Elena Koukouna on working as a sustainability consultant

24 January 2022 Consultancy.eu 5 min. read

Elena Koukouna is an industrial engineer and ecologist that has been working as a sustainability consultant at Blonk Sustainability for more than six years. In a conversation with UniPartners she talks about her experience in sustainability and shares her tips for graduates who are interested in becoming a consultant.

Having moved to the Netherlands to study her Masters in Industrial Ecology, Koukouna said that she had always been interested in environmental issues and sustainability. During her studies the need to understand the impact of the industry to the environment became increasingly evident for her – and after her thesis on life cycle assessment of biofuels, she was convinced that she wanted to work for a company with sustainability at its epicentre.

After graduating, she heard about the mission of Blonk Sustainability which Koukouna explained as providing “actionable environmental sustainability insights” and “tailor made tools”, which it deploys toward an overall purpose to “create a more sustainable future.” All this fitted perfectly with her interests and knowledge – and currently, she has been working at Blonk for six years already.

Elena Koukouna, Consultant, Blonk

Koukouna: “For me my work at Blonk helps me understand the world better. The knowledge I built up in these six years of working experience, the interaction I have with my colleagues and the values we have as a company are all very important to me. I feel that the work I deliver for my clients is my way to serve society.”

From farm to fork

Blonk Sustainability (formerly Blonk Consultants) is a consulting firm specialised in the agri-food chain and was founded in 1999. In the last few years, the consultancy has grown considerably. “We are growing quite fast and we also have this outlook of growing even more and welcoming new colleagues to our company. Currently we have a lot of diversity in knowledge, characters and backgrounds, which is really beautiful,” Koukouna noted.

According to her, last year’s growth was, among other factors, a result of adding more services, such as offering new software solutions and offering training courses for industry experts, universities and onboarding new employees.

However, the core business of Blonk is still consulting companies in the agri-food sector with topics that focus on sustainability. “There are more consultancies focusing on the topic of sustainability, Blonk sets itself apart from other consultancies with its deep expertise in the agri-food chain.”

Talking about the clients that Blonk works for, Koukouna stated, “We are experts in the whole agri-food value chain, from farm to fork as we call it… We work for people in the meat industry, for people in the potato processing industry, for people that make additives for animal feed, for governmental bodies, NGOs and so forth. So our customer portfolio is quite diverse.”

“All our clients are interested in sustainability, but the questions that they have for us can be very different depending on their context and strategies.”

Thanks to the rapid rise of sustainability up the corporate agenda, Blonk does not have to put a lot of effort in convincing companies to become more sustainable. “Our clients already recognise the need to be more sustainable or do something with sustainability.”

Koukouna said, “Currently in the agri-food sector there are a lot of developments happening on the EU level, such as the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy. Besides this, our clients also receive a lot of questions from their suppliers and customers or they have to comply with laws and regulations.”

A common challenge that she does still encounter, though, is that while companies want to reduce their environmental impact, they are unsure of how to do so while still remaining economically viable. Blonk can help with this, by pointing beyond specific environmental topics, like carbon footprint, to considering businesses’ water footprints, or how energy intensive processes are – something that can also reduce costs.

Day to day activities

One of Koukouna’s main activities as a sustainability consultant is performing life cycle assessments for different companies from A to Z – all the way from data collection to reporting the results or developing tailor made tools. This entails the direct communication with the clients, understanding their needs and translating them into a project that can really help them and meet their expectations and wishes.

“My daily work also includes a lot of interaction with my colleagues, such as exchanging knowledge, brainstorming, and thinking along how we can improve products or services. So, it is a very interesting workflow every day,” she outlined.

Meeting this workload has required the honing of a specific skillset that Koukouna described as “maintaining a helicopter view” of projects and situations being dealt with. This requires keeping a broad perspective, and being able to observe things about individual factors of a project – “so really take a holistic approach.”

At the same time, a sustainability consultant must have analytical skills and science-oriented qualities, on top of soft skills such as listening and communication to help respond to the client’s project or a research question. Koukouna developed most of these skills during her career.

She went on, “The university helps you to get analytical skills. And most of these skills you will also improve a lot during your working experience. I think the working experience adds a lot of value and really evolves you as a professional. But of course, working in a group with similar mindsets also boosts these qualities further. It motivates you; it inspires you and it gives you a purpose basically, it all makes sense.”

Tips to grow as a consultant

Summarising what it takes to become “the best consultant,” the Blonk Sustainability expert suggested the key is “to be courageous.” She added that while individuals encounter some insecurity when they enter the professional world, the most important tip is to “keep your enthusiasm and do not hesitate to ask questions and to get involved.”

Koukouna further explained that while there is so much knowledge that individuals eventually need to acquire, they should realise they “won’t acquire this knowledge within a month or two.” Therefore, “you need to be patient and take the time to build up your knowledge. When you keep your enthusiasm and you keep asking questions and getting involved you will get there,” she concluded.