Sustainability: a(n early career) working definition

a climate protest sign next to corporate handshave
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Kavic Muruganathan is a 2017 GreenBiz 30 Under 30 honoree. The 2019 list will be published on June 3, 2019.

Operationally, the idea of "sustainability" is hard to define. It doesn’t help that it’s a bit of a moving target, from the early environmental movement’s goals of resource conservation to the 1987 Brundtland Report definition for economic development to today’s consumer-facing buzzword.

So what does it mean, then, to be a "sustainable professional"? Herein lies the issue: the breadth and depth of sustainability issues mean that hiring a sustainability professional has to be contextualized in the nature of the industry. But gaining the experience necessary can be inaccessible to many seeking to enter it. 

Now, the sustainability wave has gained significant momentum. It is an in-thing. Services for the field have expanded — the number of sustainability events and forums have quadrupled over the last couple of years. Simultaneously, the size of the profession itself has grown, and it continues attracting even more talent.

Millennials are deeply passionate about sustainability issues, and even mid-career professionals are keen to make a transition and jump onto the sustainability bandwagon. Graduates, soon-to-be graduates and mid-career professionals have taken to various ways in gaining a foothold in the sustainability space. Some have sought internship roles in companies, while others have begun setting up their own non-profit groups and start-ups offering sustainability solutions. And there is that group that makes it a point to attend sustainability events and conferences to network with sustainability professionals and seek job opportunities.

However, the amount of interest in the field certainly outweighs the number of jobs that are out there. Over the years, we have seen more sustainability roles open up, but not at the rate of the demand of many who are keen to enter the industry. These include in-house, advisory (consultancy) and business development roles. The major issue? Junior sustainability roles are few and far between. Most early roles in the field require at least two to three years of working experience. So where does that leave fresh graduates who have just come out school with their first university degree?

Having been in the industry for about eight years, I remain steadfast and take it as my responsibility in setting aside some time to mentor soon-to-be graduates. The million-dollar question on every graduate’s lips remains: What does it take to get into the sustainability space? Many I have spoken to possess degrees in environmental science, environmental engineering and environmental studies, to name a few. There are some whose subject matter expertise lie in finance and business. These are all implicitly relevant skills sets required in the field, and they should not disadvantage an individual seeking a job in the sustainability field. But this usually tends to be the case when hiring takes place in a siloed manner, and general human resources lack knowledge on the subject of sustainability.

In Southeast Asia at least, I have not come across a basic honors degree program specific to sustainability. This leaves an individual who is deeply passionate about sustainability in a quandary. On the flip side, I am always left wondering if sustainability can be comprehensively taught through a single degree program. Based on my professional career thus far, I don’t think there can be an all-encompassing program to teach sustainability. Sustainability needs sensitization; sustainability requires you to be on the ground. This, I will come to later. 

A major part of the problem is that many recruiters and talent acquisition specialists typically tend to go for communications or PR professionals to fill sustainability roles. This need not and should not be the case. Sustainability is not about creating hype. It is about substance; creating measurable impact. This is especially important in organizations where sustainability roles have not existed previously. Hire the wrong candidate, and your sustainability programs and initiatives might derail and be perceived as greenwash campaigns in the eyes of the public and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Sustainability requires intrinsic passion and an inner drive to create change. It requires humility and a sharp listening ear, willing to accept views that are diverse and even completely oppose your inner values. Sustainability is not about pushing your weight. It is about being as inclusive as possible. Sustainability is not about sitting in offices, having copious amounts of meetings, developing policies and programs and cascading them downwards. It’s about having boots on the ground, engaging and socializing with communities that face socio-economic issues. Sustainability requires profound understanding of sensitivities. (It also requires acknowledging that you would not necessarily be paid on par with your peers in the IT and financial industries.) 

For those wanting to enter the industry, I would like to offer my humble advice. There is no harm starting off on a low base. Join an NGO or even be part of a startup. Learn the ropes, read diversely and walk the ground to understand the real issues. Adopt long-term views on issues. As with any job do your homework on the company and pick your boss before you pick your job. The last thing you would want is to have is someone impeding your progression and shutting down your ideas. 

On a system-wide level, we must start recognizing a job in an NGO sector and one from the corporate sector to be of equal standing. Both jobs can be and are equally rewarding. The learnings from both sectors are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

While pay scales may differ, the learnings and intrinsic job satisfaction from working with an NGO should be valued and treasured as much. Human resource managers also must cast their nets wider to consider candidates from the NGO sector for potential hires, while university programs also must prepare students to implement sustainability in their work regardless of if it’s specifically environmental.

As a young sustainable professional, I want my peers in sustainable and non-sustainable jobs to be a part of the systems change. In order to do that, we need to change a few things first.