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The 33 sustainability certifications you need to know

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The No. 1 question I get asked by job seekers, hands down, is "What certification should I get if I want to work in sustainability?" And I know everyone hates it when I have to respond with "It depends," but it really, truly does.

The 2020 GreenBiz State of the Profession Report included a fantastic chart titled "Percentage of survey respondents having received training or certification," which showed the following breakdown:

  • 53 percent GRI
  • 26 percent Other
  • 23 percent LEED AP
  • 22 percent LEED GA
  • 18 percent University-based Certification Program
  • 17 percent SASB
  • 8 percent ISSP

So, if you were to pick a certification out of a hat, it might be a pretty safe bet to get GRI or maybe some form of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design series. But perhaps you noticed that the No. 2 most popular certification was "Other" or that GRI was the only named certification to get more than 25 percent? That should tell you that there are no easy answers here and that there is no one-size-fits-all certification for sustainability professionals. 

A better approach would be to do some critical thinking about any gaps between your existing skillset and the skills required to do the work you are hoping to do next. Take a close look at the job descriptions that excite you. What subject matter expertise or certifications do the job descriptions call for? Talk to people already doing the type of work you want to do. What training do they have? What frameworks and tools do they use? That should help you identify what certifications might make you a more competitive candidate. 

Also remember that professional certifications are not the only way to gain credibility. They should be only one part of your larger plan for gaining experience, which could include other avenues such as taking on new projects at your current job, fellowships, school and skills-based volunteering. 

Okay, so now that you’ve done your research and you know what kind of skills you need to build, and you’ve decided that training for a certification is the right way to build them, what options are out there? 

The below list includes nearly 30 certifications that will help you understand the landscape of professional certifications in sustainability. The focus of this list is on professional certifications for practitioners only or, put another way, certifications that demonstrate that you as a person have a specific skill or knowledge set. 

The list does not include certifications for products (such as Forest Stewardship Council for wood products) or companies (such as B Corp for values-led companies), professional training that does not earn a credential (I have some great suggestions for that in this article and in the Training section of this page), graduate programs or university-based certificates. 

I’m 100 percent confident that I've missed an incredible certification program. If so, please let me know about it by reaching out via my website. Thanks in advance!.

General sustainability and climate professional certifications

The ISSP and ACCO certifications are well-respected programs that provide the opportunity to demonstrate that you are a sustainability professional capable of performing sustainability strategy and implementation work across multiple functions, industries and regions. Both organizations offer programs for young professionals or those new to sustainability. 

International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP)
The Association of Climate Change Officers (ACCO)

Sustainability reporting certifications

The world of corporate sustainability reporting is not for the faint of heart. The organizations that comprise the infamous alphabet soup of reporting frameworks and standards each provide their own approach to the reporting of sustainable value creation and disclosure of climate-related risks, which makes deciding what reporting-related certification to pursue incredibly difficult.

To make things even more complicated, the landscape is changing at a rapid pace. In September, five of the leading reporting groups (CDP, CDSB, GRI, IIRC and SASB) issued a statement of intent to work together to create a comprehensive global corporate reporting system and a mere two months later, IIRC and SASB announced an intent to merge to become the Value Reporting Foundation

According to this GreenBiz article on the state of corporate reporting, we’re not likely to have one single framework that everyone uses anytime soon (if ever). In addition, the only reporting framework that you’ll ultimately absolutely need to know is the one that your future employer uses, and you won’t know which one that will be until you’re working there. 

My advice to people who want to pursue a reporting certification is to do your own research on each leading framework and standard to see if any resonate with you. Ask practitioners in the industry that you’d like to work in what frameworks they use. If you later find out that you need to know a specific framework for a particular role, you can learn it on the job or through a training program at that time. 

Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) does not offer a formal certification program but TCFD e-learning courses are available on the TCFD Knowledge Hub.

Green building certifications

There are so many green building certification standards around the world that I couldn’t possibly list them all here, so only four leading standards are below. Each has its own nuanced definition of what makes a building sustainable and approach for how building certification is achieved. Professional certification in one of these means that you’ve demonstrated an understanding of sustainability and green building principles in general as well as the certification framework of the particular program. 

Green building certifications are of most value to people whose work will focus on building design, construction or retrofitting such as designers and architects. That said, the built environment is a huge component of environmental impact for many organizations, so those hoping to work in sustainability strategy or program management may find this training beneficial as well. 

U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)

LEED is the most well-known and prolific green building certification system in the United States. Buildings that are LEED certified have been designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance in energy efficiency, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reductions, improved indoor air quality and stewardship of resources. 

  • LEED Green Associate is for those newer to sustainability and LEED
  • LEED AP with specialty is for individuals actively working on green building and LEED projects and who wish to demonstrate expertise with a specific LEED rating system 
Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes 

Green Globes is a science-based building rating system that supports a wide range of new construction and existing building project types. Green Globes buildings are energy-efficient, healthy and environmentally sustainable. 

International Living Future Institute (ILFI)’s Living Building Challenge

The Living Building Challenge has been described as the world’s most rigorous green building and sustainable design certification standard. Living Buildings strive for net-zero or net-positive energy and are free of toxic chemicals. 

International WELL Building Institute’s WELL Building Standard

The WELL Building Standard is a roadmap for creating and certifying spaces that advance human health and well-being across 10 core concepts. WELL works at any scale, from a single interior space to an entire organization.

Certifications related to energy for the built environment

Green building principles are a great way to reduce a building’s impact when remodeling or undergoing new construction, but there are also huge opportunities in improving the energy efficiency and management of existing buildings and connecting them to renewable energy sources. 

These certifications are of most value to people whose work will focus on energy in buildings and/or renewable energy procurement. As with the green building certifications, those hoping to work in sustainability strategy or program management may find this training helpful as well. 

Association of Energy Engineers (AEE)

The AEE offers dozens of certifications around energy management, sustainable development and utility services for the commercial, industrial, institutional, governmental, energy services and utility sectors. 

Specialty certifications

If you’ve been working in sustainability for even a small amount of time, you already know that the scope of topics that could fall under the term "sustainability" is virtually limitless. 

As a result, there are also endless possibilities for training and certification in sustainability for different industries, issues and disciplines. Here are several other notable professional certifications that don’t fall neatly into one of the categories above: 

So, what’s your favorite certification?

What certifications do you have or intend to pursue? Did this article help you find a new certification to consider? What’s missing? Join the conversation on LinkedIn or send me a note.

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