Transition500 Alliance: A Radical Approach to Sustainability Consulting

(3BL Media and Just Means) - I get the sense that when it comes down to it, they are a group of no bull, get it done, hardliners, albeit their charming accents might suggest otherwise. Don’t be fooled.  Sustainability isn’t fluffy, and neither is a newly formed alliance of the world’s leading sustainability consultancies, Transition500. They call it radicalism.

Transition500 represents the collaboration of UK-based firm, Robertsbridge; US-based Future 500; Germany-based, Thema 1; Belgium-based, Conscience Consulting; and France, Spain and Italy-based, Transitions. They service 15 markets in Europe, North America and Asia and help multinational corporations in a variety of systemic, sustainability challenges. I was curious as to why these competitors would intentionally work together, and if and how they might create synergy. What I found was “coopetition.” The firms share intellectual property. They share team members as needed. They share vision, strategy and approach. Transition500 walks the talk, modeling sustainability in their cooperative approach.

“Essentially, there are different types of players. Some offer standardized support to companies. And, on the other end, are the individual consultants with different types of backgrounds. Transition500 has a very common, very different element. We are very connected with society and with NGOs, which brings a very specific approach. It’s radicalism. We go to the root of the problem, not just the surface. Due to the spread of our reach, we can offer services to clients that no other big players can offer.  The very nature of our identity, our common ground, is our very strong background connected with big NGOs like Greenpeace International and Friends of the Earth. This gives us official credibility when we talk to companies about stakeholder dialogue and connectivity,” explains Bruno Rebelle, General Manager of Transitions. 

Christopher Broadbent, the Deputy Chairman at Robertsbridge adds, “We have an understanding of how NGOs operate. We know how to create a bridge between them and business. This is attractive to some businesses, but not all.”

“We call ourselves a ‘critical friend.’ We look at long-term, strategic planning. You need to look at the bio-economy and transform the company from being just a commodity company. We are challenging people to think about new business models,” Erik Wohlgemuth, Chief Operating Officer of Future 500, said.

But what makes Transition500 radical is more than their multi-stakeholder approach. It’s their willingness to say no. To turn down work when they don’t agree with the client’s ethics or practices, like nuclear expansion and deforestation. And, they only work with clients who will take a systemic approach to sustainability. Transition500 isn’t looking to help any corporation put a Band-Aid on negative externalities.

“We [the UK wing of Transition500] won’t work with anyone who is involved in arctic, oil drilling or who harvests krill. There are quite a lot of oil companies we wouldn't work for and some we might. But above and beyond, the company has to demonstrate that they are serious because they know it will be painful.  A lot of the companies who hire us hold the same values. There are incredibly smart people who lead sustainability efforts within corporations,” Broadbent told me.

“When we start working with a client,” Rebelle explains, “we invite them on a journey of true sustainability. We find out if they are genuinely engaged to change or not.”

“So, what does sustainability mean to Transition500?” I asked. “How do three firms bring their own definitions and activities of this word together? And how do you know when to stop pushing? Isn’t the fact that these companies are completely oil dependent negate true sustainability?”

Rebelle was ready: “Is it better to praise a small company with a small percentage of the market who will do it all perfectly? Or is it more interesting for a company who can have a bigger reach, a lever for change?  No, it’s not perfect. For example, L’Oreal. I was invited by their marketing departments to challenge them about sustainability. I said, “I have a big problem with you because you want to reach another billion consumers. Why do you need to grow again and again? This is a big challenge for them. But, for another billion consumers, I would prefer these consumers choose better products.”

He added, “If you change the market leader, you will change the sector.”

If you change the market leader, you will change the sector. I repeated that a few times to myself after the interview ended. I think for a group of sustainability consultants working with some of the world’s largest multinationals, like L’Oreal, Nestle and others- that’s probably the most radical goal you can have. Go get ‘em, Transition500.

Read more about Transition500 here.