The Omertà of Consultancy
“I’m not upset that you lied to me. I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you”
The Southern Italian honour code of silence — ‘Omertà’ runs deep. We know it from countless gangster movies. The refusal to speak to or engage with questioning authorities. The wilful blindness and ignorance to, as well as lack of interference with, the illicit activities of others. It is the great unspoken. It seals the lips. It cultivates a conspiracy of silence. It is the very principle of consultancy.
Those who break ‘Omertà’ are deemed ‘rats’ or ‘snitches’, so here’s the thing, as someone who worked as a consultant for almost twenty years, I’m turning whistle-blower. Consultancy derives it’s roots from the Latin ‘consulere’ — to ‘take counsel’, the seeking of advice, discussion or information before taking action. Nothing wrong with that. Except when it becomes ‘complicity’ — involvement in activities which are either lawfully or morally wrong. Which is why my lips are increasingly puckered up like Ronnie Ronalde.
After two decades in sustainability consulting what I fear is that we are not only failing to change much, but that as consultants we are actually part of the problem, providing a polished positional cover for what is broadly business as usual incremental change, whilst simultaneously eroding both the edge and substance of the essential radical shift that is really needed. The public licence to operate is sustained. Its our collective futures which are eroded. Brad Zarnett’s entertaining piece to this effect sums it up nicely: ‘Cheerleading for sustainable companies won’t save the planet’
I don’t need to remind everyone that the situation we’re in has become consistently worse over my so called ‘career’. And the dynamic relationship between client and consultant is at the heart of that. It all starts with the brief. Clients are never likely to be Christmas-voting turkeys. Even as the world literally burns and salmon ‘boil’ in the sea, the squaring of the vicious climate change circle is still beyond us. I have felt this viscerally since the previous IPCC report in 2018, which wrenched me brutally from my own complacency, complicity and my own company, and the latest report merely compounds that grim ‘code red’ realisation. As far as I am aware no client has yet issued the agency brief to ‘make us genuinely zero carbon’.
Instead we are mired in the delusional sophistry of ‘Net Zero’, or ‘Not Zero’ as we might more mischievously put it. Not only are most corporate Net Zero strategies highly dependent on either offsetting, largely through tree planting or forest conservation with often ‘carbon colonialism’ overtones, or nascent carbon drawdown technologies not yet proven or workable or at a realistic price, but they are also predicated on increasing the lean efficiency of existing business models — which remain mainly unquestioned.
The brittle fragility of this approach is laid bare like the vile indecent exposure of a flasher in the park by the fact that a hotter, drier world may well end up burning down the very timber ‘offsets’ that were meant to mitigate it. This is currently happening in Oregon where Green Diamond’s 600,000 acre forest, financed by Microsoft to ‘balance’ a quarter of a million tonnes of its own carbon emissions, is now ablaze. Or there’s what my Great Humbling co-presenter Dougald Hine calls the ‘wishing on space hardware’ of carbon removal, which even the Tyndall Centre says ‘won’t work’.
So if offsetting and carbon capture and storage collapse where does that leave us? Powering all our activities with renewables perhaps?
One of the most sobering statistics I have read in a long time is this: REN21’s report shows that in 2009 fossil fuels made up 80.3% of the global energy mix, and in 2019 it was 80.2%. Yes, you read that right, a 0.1% change in a decade. As Greenpeace’s Executive Director John Sauven sardonically noted ‘We’re going to have to speed that one up’.
So whilst renewables are growing much faster (5% a year) than fossil fuel use (1.7% a year) because we’re still using more energy every year, we’re still burning more fossil fuels every year, and crucially the success of renewables isn’t even denting that, nor displacing it, they are merely in addition to it. That’s a hard truth to swallow.
But if that’s not enough to make you choke then the genuine reality is that what is really driving all of this is over-consumption. I’ve written about the creative industries and the climate emergency before here, but in a hard-to-crack nutshell impact is intimately connected to income (the more you earn the bigger your footprint), businesses still plan to grow, and consultants usually promise to enable and facilitate that growth. Their contracts depend on it.
