By Melissa J. Anderson

A few years ago, PwC embarked on a strategic planning process to identify major trends that clients would have to deal with in the next decade, according to Kathy Nieland, PwC’s U.S. Sustainability and Climate Change Leader and Managing Partner of the firm’s New Orleans Office.

“We generally had an answer for everything in the ten year plan – except climate change,” she said.

After suggesting the firm appoint a senior leader to drive the firm’s work in this area, she was tapped to take the helm, and in November of 2009, she was appointed the lead of the US business for sustainability and climate change.

According to Nieland, while the team’s work is client facing, it’s had a positive impact on employee retention and recruitment efforts.

Sustainability as Risk Management

Nieland said that the firm’s work in sustainability initially focused on risk management. She explained, “Our clients understand the regulation, but now they need to think ‘how does it impact my positioning?’ Are there other physical exposures, such as water scarcity or biodiversity losses? It’s placing more emphasis on understanding the risks, and assimilating them into their 10Ks.”

She continued, “Initially, with the change in congressional make-up, and cap and trade [deferred indefinitely], a lot of folks said we don’t need to worry about climate change. And that’s not the case at all. Corporations are moving forward, it’s what we must do, rather than what the regulators say we have to do. It’s become a voluntary movement.”

Nieland said she foresees more disclosure and transparency in the coming years around sustainability issues. “Most companies don’t disclose until their competition does or the SEC says to do it. It’s likely to go into the next cycle.”

The Importance of Taking a Position

Nieland also said that the sustainability work has had a positive impact on employee engagement at the firm. She explained, “There is a lot of personal and professional interest in serving clients in this area. But many employees are impressed that PwC, one, has a position on the issue, two, has a business focus, and three, they are impressed by the many things we do with organizations.”

“We don’t have any problems in recruiting,” she said.

She explained that PwC has done work with the Carbon Disclosure Project, the UN, and other organizations, and has donated professional capabilities as well. “This enables us to attract the employees we’re looking for, because it shows our goals and values are aligned. It’s had a positive impact on the firm, and that impact will only increase in the future.”

Having led the reopening of PwC’s New Orleans office after Katrina, Nieland said she feels a strong connection to her work in climate change and risk management. “Reopening the office was one of the hardest experiences of my career. But it’s one of the most important things I have ever been a part of,” she said.