“Every organization must adjust its business model to fit the circular economy.” This is a strong statement, but it’s one that we try to live by at Copper8. After all, the service sector also needs to change its business model in order to continue to operate within planetary boundaries. As a consultancy business, we have asked ourselves the question: how can we make a positive impact on society? This demands a rethink of how we work – above all, identifying the design flaws of the traditional consulting model.
Let’s start by identifying three of those flaws:
- You say ‘jump,’ we say ‘how high?’ The first step in the process is perhaps the easiest to discuss: as a consultancy, we only answer the questions (potential) clients ask. Is it necessary to want to work for every client? I still remember well when, earlier in my career, I had to do a job for a gas company – my inner compass found it very difficult to point me in that direction. As an entrepreneur, I probably would have said ‘no,’ but that was hard, since my employer (the boss!) had already said ‘yes.’ But how hard is it to follow your inner compass? It’s easy to draw a parallel with the war in Ukraine: all of a sudden, all sorts of multinationals suspended their activities in Russia. We all have an inner compass, it’s just that sometimes we don’t feel its pull because we’re blindly staring at euros. If we collectively used that inner compass, I know we could accelerate the transition. Sometimes ‘no’ is the greatest driver for change.
- Linear production model. Just like in manufacturing, in the consulting world we use a linear production model. We do have an incentive to be just a little bit smarter than the client, so they remain dependent on our advice. Just like the light bulb that doesn’t last 122 years but breaks after five. What if we were to really transfer our knowledge to the client so they could build their capacity to drive sustainability internally?
- Profit-driven. Many entrepreneurs would probably want to challenge me on this third design fault of the traditional model used by consulting firms, but there is a frustrating and persistent snag here. Thanks to the high prices and big margins, the colleagues (or rather human resources) are expected to work absurdly long hours under high pressure. The result is that these pressurized people consider it a privilege that they get to spend their high salaries in their free time – on things (with a large environmental impact), on frequent weekend breaks and long-distance travel (also a large environmental impact). So while the direct environmental impact of a service-based company might be limited, its indirect impact is enormous.
Here’s my position: the consultancy world has gone loopy. As super circular as it all sounds, the business model is anything but. So how could we make a change? Here are three alternative design principles for a circular consultancy model:
- Solicited and unsolicited advice. It might be a well-known bugbear, but I actually don’t see many people giving unsolicited advice in this context. Ok, perhaps the odd rebellious consultant will give a paying client unsolicited advice, but they’ll be sure to add up the hours for billing. What about truly unsolicited (and therefore unpaid) advice?
- We do it, they imitate, they do it themselves. We have worked according to this principle ever since we started the business: we want to make ourselves expendable. With new clients, we do this by starting with an intensive process first, in which we work together with them. In the next process, and the one after that, our support gets lighter and lighter. The idea behind this is that we want to build the client’s internal capacity for change. We also share our knowledge ‘open source’ and without a trap, like the annoying newsletter pop-up that makes you hand over your email address before you can access the content (that being said, I can definitely recommend you sign up for our newsletter 😉).
- Impact-driven. Even though the word ‘impact’ has been well and truly milked in 2022, just like ‘innovation’ and ‘sustainability’, I still want to use it in this context. Why? Imagine the impact if we decided collectively as consultants to be led not by profit but rather by the impact of our work.
These three design principles have led to a different business model. A couple of years ago, we said that we wanted to make the earth a shareholder of our company. Unfortunately, it’s not yet possible to register the earth with the Chamber of Commerce as a legal entity. But we are making headway: there are so many questions that paying clients aren’t asking, but that are indeed in the interest of life within our planetary boundaries. For years, we have been using our profit margin to answer those questions (you can find a selection here). It means we don’t have much of the bottom line left over, but that’s ok… because it’s impact we care about, not profit.
Last week, I was gripped by a fantastic article in Vrij Nederland by Anne Grietje Franssen. She suggested: “Set an example. Don’t follow, but lead.” So let us take the lead for the sustainability consultancies; I hope many will follow our example!