And this is where the Omertà really kicks in. Real Zero means absolutely decoupling economic growth from carbon intensity, yet we fail to do that even relatively right now. Offsetting and removal for ‘Not Zero’ won’t cut it, renewables are a partial resolution, especially when our energy appetites continue to increase, so the only authentic response is demand management, limits and even degrowth. New ‘sustainable’ products are like renewable energy currently merely additional. They’re not displacing the unsustainable. They’re actually compounding the problem. The only route to hope is less.
There is a huge cultural language barrier here. Even the word ‘degrowth’ prompts shrill responses from fellow sustainability folk as ‘unworkable’, ‘unacceptable’, ‘unattractive’ or worse, such is the deep embedding of growth in our psyche as GOOD and the seemingly inescapable cage of our paradigm. For a far more eloquent disabusement of economic growth listen to the awesome Kate Raworth on our Futurenauts podcast with comedian Jon Richardson on the future of the economics. For the record I’m with Ursula le Guinn “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings”.
Yet just as problematic in my view is the self-serving confusion of the ‘optimism’ camp, that indulge in self-congratulatory back-slapping for barely even slowing the speed of our impossible train towards the cliff edge, let alone reversing it’s direction, or simply getting off the train altogether. Like Field Marshall Douglas Haig they’re sending hundreds of thousands to die as Haig did on the Western Front of the First World War in a ‘one more push’ sense of misguided positivity.
Let’s have hope, for sure. Albeit awkward, uncomfortable, even painful open-eyed, hearted and minded hope. But one-dimensional, unevidenced optimism is arguably an immoral imagination, and probably not the best message for the dead or devastated residents of Lytton, Paradise, Balmoral, Zhengzhou, Ahrweiler or the literally billions of animals, plants and trees also succumbing to extreme climate events. Tell it to the salmon.
Because things are about to get really bumpy whether we like it, or even ‘believe’ it, or not. The time for smooth, managed and painless transitions has long since passed. We will likely see more radical progress even as the felt experience of climate change actually becomes more extreme. And that requires us to be truly honest with ourselves.
We need to STOP talking about ‘solving’ climate change like it’s a glitch in the machine that needs to be somehow fixed, even if we acknowledge that ‘solutions’ will not be found within our lifetimes. Any basic understanding of the complexity of atmospheric physics, the time lags of action on emissions in the context of cause and effect and the huge and still growing amount of heat already in the system, makes that clearer than a crystal that Gwyneth Paltrow might insert somewhere very personal. If anything that makes talk of ‘solutions’ look even more ludicrous. And don’t even get me started on ‘saving the planet’ (‘The end of saving the world’).
The system IS the problem or as economic anthropologist Jason Hickel puts it ‘Capitalist economic growth is the primary driver of ecological destruction…and then positions itself as the primary solution to that ecological destruction’. Go figure.
And make no mistake, conflating our patience with the long term ‘arc of history’ ambitions of previous mass movements like the Suffragettes, civil or gay rights is pure cant. Those movements tackled rank systemic injustice for sure, but they were not collectively existential even if they were philosophically and practically extremely problematic for many. We simply don’t have time.
Pioneering initiatives like my friend Jem Bendell’s ‘Deep adaptation’ movement, while inevitably imperfect, at least get closer to the uncomfortable truth, that this is a truly inter-generational challenge, with no simple response possible or even to be frank, likely on current trends. This is why the latest IPCC talks about irreversibility. Whatever the outcome a change in who we are and how we see ourselves is inevitably essential.
I don’t fully subscribe to what some misrepresent as deep adaptation’s ‘resignation’, perhaps that’s my own soft denial? For me activist academic Vanessa Andreotti absolutely nailed it when she described the false polarity between hope and hopelessness as two opposing cliffs. On one side the promise to ‘fix’ things from the ‘chief solutionist’ optimists with their messianic revolutionary fervour (we all know where the pursuit of the ‘sunlit uplands’ has got us through the pandemic here in the UK) versus the nihilistic occasionally hedonistic, passive acceptance of the misanthropes on the other. But as Vanessa says — these are BOTH projections. Teetering on the tightrope over the chasm between these precipices is where we need to balance — with humility, humour and hyper-self-reflectivity.
