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How to navigate your way through the sustainability field

Finding your way there can be hairy, but there are ways to make yourself stand out and achieve your goals once you've arrived.

Woman looking at map and surrounded by several navigation tools (including compass and globe)

Sustainability can look very different across industries, companies and even roles. Knowing where you see yourself and what you bring to the table can help you navigate the field. Image by Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email jesse@greenbiz.com. ]

Over the past 20 years, sustainability roles have grown from hiding in compliance functions to being interspersed throughout business. In 2016, when I had graduated and was looking for a career in sustainability, entry level positions were nearly impossible to find. I chose to pivot into a business operations function at a broadcasting and media company to start my career. After all, you have to start somewhere.

While I gained a lot of experience in media, sustainability was where I wanted to be. An MBA in Sustainability at Bard College in 2019 helped me find and land one of the very few entry level sustainability positions at Unilever. I knew once I got my foot in the door by making a lateral move from one coordinator position to another across industries, I would be able to move forward in sustainability — which is how I have progressed through my career these last few years.

Here are a few key lessons I’ve learned from switching from one coordinator role to a sustainability coordinator role to managerial sustainability roles across sectors.  

1. Use sustainability coursework, certifications and volunteering

A great place to start when transitioning into a sustainability career is by leveraging coursework, certifications and volunteer opportunities relevant to the area of sustainability you want to be. These three pieces show employers that while you aren’t currently working in sustainability, you have interest and experience in the field. The difference between a degree and a certificate is that a degree provides a broader base while a certificate is more specific to a subject matter. I suggest looking into the types of roles you want, seeing where your knowledge gaps are for those roles, and determining if it makes sense to go for a degree, a training or a certificate.

Universities are developing sustainability, environmental management and community impact majors, minors, graduate degrees and certificates. Bard College has an MBA program focused on sustainable business. University of Michigan has a dual-degree program in business and environmental sustainability. University of California, Berkeley has a corporate social responsibility MBA and the list goes on. These institutions provide the educational expertise for which companies are looking. There are also virtual opportunities such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and General Assembly that give you the tools to work in topics such as Lifecycle Assessments (LCAs) or data for sustainability decision making.

There are many certificates to boost specific sustainability knowledge. For those looking to understand sustainable finance, there are certifications through the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), and the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD). For those interested in carbon, there is the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). For those interested in architecture, there is LEED Accreditation and WELL. To learn about project management in sustainability, there is the Green Project Management certificate. To find robust and verifiable certificates, do your research: Ask sustainability professionals what certificates are necessary or impressive on a resume, understand what each certificate offers before committing to it, and make sure it is relevant to the area of sustainability you want to be in. Choose your own adventure and go from there.

Volunteering with organizations that have environmental and social missions allow for you to collaborate and network with like-minded people, develop your understanding of sustainability issues and give you more opportunities for job possibilities. Look to your city parks to improve the environment and learn about your local ecosystems. There are also trash cleanups and gardening projects within many communities and neighborhoods. There are organizations for clean water, waste management and social impact that give you the chance to grow personally and professionally. Volunteering at The High Line and Riverside Park in New York City helped me make connections that brought me into the sustainability industry. These opportunities help solidify what you are interested in, what you want to learn more about and who might be good to know in the field.

2. Sustainability industry and role considerations

Sustainability can look very different inside different industries, companies, functions and even roles. Knowing where you see yourself and what you bring to the table will help. Sustainability is found in startups, small and medium-sized enterprises, corporations and consulting companies. First you need to ask yourself where you want to go. I chose corporations because I was interested in moving the needle, not every day, but ultimately making a positive impact in a big way.

Sustainability roles require us to be well rounded so put a sustainability lens over your abilities and see how they are relevant for and transferable to your sustainability dream role.

To make the transition easier, start with what you know. I knew my data analytic skills could help tell the story of sustainability progress and support company leaders with their sustainability and business decision-making. I had the relationship management skills to align, collaborate and influence employees to bring sustainability to life in their work. And my problem-solving skills helped me come up with creative solutions to any business’ sustainability questions and challenges. Maybe you have environmental science expertise, or a human rights and social justice background or data gathering and visualization skills. Lean on the things you are good at as you are finding your footing in a new role or new sector.  

3. Sustainability can be wherever you are

While you will bring your transferable skills from one role to a sustainability role, there are still opportunities to find ways to make a current company more sustainable while you look for the right sustainable role for you. When you go into a role knowing your purpose, the outcomes you hope to achieve and the process of getting there, you are setting yourself up for success.

In your day-to-day work, stretch your current role into sustainability projects. For example, maybe you notice that people are not recycling correctly, you could get a group together to figure out how to improve the process for those in the office. Taking initiative is something new employers and sustainability roles require because sustainability teams don’t have all the answers. They need new and inventive ideas to further their initiatives and champions within the business to support a company transformation.

Holistic thinking, resilient and long-term strategy and intersectionality are necessary parts of companies. Leaders are expected to incorporate sustainability into products, policies and planning. Green job postings have increased 8 percent in the past five years. Globally, the environmental sustainability workforce grew 38.5 percent between 2015 and 2022.

Without employees bringing in their sustainability knowledge and skills, it is hard for companies to make progress against sustainability targets and program ambitions. When transitioning roles, I thought of the bigger picture of my life, my story, my skills, my interests and my education. Interrogating what I wanted and how I wanted to use my experience and expertise brought me into the sustainability field and there is no other place I want to be.

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