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The state of the sustainability profession in uncertain times

Our biennial report on the jobs of corporate sustainability execs showed significant process, at least until the virus hit.

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At the close of 2019, we were optimistic about the growth of the sustainability profession. We looked back at 10 years of research and reflected on how far the profession had come.

When we published our first such research, in 2010, the Great Recession had ended but unemployment still stood at 9.6 percent. Only 28 percent of organizations planned to add dedicated sustainability resources. Ten years later, companies both large and small reported increased budgets. Nearly six in 10 organizations planned to add to the sustainability team’s headcount.

December 2019 now seems far away. The data collected for our biennial State of the Profession report, released today, is based on a survey conducted in late 2019, long before we were hit with the COVID-19 crisis and its associated impacts. From our current vantage point, it is difficult to make predictions, as crises can create both challenges and opportunities. As sustainability practitioners, though, we are almost genetically engineered to take a long view.

When there are discussions about the three P’s — people, planet and profit — most sustainability conversations revolve around people and planet. When profit is discussed it’s mainly in terms of funding the other two P’s. If nothing else, the COVID crisis shines a light on the importance of a strong balance sheet.

It seems almost certain that sustainability programs at highly leveraged companies will either disappear or have the sum of their efforts become a glossy corporate responsibility report. For those public companies, our only advice is to proceed at your own risk: A new level of scrutiny will await you on the other side of this crisis.

As sustainability practitioners we are almost genetically engineered to take a long view.

Whether it’s the last couple letters from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink or an increasing awareness of climate change risks (and potential opportunities), the environmental and social data that sustainability teams have been publishing is starting to get read. Much of the focus has been, and will continue to be, from an environmental perspective, with a specific focus on climate change.

The current pandemic makes clear that environmental risks are almost always social risks as well. Post-COVID, public companies will be evaluated in terms of their broader ESG strategy, with an increased emphasis on their social actions, initially in terms of how they treated employees, supply chain partners and other key stakeholders during a global pandemic.

Of course, we’re at an inflection point. There’s the potential that this current crisis exhumes the still-fresh corpse of Milton Friedman’s shareholder primacy. Certainly, some CEO signatories of the Business Roundtable’s statement on the purpose of a corporation don’t seem to be "promoting an economy that serves all Americans," much less leading their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Our research points toward a different direction. We asked survey respondents to rate how involved their CEO is in the organization’s sustainability program on a scale from 1 (openly dismissive) to 7 (owns it, very engaged).

It is encouraging that none of this year’s respondents view their CEO as openly dismissive. The real change in 2020 is that 43 percent rate their CEO’s engagement at either a 6 or 7. That’s an 8-percentage point increase from 2018, and it’s evident in the news cycle, whether it’s support for LGBTQ rights, stricter gun laws, a price on carbon or resisting employee furloughs longer than they would probably like.

Mind the (narrowing) gap

We also saw a job market that prioritized new skills as we partnered with LinkedIn to understand key opportunities for sustainability job seekers. Circular economy topped the list of the 10 fastest-rising skills among LinkedIn users; corporate sustainability was fourth. For sustainability professionals, the fastest rising skill is data analysis, with statistically significant year-over-year growth of 18 percent.

Other encouraging signs are in the report. Not only are there more women in the profession, the pay gap between genders has narrowed over the past decade. Sustainability resources are increasingly embedded in core business functions such as supply chain operations and facilities management. More sustainability executives report directly to the CEO, and a much larger percentage of sustainability leaders are being asked to regularly inform the board of directors.

We don’t know what changes will come as a result of the current crisis, so we defer to baseball playing sage Yogi Berra, who advised, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” What we do know are the trends that brought us here.

Join John Davies and two experts on sustainability careers April 28 for a free, one-hour webcast to discuss the State of the Profession report.

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