We have to be able to get on our knees, laugh at ourselves despite the darkness and continue to ask the very hardest of questions.
And make no mistake that will be painful. It is anxiety-inducing. It compels us to confront our own shame, with a side order of guilt, and of course, grief. I have spent a lot of time ruminating on this (see ‘Eco-anxiety, grief and radical hope’) and I believe without a profound reflection on all that we have lost, losing and will lose, we simply cannot embrace our own accountability, and move towards atonement and ultimately perhaps transcendence.
The track record of consultants in holding clients genuinely to account and accepting culpability, let alone atonement, is to date woeful. I have long talked about my own ‘insultancy’ — being strategically rude to clients, hopefully humorously as laughter is an incisive way of exposing awkwardness and prompting self-reflection and awareness, in order to combat the mediocrity of client ambitions and aspirations in the context of ‘willful blindness’. I was challenged by former colleagues for this approach — ‘Who’s buying that Ed?’ — a commercialised reveal in itself, but the answer is a lot of people now. Speaking uncomfortable truth to power is one of the ways I try to use my relative privilege most effectively, and is the entire basis of my speaking career. I stood on close to a 1000 platforms representing my old agency Futerra over almost eighteen years, and I continue to do so globally through the London Speaker Bureau. I have rattled a few cages, but hey, no omelettes without egg-cracking. Truth be told, that’s an instruction not just an aphorism.
And my Futurenaut colleague Mark Stevenson and I have pioneered a form of ‘Anti-consultancy’ over the last couple of years, working directly with clients at the most senior level, conducting ‘no-holds-barred’ candid and confidential interviews to flush out deep personal concerns and fears, over-coming ‘group-think’ and holding a very dark mirror up to the systemic challenges and poverty of transformational ambition most companies still have. We’re ‘anti-consultants’ because we have no vested interest in ‘selling the next phase’ of a project or product. There’s no ‘upsell’. We drag our clients into the blinding light of what needs to be done, not just what might be possible under existing commercial and political realities. If they are what is holding us back, then they must be changed and challenged with every fibre of our being and soul.
It’s the same at the Forward Institute where I am honoured to work as a facilitator on their awesome responsible leadership programme. We are on our sixth cohort of Fellows, representing many of the UK’s biggest institutions — public, private and third sector, and there are now hundreds of very senior leaders in what is an increasingly powerful and influential Fellowship. Our work is again about overcoming the willful blindness, having brave conversations, sitting with discomfort, working generously, taking decisive action and crucially is collaborative across sectors in a ‘bigger than self’ fashion — the only way we have a hope of some form of transition.
Conventional consultancy simply cannot currently straddle these different worlds for anti-competitive, financial or commercial reasons, agencies can only ever really work for one market leader per sector, and most won’t even get out of bed for less than six figure sums. They become trapped in mono-client siloes of working only with the organisations, primarily dominant incumbent businesses, who can afford such eye-watering fees. And those clients dictate the pace of change at their own comfort and convenience, not at what’s required.
So how are agencies responding to this predictable crisis? Well it’s no surprise in an industry that is built on client collusion and presentation the answer is superficially. There’s the ‘holier than thou’ approach of ‘client disclosure’ or ‘clean creatives’. Laudable to avoid working for fossil fuel and high carbon businesses in one sense, but rather missing the point when the work in other secondary markets with equally horrendous impacts like fashion (listen to the Futurenauts unleash ourselves on this particular shitshow in one of our most popular episodes here) goes unquestioned. This is delusional distancing when those primary sectors are still largely powering the secondary ones. As one of my most influential mentors Jonathon Porritt once memorably put it: ‘We all sup with the Devil, some of us just use a longer spoon’
I have a lot more time and admiration for the work of the Purpose Disruptors who run monthly pub nights, virtual events, climate crisis summits, action studios and workshops and co-ordinate industry initiatives including Create & Strike, The Great Reset , #changethebrief and Ecoffectiveness. These go to the core of the problem, and don’t just shout about their own work like a child-like industry ‘Id’ run wild.
