of 10 points in each of four sections and another 10 points from any of the key performance indicators, or KPIs. Leadership level requires earning 70 points. 
  • KPIs in new sustainable supply chain areas, including supplier diversity, environmentally preferred purchasing and a system of accountability as well as KPIs that deal with health and well-being, community involvement and diversity and inclusion. 

I have been chief sustainability officer at Edelman for six years, during which I have seen increased stakeholder expectations move sustainability from a "nice to have" to "must have" status. Here are some examples:

  • More clients are requiring completion of third-party platforms, such as EcoVadis, Sedex or SupplyShift, as the starting point for RFP consideration.
  • Employees increasingly favor citizenship initiatives. In our internal citizenship survey, eight of 10 employees consider Edelman’s citizenship program an important reason for joining us, a finding that is up from seven of 10 last year.
  • Governments are adopting more legislative directives, including the E.U. Directive for Non-Financial Reporting, U.K. Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme, U.K. Modern Slavery Act, and India’s law that requires companies to give 2 percent of their net profits to charity, among others.
  • Such groups as the Global Reporting Initiative, CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) and Carbon Trust Standard are adopting higher requirements for reporting standards. They’re asking about science-based targets as well as managing supply chain accountability and transparency across business partners’ economic, environmental and social impacts.

We hope that stakeholders, including government, public and private companies, civil society, universities and professional services firms, examine the proposed NSF 391.1 standard during the period for public comment and offer their views and recommendations.

We believe it will provide a roadmap for professional services companies to further evolve their sustainability journey wherever they may be today.  

A copy of the draft standard may be downloaded here. If you are interested in reviewing and commenting on the NSF 391.1 standard, please refer to NSF Internationals public comment portal. Comments, which will be considered by the NSF Joint Committee for inclusion into the standard, may also be submitted to (with copy to through November 6.

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