By Melissa J. Anderson

Sustainability related careers are on the rise – and with good reason. Companies are starting to see that responding to environmental issues can not only save money, but make money as well. Sonia Thimmiah, Director in Accenture’s UKI Sustainability Practice, has managed to build a successful career working in sustainability, uniting her personal passions and driving change in the consulting space.

“I work in a field where you can really make an impact in terms of society, the environment, and the economy,” she began.

Thimmiah’s team works with large, blue chip companies to advise on strategy and implementation for how companies manage and deliver on environmental, social, and economic priorities. She continued, “We can see the impact. For example we advised an organization on how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% reduction and can see how they are achieving that target year on year. It’s massively satisfying.”

“The advice we make leads to sustainable change, and I’m very proud of that,” she added.

A Career Making a Difference

As she was studying Chemical Engineering at university, Thimmiah realized she wanted to focus on the environmental field. “This was just post the Exxon Valdez,” she pointed out. “It made a huge impact on me, and I wanted to study more to build my knowledge on the environment and how I could get involved.”

But first, she said, she wanted to work for a bit. She sent her CV to about 50 companies and top environmental consultants. “I got two responses” she said with a laugh. “But one of them led to a job.”

Thimmiah began working at Det Norske Veritas (DNV). “The opening was in safety, but they said they would see what they could do as far as getting involved with the environmental team. So I thought, ‘why not?’”

Thimmiah said her experience at DNV was a useful one, especially as she gained experience with safety modeling for offshore oil and gas. “I thought it was dull, but I built up my technological knowledge and experienced working with clients and as part of a team.” She continued, “And this re-enforced my interest in the area of the environment and that has become my passion: what does it mean for business, the government, and other stakeholders?”

Next, Thimmiah applied for a masters program at Imperial College in Environmental Technology, and after graduating, she was brought back to DNV as an environmental consultant. She explained, “Increasingly, big business is talking about environmental issues such as climate change and my job was about understanding how companies could better manage their environmental impacts.”

Shortly thereafter, she joined PwC in the Sustainability and Climate Change group. “I started as a consultant and went up the ranks to lead their sustainability work with energy, mining and utilities clients. But after seven years, I was looking for the next challenge.”

“I was approached by Accenture, which was looking to formally establish its sustainability practice globally.” She continued, “Now three years later, I am part of the leadership team for the UKI Sustainability Services practice and lead our work globally on Sustainability Performance Management (i.e. how companies, measure, manage and report performance) and in energy, mining and metals.”

Regarding her proudest accomplishments, Thimmiah said, “It’s hard to pick one or two – it’s a privilege to work in this field. I find it completely fascinating.”

Current Projects

Currently Thimmiah is working with companies on how to move from strategy to execution on sustainability. Many companies now understand the relevance of sustainability for their business and how it can drive value, and have developed relevant strategies and approaches. However, the key challenge remains how can companies deliver good business and sustainability results through effective execution.

Examples of work she is involved in includes looking at how companies mobilize their workforces to deliver on sustainability. “Building the right knowledge, skills, behaviors and attitudes is critical to delivering sustainable outcomes across an organization’s functions and operations and this is an area of increasing interest with our client,” she explained.

Thimmiah is also working with companies on improving systems and processes for collecting, analyzing and reporting sustainability information. “People think that data is boring, and maybe I’m a geek, but there are a lot of benefits to managing data properly that people don’t realize! We are helping companies move from purely reporting on sustainability to using data to really drive performance for example to improve use of water, enhance safety performance and improve impacts on a company’s bottom line.”

Thimmiah says she believes the next sustainability issues will be around water. “The consumer goods industry has looked at it as an important issue for a number of years, but it is growing even more important now,” she said.

She continued, “On the social agenda there is a slightly different picture. Recently we have been seeing a different piece around trust. It’s incredible how much traction we are seeing on trust post the economic crisis.”