Sustainability as a Profession

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with a group of college students regarding sustainability. They had a list of questions that were centered around career opportunities. Such as, what kind of jobs are available, what kind of education and experience are required and will sustainability persist or will it fade away?

It occurred to me during the conversation that these were the same questions I have been asked by companies and organizations. I told the students that many of the companies they were looking to go to work with were asking the same type of questions.

I gave an example of a company that recently directed two recruiters to me. They had told the recruiters to ask me what type of person would be needed to fill the positions and to see if I knew of any viable candidates.

I thought this was a little strange. They didn’t ask me if I was interested in the positions, but they wanted me to help them understand the requirements and find people. Wasn’t I good enough to work for the company in one of the roles? But my favorite call so far has been the one where the recruiter called and told me that she had been hired to fill a Sr. Sustainability Director position. She wanted to know if I could tell her what that was. I started to wonder what this was telling me. Did it mean that this is such a new field that people just don’t understand it yet? No, I didn’t buy that. This planet and it’s inhabitants have sustained themselves for centuries.

Maybe it’s like the quality push of the 80’s. If you walked up to someone on the street and asked, “What is quality?” you would get multiple answers. It didn’t mean that they were wrong, it just meant that each person had their own definition of what quality meant to them. So, we developed guidelines and produced tools that could be used across organizations and allow individuals to come together as teams or groups and speak with a common language.

So it often is with sustainability, multiple people have multiple definitions. One recent concept seems to have emerged as universally recognized, and I said recognized not understood, the triple bottom line.

This venn diagram has been used just about everywhere.

It doesn’t mean it’s completely understood, but it is used to describe sustainability.

So, back to the classroom, the students an organizations know that the environment, social and economic labels are used in the diagram; however, when I asked if anyone in the room knew what RCRA stood for only one person could name the first two letters. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), enacted in 1976, is the principal Federal law in the United States governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste.

I asked about a few more like WEEE, RoHS, and SWPP. Nothing but concerned looks. I moved on to the social and economic areas and asked similar questions. More strange looks.

So let’s start here.

If you as an individual or a company are trying to understand what type of skill set you or your company needs for a sustainability professional, remember it is more than just a journalist that will write press releases about the environment and employee activities. It’s more than a marketer that will send out your press releases and talk with the media. And, remember, you are not the compliance police. Now don’t get me wrong, these are important skills, but they are not the only skills required. Robert Shapiro once said, “Far from being a soft issue grounded in emotion or ethics, sustainable development involves cold, rational business logic.”

A sustainability professional should have an understanding of environmental policies, rules and regulations. They should also be familiar with environmental and civil engineering concepts and techniques. You should be familiar with business ecology and industrial ecology and the difference between the two. Depending on what business you are in you might need to add green chemistry to your tool kit.

They should have the skills for dealing with internal and external share and stakeholders. They need to understand and demonstrate change management techniques within organizations. Machiavelli was right, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

They should be familiar with accounting techniques, methodologies and ecological economics. You should have an understanding of scorecards, dashboards and reporting methodologies such as GRI. You are going to have to speak the language of Accountants, CFOs and Wall Street Analysts, so you better be prepared.

A sustainability professional is one that will work with your company to establish competitive business strategies. These strategies may be innovative or they may be old ideas that associates have had in one plant and you help bring them to the entire organization. Either way, your job is to generate, develop, and lead competitive business strategies that will allow your organization to sustain itself for generations to come.

“Leaders establish the vision for the future and set the strategy for getting there; they cause change. They motivate and inspire others to go in the right direction and they, along with everyone else, sacrifice to get there.”

John Kotter


Read your Sustainability as a profession piece – had to chuckle at the recruiter calling for info not offer – Apparently I’m not the only one.  Matt

One thought on “Sustainability as a Profession

  1. Hi Jesse,
    You touch on a very important point. It is critical for sustainability professionals to deeply understand the core business of their companies. For 2 main reasons;

    1-As a representative of a relatively new discipline, you have to earn respect of professionals from other functions. If you only talk about being a responsible company without a clue about where your industry is headed, how your company makes money, what the critical business processes are etc; people will make fun of you and your fussy presentations

    2-You can only make a positive impact on the environment and the society, if you truely understand where the footprint of your company and what the core strength of your organization is.

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