From academia to consultancy

A presentation in Norway

More than 30 years ago, I started my career in consultancy, then at the Institute for Environment and Systems Analysis in Amsterdam (IMSA). After this first experience with working with large corporations (such as Unilever or Procter & Gamble), I became¬† addicted to this sort of work, an explosive mixture of intellectual and political challenges. Although I returned to academia for some years as an assistant professor of strategic management at the Rotterdam School of Management (basically to write my dissertation), I never felt at home there. The intellectual climate (if there was any) was appalling and the students mainly saw their professor as a last barrier on the road to success, by which they meant money, lots of money.¬† Around 1988 I started to develop my own consultancy activities. With almost no real experience in the field, I assisted SGS in building up their environment-related business activities. I don’t know whether my contribution was of any use at all, but in any case I realized that I had to choose: continuing my academic career or seriously developing my consultancy work to a higher level. At hindsight, it may now look like a completely irresponsible decision when I resigned from Erasmus University in early 1989.

Sustainable supply chains as the leading focus

My office: december 2010

I was a nobody in the world of environmental consultancy services and I hardly managed to earn any money, apart from the interesting work I did for a German political consultant who had been highly successful as a young chairman of a German parliamentary committee on nuclear energy. In the meantime, the issue of environmental responsibility in supply chains came up in the Netherlands and I initiated a project with the environmental department of KPMG and the ‘Centrum voor Energiebesparing’, a consultancy with close ties with environmental NGOs, financed by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. It was certainly not easy, but we managed to do some ground-breaking work on ‘milieugericht ketenbeheer’, the environmental management of supply chains. The combination of my Dutch ‘ketenbeheer’ work and my German experience¬† turned out to be the key to my further success, which I certainly needed when in September 1990 our son was born.

In the early 1990s, the German parliament instituted a so-called ‘Enquetekommission’ on the future of chemicals and the chemical industry. On the basis of my Dutch experience, I was chosen to carry out two important studies and, as a result, I became a leading expert on ‘Stoffstrommanagement’ (management of material flows) in the German speaking world. Eventually this opened for me the road to working with large German and international companies (such as Otto Group, Axel Springer, Scandinavian Paper companies, Unilever, etc.) on a number of issues including forestry/forestry products, cotton and palm oil.

Kuala Lumpur 2003: setting up RSPO

It also enabled me to work for international NGOs such as WWF and Greenpeace. Around 2002, I was then asked to play a role in setting up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which, despite its limitations, is a remarkable success story. Based on my experience with supply chain projects and especially RSPO, I worked on many similar issues related to sourcing of ingredients for the food industry, the use of peat and management of peatlands, land use and food security issues, and increasingly climate change. This included work for CAO in Washington (World Bank/IFC’s compliance office), the Michael Otto Foundation in Hamburg and the international SAI-platform (Sustainable Agriculture Initiative).

Sharing the experience

In this phase of my life, I am no longer working on large scale and long term ambitious projects, but I am still highly motivated to make my experience and knowledge available to any good initiative that can profit from it.