My three weeks as a sustainability consultant

The end of October marked the end of my three weeks with the Orange ASEAN Factory – a sustainability consulting training program for “young” professionals (yes, I made the cut!) from Southeast Asia and the Netherlands. This run brought together 20 participants from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Netherlands, grouped us into small teams, and had us work on business cases for real-life sustainability issues from their partner companies. The OAF was initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and is currently organized by TheRockGroup, a sustainability consulting company in the Netherlands. This Manila run was the 7th run since OAF started in 2016.

I applied to join OAF because 1) sustainability-related training is hard to come by in general (and especially in the Philippines), and 2) I wanted experience in other industries. This 7th edition was held in Manila, so fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t go far. Previous runs were held in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Jakarta, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. Would have been nice to work in another country for a change but there were still advantages to staying close to home.

Our team (me, Roche, Tien, and Barbara) worked a case for Shell Philippines Exploration B.V. (SPEX), the upstream operating company of Shell in the Philippines. It developed and operates the Malampaya Deep Water Gas to Power Project in Palawan, which supplies 30% of the country’s electricity needs. The case: setting up their proposed Center of Excellence for Corrosion (CEC).

Corrosion is a worldwide problem. How big of a problem is it? In 2013, corrosion resulted in a US $2.5 trillion loss, equivalent to 3.4% of global GDP. This doesn’t take into account the natural resources and time wasted in making new materials to replace the old materials. In 2017 alone, the global production of steel reached 1,730 million metric tons (Mt). This contributed about 7% of the total global total emissions for 2017, equivalent to 3,165.9 Mt of CO2. If we can preserve the steel we have now, we’d reduce the need to keep mining.

Our final submission to SPEX for CEC included the proposed sustainability framework, the operational setup, business model, five-year implementation roadmap, and budget. Not bad for two weeks of work. We based the report on online research, industry and government reports, and interviews with key stakeholders and resource persons (including a senior researcher with the Curtin Corrosion Center). Also managed to schedule some key meetings post-workshop. We really, really hope that our report leads to something happening because the CEC is an excellent concept that deserves to work out.

All in all, Orange ASEAN Factory is a great program for those starting their careers in corporate sustainability or those who want to shift into that line of work. Kelsey and Bertus, our mentors from TheRockGroup, conducted training on identifying STQs (Situation-Trigger-Question), creating issue trees, stakeholder analysis, contacting clients, and creating pitches. The training was done during the first week in the morning, then we were set loose to implement the training on our own projects. By the second week, it was mostly project time and client meetings.

We also had special talks given by resource speakers. My favorite learning session was the one-hour talk on climate negotiations and climate finance by Pieter Terpstra, currently the Deputy Head of Mission for the Embassy of the Netherlands (the ambassador is the Head of Mission) and member of the EU Climate Finance negotiating team. It was SO INTERESTING hearing the stories of someone on the inside, on how the placement of a damn comma could take several hours (because legal implications after) and how we’re not doing enough (seriously). The nerd that I am, I probably could have listened to him for another hour.

On a personal development note, I really enjoyed the international collaboration. Our team was composed of two Filipinos (me and Roche), a Vietnamese (Tien), and a Dutch (Barbara). Even if it was just me and Roche talking, I always made it a point to talk in English because it’s hella rude to talk in a different language when other people can’t understand you. But seriously, I appreciated the international mix because we got to swap “war stories” of our different backgrounds, how we do things in our current work, and stuff that worked before that we could apply to our project.

Incidentally, did you know that a folk belief in Indonesia says that removing the food from a skewer before eating it means that you’re using black magic to make yourself look more attractive? At least that’s what Aga said (he’s one of our Indonesian participants). Now, I have no way of verifying if he’s bullshitting me or not.

The program also shoved me into the deep end of working with total strangers. Let me get this out there: I’m an introvert. I don’t make friends easily. When I start a new job, it takes me a while to warm up to people. Don’t get me wrong: I’m going to do my job but I won’t be chummy with you right away. With a program this short, there was no break-in period. We had to work as a team right from the start. This also meant that all conflicts had to be addressed quickly.

In the “Could Be Improved” column, I only have a few:

  1. This edition’s theme was “Circular Economy”, so we were expecting sustainability issues along those lines. But among the case studies that we got, only the one from GoodHout (a company that uses coconut husks to make boards) was along those lines. Maybe the off-topic case studies were a result of the sponsors that they were able to get for this edition.
  2. I’d hoped for more in-depth training. While we did receive training, I was hoping for a deep dive into consulting, with case study analysis for each training module so I could pick up specific solutions that could be used in future projects. I’m not sure that would have been possible given our time frame, but I hoped all the same.

In conclusion, I can only say THANK YOU.

Major hugs to my co-participants. Hello to the Dutchies who we dragged out for Saturday night karaoke! And the Pinoys have named our Whatsapp chat group “DaRak Group”.

Thank you to our mentors Kelsey and Bertus for organizing my thought process and constant pushing to be better.

Thank you to the team at Shell Philippines Exploration BV for giving us a challenging case to work on.

And last but not least, thank you to the Embassy of the Netherlands in the Philippines for supporting the program, your hospitality, and checking up on us from time to time ????

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