Your creativity is not neutral. Your creativity is a whore. A prostitute to commercial vested interests, sold to the highest bidder. How’s that for a knee-jerk trigger-inducing challenge? I’m being necessarily harsh here, but on a personal note have found my own authentic creativity radically liberated after two decades of writing sustainability strategy and strap-lines for businesses. My poetry may not be to everyone’s tastes (and certainly not Mark Stevenson’s — ‘You can’t just grab a rhyming dictionary and throw a few themes at it!’) but it’s essence is unarguably pure. It is selling nothing to anyone. It is its own free agent able to let loose and dance like a lunatic rather than stumble its way through a buyer’s agonising and constraining choreography. A dance that eats planets.
To borrow a phrase from my friend Nova Reid, whose forthcoming book on race ‘The Good Ally’ is an absolutely vital yet discombobulating read, I’m not ‘calling you out’ — I’m ‘calling you IN’. We have work to do together.
OK, enough ranting already Ed, what do you propose? What might a creative sustainability consultancy do if it was really serious about change? The answer I think is simple in principle, painful in practice, like so much therapy. First the numbers bit.
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol breaks down carbon emissions into 3 ‘scopes’:
· Scope 1: Covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources — fuel consumption, company vehicles etc
· Scope 2: Covers indirect emissions from purchased electricity, heat and steam
· Scope 3: Covers all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain
Consultancies LOVE to talk about scope 1 and 2 as they are pretty straightforward to do. Sort the footprint. Simples.
What NO consultancy has yet to do empirically as far as I am aware is tackle it’s scope 3 emissions in any meaningful way. Yet. And here’s the rub — scope 3 includes addressing the ‘use of sold products’, and for agencies this is seismic if taken on board meaningfully. If your ‘sold product’ — the counsel, support, advice and propaganda you provide — is still causing emissions to grow you are not just blocking change, you are causing real harm. As a climate scientist said to me in a workshop on ‘communicating difficult climate realities’ several years ago ‘Every tonne of carbon that doesn’t enter the atmosphere now, alleviates future human suffering in some way, shape or form’. That future is now, now. With 150,000 climate-related deaths per year already, with an expected doubling to 300,000 deaths per year by 2030, we’re already in the impossible future.
It’s worth spelling this out. We have to halve emissions in the next 8 years by 2030. I previously wrote about the seven things every single organisation should be doing in the climate crisis here. But every agency could and should in my view now do the following:
1. Measure the actual total carbon footprint of it’s entire client portfolio. This is relatively straightforward to do from client environmental and sustainability reports and CDP data. This gives every agency a ‘bundle’ of emissions they have influence over and are arguably indirectly responsible for in some way.
2. Track the carbon intensity and productivity of this portfolio. How are client’s businesses growing, how are their emissions changing, are they achieving absolute not relative decoupling of profitability, turnover and emissions? Crucially are their absolute emissions coming DOWN year on year in line with Science Based Targets and a 50% reduction by 2030?
These two simple steps would give us a benchmark for every consultancy that would tell us very clearly and transparently whether they were really making a difference and bending the curve.
If the size of your bundle is going up, if there is no absolute decoupling of emissions from growth then quite obviously you are actively part of the problem. This way we might compare and hold agencies and consultants robustly to account on their claims, creating a race to the top of those who are really altering our course with the speed, scale and momentum required. This is not about signing pledges, pontificating about rubbery principles that bend all too easily in the face of a big cheque, or platform polemics. This is about cold, hard data.
That’s the quantitative bit. Now for the qualitative bit. At the core of this blunt conclusion is a difficult reality (listen to this ‘Discomfort Practice’ podcast I recorded with Betsy Reed). Existing business models, products, services and levels of consumption will NEVER deliver the changes required at the pace and scale needed. And unless the transformation for the real zero carbon long term begins immediately, the only-relatively easy low-hanging fruit of that first 50% cut in emissions over the next 100 months will actually be extremely hard, and it will utterly preclude the genuinely radical excruciatingly difficult reduction of the next 50% by 2050.
