Doing Sustainability - the Ecos Corporation Story

Article excerpt

This is the case history of the evolution of Ecos Corporation, a business strategy consultancy that shapes its advice based on principles of sustainability. The fast-growing Ecos practice, based in Sydney, Australia, aims to make its clients more profitable while simultaneously achieving better outcomes for the economy, society and the environment. The firm's story is told through its people and its clients. How does Ecos operate? What attracts paying customers? Where have the firm's employees come from, and where are they going? Ecos Corporation staff writer Murray Hogarth, a former environment editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, gives an insider's account.

"Activist in a suit" was the eminently predictable headline waiting to be written when Paul Gilding became a corporate consultant. The young Australian's personal re-invention followed back-to-back stints running Greenpeace in Australia and then internationally as Amsterdam-based executive director. Gilding had wanted Greenpeace to engage more with the business world to help drive a global environmental rescue. Others in the hierarchy of Greenpeace -- the guardians of the planet's best green action brand name -- were not ready. Gilding was ousted. He had something to prove.

Days after he departed Greenpeace, Gilding addressed a conference of business leaders in Zurich. He spoke as a long-time social activist -- but one no longer shackled by Greenpeace correctness circa 1994. His optimistic topic was "The Role of Enterprise in Creating a Just and Sustainable Society." "Business faces the exciting opportunity to redesign itself into being a positive force for society, leading the way forward from the social and ecological crises we presently face," he concluded. "It is an opportunity to release the enormous positive human energy we need if we are going to turn the situation around." The activist had become enchanted with the potential for business to save the world, highlighting its power, its adaptability and its positive culture. The big question, then and still, was whether business was ready to take up the cause.

Six years later, Gilding still believes passionately that business can lead the world to sustainable solutions. Like-motivated and similarly minded individuals have gathered around him, forging a team drawn from the ranks of high-level environmental and social activism, industry, the corporate advisory world, information technology and journalism.

After taking stock of his life, Gilding and his partner Michelle Grosvenor established the firm that is now Ecos Corporation -- initially in partnership with the British-based consultancy group, Paras. It was 1995. The Internet was only just starting to attract attention in the wider community, outside of the cloistered world of academia. The "new economy" was still in gestation. The Kyoto summit on climate change was two years off. In Australia, and around the developed world, the environment had slipped down the political priority list after the fervour of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, culminating at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

In Australia, business was lagging well behind North America and Europe in terms of environmental awareness and commitment to eco-efficiency. It was in fully-fledged denial about global warming. Sustainability -- and the notion that corporations should focus on the community's social and environmental "values", as well as hard-nosed financial value -- was nigh on invisible on the national corporate agenda. While there was considerable talk about post-Rio commitments to ecologically sustainable development (ESD), it seemed that everyone had their own ideas about what this meant. Few, if any, were prepared to "walk the talk". In this climate, Paul Gilding was trying to make the leap from being commodore of the protest boat fleet to boardroom insider.

For the first few years the business often struggled. Headquarters was a converted former church in an inner city Sydney suburb. …