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Commercial Question

Sustainable consumption and net zero

updated on 17 January 2023


What’s sustainable consumption and why should lawyers care? 


The production and consumption of goods is a cornerstone of the UK and global economy.

However, globally there’s a move towards the protection and preservation of our planet against climate change. This is best exemplified by the Net Zero Coalition – a collective of more than 70 countries, including the biggest polluters (China, the United States, and the European Union), setting targets to achieve net zero. Net zero is a state in which the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by removal of such gases out of the atmosphere.

What’s sustainable consumption?

Sustainable consumption is about the use of products and services in a way that minimises impact on the environment. There’s near unanimous consensus among environmental scientists and climate change researchers that the current model isn’t sustainable. Current predictions have the global population reaching 9.6 billion by 2050. If this happens, at our current rate of consumption the equivalent of almost three planets will be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain our current lifestyles. Similarly, despite accounting for just 1% of the global population, the UK is one of the world’s largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and has a 13% higher individual consumption rate than the EU27 average. 

At its core, sustainable consumption is about doing more with less. It means decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation, increasing resource efficiency and promoting sustainable lifestyles.

Supporters of a move away from the current model towards a low-carbon and green economy are keen to make clear that economic growth is still achievable under a sustainable consumption model:

  • It’s estimated the promotion of a ‘reuse’ economy would create eight times the number of jobs as the current ‘recycling economy’.
  • In 2020, businesses active in the UK low carbon and renewable energy economy (LCREE) generated £41.2 billion in turnover, with employment of 207,800 full-time equivalent employees.
  • The Climate Change Commission estimates that the UK will need to invest £1.4 trillion between 2020 and 2050 to reach net zero. This will include investment in the power sector, in homes and in agriculture.
  • It’s estimated that there could be between 1.4 million and 2.5 million jobs in the green sector by 2050.

Sustainable consumption and ESG

Increasingly, clients across a range of sectors require advisors who understand the critical importance of decision making in the context of an environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) framework. Investment and interest in ESG has continued to increase over the past decade and globally in 2019 ESG themed projects and investments pulled in $20.6 billion of new money. This is an increase from $5.5 billion the year before.

This meteoric rise of ESG investment demonstrates two things – that there’s opportunity within sustainable practices and that there’s a desire to invest in green policies. This is most clearly demonstrated by Morgan Stanley’s 2019 Sustainable Signals survey which found that around 85% of investors were interested in sustainable investing.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the subsequent sanctions on Russian exports there’s been a near-unanimous global acceptance that we can no longer rely on fossil fuels including natural gas. Consequently, the trend of investing in ESGs, sustainable practices and green energy is likely to further increase.

Legal advisors who have a particular understanding of ESG while also embodying sustainable values will have a unique opportunity to generate new business, draw in new clients while also hitting their own net-zero targets. Fundamentally, sustainable consumption and the promotion of green values/investment should be viewed by law firms for what it is – a good opportunity for a good cause.

How does the move towards sustainable consumption impact law firms?

Clients that take sustainability seriously (which is increasingly common) expect their advisors to do the same. The legal industry is competitive and firms tendering for work will find themselves under increased scrutiny and be required to prove that they embody sustainable values. The Social Value Portal which lists ‘the planet’ as one of its five key values is one of the tools clients may use to evaluate whether firms bidding for tenders measure up to the evaluating entity’s own green policies.  

In recent years, sustainability has also taken a lead position in the hiring and retention of employees. A recent article in the Financial Times listed employee activism as one of their essential ESG topics for 2022. Further, a survey conducted by Fast Company showed that two out of three employees would be more inclined to work for and stay at a business that has a strong sustainability plan. Law firms will have a higher chance of attracting and retaining high-quality employees if they can demonstrate a strong commitment to sustainability.

Top tips for aspiring lawyers

  • Useful resources to stay commercially aware include: The Law Society Gazette, The Economist, the Financial Times and LawCareers.Net’s weekly commercial news round-ups.
  • If you’re specifically interested in net zero or sustainable consumption the following resources will also be of use: the government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution and ‘The Stuff of Life’ report 2022 by SUEZ.
  • When applying for training contracts, consider what issues will be impacting a firm’s specific client base and what advice you’d give. This requires in-depth research into the firm, its client base and the market.

James Crabtree is a trainee solicitor at Bevan Brittan LLP.