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Which of these 40 sustainability certifications is right for you?

A guide to fellowships, school, classes and skills-based volunteering that can rocket-fuel your career.

People holding diplomas

Image via Shutterstock/George Rudy

The No. 1 question I (still) get asked by job seekers is "What certification should I get if I want to work in sustainability?" I wrote an article last year that attempted to answer that question and continues to be a reader favorite. The landscape has shifted since then, and some exciting new certifications are available, so read on to learn what’s new and which certifications might work for you.

GreenBiz's 2022 State of the Profession report showed that credentials from the Global Reporting Initiative and the U.S Green Building Council (LEED GA and LEED AP) continue to be the leading certifications, with 46 percent, 23 percent and 20 percent of survey respondents holding them, respectively. CDP was specifically mentioned as the disclosure framework most used by respondents.

That makes a lot of sense, as several voluntary standards and frameworks are available for writing your organization’s sustainability/ESG/CSR report, but there’s only one way to disclose to CDP and receive a score. Unfortunately, CDP doesn’t offer an official certification for professionals, but I’m betting that if it did, it would be on the next report’s top five list for sure.

Speaking of reporting, sustainability reporting (frequently referred to as "ESG reporting") is a specific skillset within the broader sustainability profession that’s in particularly high demand. The GreenBiz report shared that 85 percent of surveyed companies have either hired more people or engaged consultants specifically in response to increased investor demand related to ESG disclosure. The report also stated that while reporting used to be considered a function that required 0.5 full-time equivalent (FTE), or half of a full-time employee’s workload, the average number of FTEs dedicated to reporting is now closer to 2.

It’s pretty clear reporting skills are in demand right now, and reporting is a skillset that’s relevant to virtually any industry, so if you’re interested in reporting, one of the reporting certifications listed below might be a great option for you.    

But what if reporting isn’t your thing? The GreenBiz report also had a fantastic chart that showed what areas sustainability professionals are seeking more education in to help advance their sustainability careers. ESG and sustainable finance was at the top (I’m assuming ESG reporting is included in that), and environmental skills including climate, carbon, waste and water came in at a close second.

Those top two categories are at the core of most corporate sustainability work, but it was particularly exciting to see circular economy, equity and social justice, and human rights in the supply chain achieving double-digit interest. 

State of the Profession image

So, now that you know what skills are generally in demand and popular, you need to do some critical thinking about what skills you personally might want to build by pursuing a professional certification. Take a close look at the job descriptions that excite you: What subject matter expertise or certifications do they call for? Talk to people who are 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, classes and skills-based volunteering.

The below list includes 40 certifications that will help you understand the landscape of professional certifications in sustainability. The focus 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 or Cradle to Cradle) or for companies (such as B Corp). It also doesn’t include professional training that does not earn a credential (I have some great suggestions for that in this article and in the Training section of my Education page), or graduate programs or university-based certificates. 

I’m 100 percent confident that at least one reader out there will know of an incredible certification program that I’ve missed. If that’s you, please let me know about it by joining the conversation on LinkedIn, and I’ll include a shout-out to you and the certification in a thank-you post. Thanks in advance. 

General sustainability and climate change professional certifications

The International Society of Sustainability Professionals and Association of Climate Change Officers certifications provide an opportunity to demonstrate you are a sustainability professional capable of performing sustainability strategy and implementation work across multiple functions, industries and regions. Both organizations offer credentials for young professionals or those new to sustainability. 

The Leading the Sustainability Transformation Professional Certification Program (offered by GreenBiz in partnership with WholeWorks) teaches core concepts from leading experts in sustainable development across industries and sectors, and provides practice in a realistic team simulation alongside peers from around the world. 

The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP)

The Association of Climate Change Officers (ACCO)

GreenBiz Leadership Development

Sustainability and ESG reporting certifications

If you’ve been following the news about the rapidly evolving sustainability and ESG reporting landscape, and you’re confused about what recent developments mean for the future value of any certification you might get, you’re not alone. There are a lot of reporting and disclosure approaches out there, but six recent leaders are:

  • Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards
  • Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standards
  • Integrated Reporting (IR) framework
  • Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CSDB) framework
  • Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) framework
  • CDP disclosure system

The SASB, CDSB and (IR) standards have been consolidated into the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation, which is developing a new set of global reporting standards that will ultimately be called the IFRS Sustainability Disclosure Standard. SASB and (IR) training and certification programs are still available while the new standards are under development and are likely to still be worth your time as they will inform the new standards. 

The European Union is developing the European Sustainability Reporting Standard (ESRS), which will be informed by all six frameworks listed above. It is expected to become law affecting companies that operate in the EU beginning this year. 

GRI, TCFD and CDP remain independent. The organizations are collaborating in various ways to support the development of ESRS and the IFRS Sustainability Disclosure Standard. 

That’s a whole lot of acronyms in a very small space, but the key takeaway here is that most major players in sustainability reporting and disclosure are generally working together to develop a new set of global standards. A unified system is not here yet, but it’s on the way. 

My advice is to ask practitioners in the industry that you’d like to work in what approach they use to reporting and decide that way. If you later find out that you need to know a different standard for a particular role, you can learn it on the job or through a training program at that time.

Green building certifications

Each of the below standards has its own nuanced definition of what makes a building sustainable and approach for how building certification is achieved. Professional certification in one of them means 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. 

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

LEED is the most well-known and prolific green building certification system in the U.S. 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 Green Globes Certification

Green Globes is a comprehensive, 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 (IFLI) 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.    

  • Living Future Accreditation demonstrates proficiency in ILFI’s certification programs and understanding of leading-edge regenerative design philosophy

International WELL Building Institute 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.

Center for Active Design Fitwel Building Standard

Fitwel is a leading certification system committed to building health for all. Originally created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and generated by expert analysis of 5,600-plus academic research studies, Fitwel is implementing a vision for a healthier future where all buildings and communities are enhanced to strengthen health and well-being.

Social Equity Assessment Method (SEAM) Rating System

SEAM is a newer third-party standard (from an eponymous nonprofit) for real estate projects that certifies a project’s actions toward social sustainability beyond health and wellness to encompass matters such as justice and equity.

  • SEAM AP Accreditation is accepting applications for the second inaugural beta two SEAM AP training program and is looking for trailblazers in sustainability to provide structured feedback in return for deep discounts 

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Green Roof and Wall Program

Accredited Green Roofs Professionals have received training in green roof design and installation, waterproofing and drainage, and plants and growing media. 

Certifications related to operating 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 managing waste and improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings and connecting to renewable energy sources. 

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

The 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. 

Total Resource Use and Efficiency (TRUE) Rating System

The TRUE Rating System (from Green Business Certification Inc.) is a zero-waste certification program used by facilities to define, pursue and achieve their zero waste goals, cutting their carbon footprint and supporting public health. 

Issue- and industry-specific certifications

There are limitless 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 bigger categories:   

ESG and sustainable finance

Governance and risk

Circular economy

City and infrastructure

Other specialty

Certifications wanted

I scoured the internet, LinkedIn and my personal networks but wasn’t able to find professional certifications related to popular topics including equity and social justice, human rights in the supply chain and regenerative agriculture.

True, there are some great one-off classes, and there are also wonderful certificate programs on these topics available from universities, but those are out of scope for this article and a subject for another day. 

I was hoping to find something like the equity and social justice certification equivalent to LEED — does it exist? If so, please let me know. If not, how did you (or do you plan to) get smart on these topics? What frameworks do you rely on to get your work done? 

Please join the conversation on LinkedIn to let me and your fellow readers know what else is out there.

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