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  • The Big Four accounting firms are spending billions to boost their ranks of sustainability experts.
  • The hiring and training comes as firms look to track emissions and comply with proposed SEC rules.
  • This article is part of the "Making Net Zero Possible" series uncovering forward-thinking solutions that can make a Net Zero future a reality. 

Rising 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-name firms like Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, and KPMG are spending billions to assemble vast global networks of sustainability experts to help companies measure their greenhouse-gas emissions, achieve climate and diversity pledges, overhaul supply chains, and comply with forthcoming regulations. 

The fees from all this work could provide a windfall for these firms, of course, yet the hiring spree 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 practice, including offering training to all 340,000 of its 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 Asia Pacific. A year ago, PwC unveiled the largest 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 the digital disruption, when companies had to figure out how to adapt to the internet," Bruno Sarda, a principal in the climate change and sustainability practice at Ernst & Young, said. The firm is offering all 312,000 of its global staff the chance to earn a master's degree in sustainability. There are about 2,400 employees globally who work on ESG issues, Sarda said, and the firm is always hiring more.

"Now sustainability is everybody's business," he added. "It's no longer confined to a handful of people who have it in their job title."

The Big Four's traditional accounting and auditing work is expanding as regulators, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, prepare to force public companies to report climate information in traditional financial filings. Companies will have to disclose their climate risks, carbon footprints, and any plans to mitigate them.  

But the jobs in demand extend beyond that. Companies also rely on sustainability consultants to crunch data on emissions, water use, and waste; develop an ESG strategy with targets; set up software to track progress; and publish glossy reports for investors. 

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

"What attracted us to Ranpak was the sustainability tailwind," said Murgio, who previously served as the chief operating officer and general counsel at One Madison Group. "I knew that its product was sustainable, but there was no data collection. We had to build that from scratch."

Ernst & Young taught Ranpak how to develop an ESG report, which involved pulling utility bills to analyze energy and water use and convert that into emissions data; creating a system to track those numbers; and developing an overarching 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, it's a very hard question," Murgio said. "That requires digging into databases and making assumptions and doing modeling." 

Sustainability work isn't limited to a few industries

It's not just the big accounting firms that are staffing up. Corporations large and small are assembling their own in-house sustainability teams, as are public relations and lobbying shops. 

Megan Starr became 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 reach net-zero emissions by 2050 across its portfolio but, unlike some of its competitors, is continuing to invest in fossil-fuel assets while working with them to reduce their carbon footprints. The firm is also increasing its renewable-energy portfolio. 

Starr said the company is looking for "athletes to flex" across a range of expertise, including environmental liability, health and safety, and workforce engagement. The firm, which has $325 billion in assets, typically holds companies for three to five years, and Starr's team is working with them to collect data and set short- and long-term climate goals. 

Carlyle Group still works with outside sustainability consultants as well. Boston Consulting Group is a partner in an effort to standardize ESG metrics and reporting across the private market, for example. 

The larger question is whether the sustainability-consultant boom will make an impact beyond cashing in on the ESG buzz. 

"This is a big money maker, but I'm not sure it will drive change," Laura Gitman, chief operating officer at Business for Social Responsibility, which advises companies in the US, Europe, and Asia on ESG. The consultancy has added 70 employees in two years. 

"I hope it's an indicator that companies are serious" about issues like climate action and human rights, she added.

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