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From BCG to McKinsey — The Carbon Footprint of Professional Services

Consulting services, like any other spend, have associated emissions. Consultants fly on airplanes, work in heated offices, use cloud software, etc. But not all ‘billable hours’ are equal, and so we decided to compare the climate programs of the top five consulting firms: McKinsey, BCG, Deloitte, Accenture, and Bain.

Logos of McKinsey, Deloitte, BCG, Bain, and Accenture

The Covid-19 natural experiment

Fundamentally these consulting firms’ climate programs have a lot in common. They’ve all set 2030 Net Zero goals (or better — Accenture is actually targeting Net Zero by 2025). And their emissions are all driven by business travel; business travel has historically made up 50-75% of their total emissions.

Because these consulting firms’ emissions are so heavily weighted towards business travel, and given that business travel came to a screeching halt with the spread of Covid-19, these consulting firms have become unsuspecting participants in a natural experiment. Covid-19 has driven emissions cuts that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago; McKinsey’s total emissions, for example, fell more than 75% between 2019 and 2020.

Covid-19 impact on McKinsey's emissions
Covid-19 impact on McKinsey's emissions

Whether some portion of these gains persist, or whether consulting firm emissions return to pre-pandemic levels as we settle in to a new normal, remains to be seen. We all seem to be a little burnt out on Zoom, and eager to get together again in person. But maybe we will trade large offices for more off-sites, and maybe remote collaboration tools will continue to improve. At a minimum, it seems likely that there will be fewer people getting on airplanes to look at PowerPoint presentations.

Accenture's metaverse experiment powered by Microsoft Mesh
Accenture's metaverse experiment powered by Microsoft Mesh

... but more different than you’d think

Beyond these similarities, these top tier consulting firms’ climate programs contain some striking differences. For every $1,000 you spend with McKinsey, there is a 21 kg CO2e impact. But for every $1,000 you spend with BCG, there is actually a net negative CO2e impact, if you’re willing to give them credit for their purchased offsets.

With offsets (per $1k)

Excluding offsets (per $1k)

BCG

-6.58 kg CO2e

20.63 kg CO2e

Deloitte

4.93 kg CO2e

13.72 kg CO2e

Bain

11.06 kg CO2e

18.27 kg CO2e

Accenture

19.29 kg CO2e

19.29 kg CO2e

McKinsey

21.00 kg CO2e

21.00 kg CO2e

Generally speaking, offset claims should be taken with a big (huge!) grain of salt. One of the things we believe here at Bend is that collectively we need much more rigor and accountability around offset claims. Many companies in the past have made big ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘net zero’ promises, but then used avoidance offsets that don’t hold up to independent analysis, at a cost of $1-$5 per tonne. High quality, additional, verifiable offsets cost anywhere from $25 to literally $1,000 per tonne. We need to spend much more per tonne now to bring new, scalable carbon removal technology down the cost curve.

But we’re actually quite optimistic about BCG’s approach to offsets. BCG has committed to ramping to $80 per offset tonne by 2030, with a $35 per offset tonne 2025 goal. We support BCG's approach of simply publishing the price paid for offsets; it's a useful credibility indicator. There’s lots more work to do, but BCG appears to be confronting the challenge head on.

Not all the takeaways are as encouraging. McKinsey, for example, claims to be ‘carbon neutral,’ without publishing quantifiable data to support that claim (that we're aware of, anyway — if you work at McKinsey, we’d be happy to chat). And McKinsey doesn’t break out key emissions categories, like purchased goods from business travel. Thus far, it seems that McKinsey is earning their greenwashing reputation, not least because they advise some of the largest polluters in the world. If there’s a silver-lining here, it’s that McKinsey’s own employees are advocating for change from the inside, with over 1,100 employees signing a petition pushing for climate action at the firm.

The point is this — whether you're considering hiring McKinsey, or BCG, or any other professional services firm, that decision has a meaningful impact on the planet. That is why at Bend, we're focused on generating company-specific emissions estimates; generic emissions factors don’t cut it. With Bend, you're able to more accurately measure the footprint of your purchase decisions. And just as important, by factoring climate into your procurement process, you create an incentive for your vendors to compete on which company has the best climate program.

Accelerating decarbonization

At Bend, we believe consulting firms stand to make more money helping companies accelerate their clean energy transition vs. propping up the fossil fuel industry. This is already happening — Deloitte, for example, is helping to power Microsoft’s world-class climate program. The recent proposal from the SEC is another big nudge for corporations to take climate action seriously.

If you work at McKinsey, BCG, Deloitte, Accenture, Bain, or any other large professional services firm, we’d love to chat. We (1) want to make sure we're accurately reflecting your companies’ emissions data and targets, and (2) believe we can help your clients make more informed procurement decisions. Please get in touch.