My career: Phil Cumming

7th August 2015


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Author

Neil Woodhouse

Corporate sustainability professional and independent consultant

Why did you become an environment/sustainability professional?

I had developed an enthusiasm for the outdoors at a young age, loved physical geography, and even studied environmental science at GCSE level at the same time as the first Rio summit in 1992. This led me to studying environmental studies and geography and, as I got more into the subject, things just fell into place.

What was your first environment/sustainability job?

I was lucky enough to get a number of weeks doing contract work with Environ (EAG as it was in those days) as soon as I’d finished my BSc. During my studying for an MSc I picked up several other environmental consultancy assignments too.

How did you get your first role?

I really wanted an environmental consultancy role but the career advisers told me that it would be highly unlikely that I would get one. I chose to ignore their advice and wrote to more than 100 companies – I kind of figured (and hoped) that it was a bit of a numbers game and that one of my letters would land on the right person’s desk at the right time – happily, I was right!

How did you progress your environment/sustainability career?

I went into consultancy with the aim of developing as many skills and as much expertise as possible. I started working in contaminated land and monitoring pollution. I quickly progressed into areas like auditing, due diligence, EMS, waste management and asbestos surveys. It wasn’t long before I was winning my own work and became a seller-doer. I owe a lot to my more mainstream consultancy days, when I gained technical, commercial, and project management skills.

What does your current role involve?

During my 18-month stint with Kingfisher I designed a clearer policy, operational delivery and governance framework for its sustainability programme. I am now freelancing while looking for my next challenge. In addition to my core work, I am on the board of Julie’s Bicycle, a leading sustainability charity, and deliver an IEMA-approved MSc module on sustainable business practice for Birkbeck College. I chair a new BSI committee on resource management and the circular economy, and am also on IEMA’s GACSO advisory group.

How has your role changed over the past few years?

When I took on my first corporate sustainability role in 2006 it was a case of “every day is a school day” – and in many ways this still holds true as this agenda continues to evolve as our awareness of sustainability issues and their complexity grows.

What’s the best part of your work?

When you’ve managed to alter somebody’s pretty entrenched mind-set and the penny-dropping moment comes.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Accepting that sometimes a way forward is blocked without a proper business decision. If a decision has been taken after discussion with the key players that’s OK. If it’s a simple no, with little or no discussion, that can be a bitter pill to swallow.

What was the last event you attended and what did you bring back to your job? The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in January. I fulfilled a years worth of CPD in one hit.

What is/are the most important skill(s) for your role and why?

Above all, listening! I recall one of my first bosses reminding me that “audit” is from the Latin for “to listen” and this has stayed with me throughout my career.

Where do you see the profession going?

I do not believe sustainability is a profession, yet – not in the same sense as other more established professions anyway. The difference is that more mainstream functions, such as HR, are very much seen as serving a need rather than simply something that is a good thing to have but not absolutely necessary. With the merger of IEMA and GACSO and launch of ICRS last year it’s great to see steps finally being taken to support professionals working in this field – very long overdue!

Where would like to be in five years’ time? I hope that I am still helping organisations build robust, industry-leading sustainability programmes and genuinely improving their overall business performance.

What advice would you give to someone entering the profession?

Keep an open mind to anything that comes your way. I often speak to students who are set on one particular thing. It’s great to have a clear goal – but I do think that I have greatly benefited from the fact that I grabbed every opportunity to build a portfolio of skills and expertise.

Career file

Qualifications:

MSc, BSc, AIEMA, CEnv, GACSO, MCIWM, MICRS

Career history:

2015 to now Independent sustainability consultant

2014 to now Non-executive director, Julie’s Bicycle

2013 to now Associate lecturer/Expert in residence, Birkbeck College

2013-2014 Acting head of sustainability strategy, Kingfisher

2006-2012 Deputy head of sustainability, London

2012 2002-2006 Principal consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff

2000-2002 Consultant, Bonnard & Gardel

1998-2000 Environmental scientist, URS

1997-1998 Various short-term environmental consultancy


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