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3 ways sustainability jobs have changed in 15 years

The sustainability profession has been growing. We’re staying abreast of how, how much and what's next.

Modern alternative energy jobs to be done; windmills and house with solar panel.

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As pressure increases on companies to meet their climate goals, much depends on the effectiveness of sustainability teams. To understand how the role of the sustainability leader and function evolves, we at GreenBiz have surveyed those who work in the profession biennially since 2010. Our 2024 State of the Profession survey is open.

In 15 years till now, there have been ebbs and flows, but here’s a catch-up: Our most recent survey results showed the profession to be stronger than ever, with most respondents from large companies reporting increases in headcount, and budgets. LinkedIn shared with us the "green" hiring rate accelerated ahead of the overall hiring rate — globally and in the United States — at the time.

We’ve seen CEOs are more involved in sustainability initiatives, and more sustainability staffers are appointed to departmental functions, such as energy and supply chain. Up next: The ESG controller in the finance office. Women are absolutely on the rise in the field too, but — disappointingly — not necessarily their comp.

What’s the latest? We will publish our eighth State of the Profession summary and report of the results, including the latest on sustainability budgets, team sizes, and salary benchmarks, in the spring. 

Here’s a closer look at three key themes that emerged over the years.

A new pressure wave: CEO engagement

Sustainability pioneer John Elkington delineated the events of the last generation into three environmental "pressure waves" of public opinion from 1961 to 2001. As referenced here, each wave of activism was followed by a downwave of falling public concern, while each successive wave significantly expanded the agendas of politics and business. Elkington later referred to a "sustainability wave" beginning in 2005 which reached its relative peak around 2012.

Our research showed the push for adding full-time corporate sustainability leaders peaked in 2008, the same year Vanity Fair’s final "green issue" featured Madonna on the cover. By 2012 the pace of companies hiring their first sustainability leader had slowed even as the number of companies publishing a sustainability report increased. The increase in reporting might seem significant but its voluntary nature is consistent with a downwave of pressure during the 2010s. Our most recent report, in 2022, indicated the start of a new pressure wave as CEO engagement has increased dramatically.

 

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Source: State of the Profession 2022

We asked survey respondents to rate on a scale from 1 to 7 how involved their CEO is in the company’s sustainability program. Those answering six or seven ("very engaged") rose by 17 percentage points. Increased interest by CEOs and their boards can be attributed to greater stakeholder (and especially shareholder) pressure as well as an increase in regulatory reporting requirements moving from voluntary to mandatory on issues surrounding climate change, greenwashing and human rights.

The professionalization of the profession

Midway through the last decade we noticed that as the size and mandate of the sustainability organization expanded, certain function-specific tasks (such as energy management) became the focus of an individual or dedicated team and the sustainability leader moved on to juggling new forward-looking responsibilities. This gave lie to the phrase "I’m going to work myself out of my job," as the truth is that most sustainability professionals are always working themselves into a new job.

In some areas, such as supply chain, companies are increasingly embedding people within the function. In 2010, 10 percent of those surveyed reported having sustainability resources embedded in the supply chain function; that rose to 49 percent by 2020. A similar growth trajectory appears ready for take-off as mandatory reporting requirements are directly resulting in the formation of the ESG controller’s office, a role almost unheard of a year ago.

 

Source: State of the Profession 2022

The other indicator as to the maturity of the profession is the increase in external hires. Fifteen years ago the sustainability leader was most likely an internal candidate with an established reputation that allowed them to work across the organization. Today you can find chief sustainability officers standing up programs in their third organization, such as Dave Stangis, Apollo Global Management investment advisory; Jill Kolling, James Hardie building materials; and Lisa Brady, Insulet medical devices. (I’ll be talking "How We Built This" with these three in a session at GreenBiz 24 in February.)

Women rise up

In 2010 men dominated at the highest levels of sustainability, holding more than two-thirds of the vice president roles and nearly three-fifths of the director roles in large corporations. Compensation favored men as well. There was an 11 percent gap between a female vice president’s average salary and a man’s and a 20 percent gap between female and male directors.

 

Source: State of the Profession 2022

There has been an increase in gender diversity in the profession over the past 12 years. The number of women in sustainability leadership roles has expanded for every management category. The growing number of women in sustainability is not necessarily reflected in their compensation, however. While female managers make slightly more than their male counterparts and compensation for vice presidents is at par, there is a major compensation gap at the director level.

What’s your take?

Let us know in the State of the Profession survey here. Or help us get the highest participation rate ever, and share the survey link with your social networks and peers working in sustainability, CSR and ESG. It should take less than 10 minutes to complete.

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