Zero has to mean ZERO. No ‘ifs’ no ‘buts’ no excuses, no trade-offs, no exceptions.
What does this mean in practice? Less. Much less. Much less economically ‘efficient’ but environmentally and socially disastrous globalised trade. Much less in-built obsolescence and disposability of products. Much less ‘stuff’ generally. Much less energy demand. Much less hypermobility. Much less manipulation and Machiavellian marketing. Much less, period.
And it will also mean more. Much more. More localisation of economies, supply chains, food and energy systems. More security. More curiosity. More conviviality. More compassion. More collaboration. More meaning. More purpose. More health. More wild nature. More happiness. More honesty. More resilience.
Professor Tim Jackson puts it far better than I ever could in this brilliant blog ‘inspired’ by the edge-of-atmosphere space-dick-waving of Branson, Bezos and Musk:
“Let’s focus our minds too on some quintessentially earthly priorities. Affordable healthcare. Decent homes for the poorest in society. A solid education for our kids. Reversing the decades-long precarity in the livelihoods of the frontline workers — the ones who saved our lives. Regenerating the devastating loss of the natural world. Replacing a frenetic consumerism with an economy of care and relationship and meaning.”
We cannot have it all. We cannot have our cake and eat it. But we can imagine much much better. And therein lies the radical hope.
Is this ultimately about sex, status and sustainability or consciousness and capitalism? Compare and contrast these two perspectives and you might better understand why three years ago I acrimoniously parted company with my former best friend and business partner after almost a quarter of a century. We have not spoken since, despite my multiple attempts at reconciliation.
Can agencies and consultancies comprehend, envisage and then deliver the world we need with their clients? Can agencies pivot from being a mass insecurity-engine of fabricated desire into selling far less, better quality, more durable products and services? Can consultants convene and hold their clients’ feet to the fire on a path to real zero? Can consultants bring insurrectionary innovation and disruption to their clients’ business models, sacred cash cows and punishingly problematic profitability at all costs? Can they do all this without losing out to other competitors who seduce their clients with easier, softer, less effective, more palatable, lower risk options?
I don’t know. But it’s worth trying. The impacts of the alternatives are all around us. We have to break the current bond of silence. Challenge the contractual bonds that are holding us all back. To try and break on through to the other side.
This is the Omertà of consultancy. Our collective inability to confront the machine head-on. Our peripheral posturing and repositioning. Our performative gestures and virtue-signalling. Our failure to fully conceive of this challenge as wholly systemic — of needing to tackle the system itself.
Years ago I came across a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist script by artist monk Tashi Mannox: ‘The wise learn from the past. The brave learn from the future’. It has haunted me ever since.
I take this as my personal brief. The future is sending us an unequivocal message. It is teaching us that all the experience and insight that got us this far, is not going to take us much further. That we must do things radically differently, perhaps right back to original principles of ‘first do no harm’. I suspect that to some extent we all feel this, when we give pause and slow down enough, before the careerist, professional and let’s face it financial ties to the system draw us back in. And then our hearts remain unvoiced. Our fears unexpressed. Our concerns silenced. The dissonant threat of dissidence takes over and the blood-letting begins again.
Omertà is an exclusive code to protect a tight-knit extended family of vested interests, at the expense of everyone, and everything else. It must end now.
Ed Gillespie is a writer, speaker, futurist and poet. In 2007/8 he circumnavigated the world without flying and wrote ‘Only Planet — a flightfree adventure around the world’. He is a serial entrepreneur and an adviser to or investor in a number of ethical businesses. Ed is also a facilitator with the Forward Institute’s responsible leadership programme, a Director of Greenpeace UK and Co-Founder of Futerra
Ed is co — presenter of two popular podcasts: ‘The Great Humbling’ with Dougald Hine, and ‘Jon Richardson and the Futurenauts’ with fellow futurist Mark Stevenson and comedian Jon Richardson.