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Sustainability professionals should 'surf' this career roadmap

This four-letter word can regenerate the planet and ensure meaningful jobs for young people.

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the future of sustainability jobs. In one of my earliest articles for Talent Show, I detailed four job trends that felt most opportune for our industry in 2012: sustainability drivers went beyond the consumer; large companies drove sustainability upstream toward suppliers; public policy was coalescing around transparency; and heads of sustainability were hiring deputies. These offered important insights for aspiring sustainability professionals.

As companies and governments made structural changes to promote sustainability, it emerged, slowly but surely, to become a permanent part of most institutions. But this doesn’t mean that the field has become any easier to penetrate for young aspirants. In fact, with 476 sustainability-focused master’s degree programs and 432 bachelor’s degree programs in the U.S. and Canada alone, the market remains heavily tilted toward aspirants. 

That fact is from Marilyn Waite's new book, "Sustainability at Work: Careers that Make a Difference," which explores sustainability in jobs across multiple sectors, not just those with "sustainability" in the title.

Sustainability at work

The book is broken down by chapters exploring sustainability in such sectors as science and technology, healthcare, law, media and education. 

Waite offers a structural framework for aspiring professionals pursuing careers that make a difference using the acronym "SURF":

  • Supply chain considerations that address sustainability criteria,
  • User considerations that address sustainability criteria,
  • Relationships with employees, colleagues, the surrounding community and society at large, and
  • Future generation concerns.

"From climate change to environmental justice, both our planet and society need regeneration. If we want to progress towards sustainability, then we have to integrate the concepts into our actual life’s work  our jobs and everything related to those occupations  and we have to do this full-time," Waite purported. SURF is a tool that enables professionals to pursue sustainability, no matter what sector or division in which they work.

The framework’s discipline can be useful for sustainability-focused professionals to chart their journeys effectively, rather than relying on titles or hierarchical structures. At the core of SURF is the most important skill required of sustainability practitioners: change-making. Understanding the drivers of change, whether they’re behavioral, structural or organizational, is critical to not only understand where you can weave yourself into the sustainability sector but also your effectiveness as a sustainability professional.

Supply chain opportunities

For those aspiring to work in sustainability, look to your organization’s supply chain for opportunities to make a difference. At the top of your list should be understanding and improving factors that may be staring you in the face, from the type of energy being used to supply your electricity and your building’s recycling and heating practices, to the types of foods you consume  and how you dispose of them responsibly, as well as how you and your colleagues arrive at work every day.

The user journey

The next step in SURF is thinking of the user experiences of your organization’s product or service from a sustainability standpoint. What challenge is your product or service addressing for your client or consumer? Is it socially, environmentally and economically sustainable? Is it manufactured sustainably? Answering these questions can lead you in many helpful directions, and while it may seem like a maze at first, this thought process can help you better understand the changes you want, how this journey might evolve and where you can play a role.

Improving relationships

Relationships come next, both internal and external. Is your organization providing a safe and healthy workplace? Do your colleagues see it as healthy and safe as well? Do stakeholders participate in decisions that have a direct impact on them? This can include opportunities such as wellbeing programs, inclusion efforts and your organization’s interactions with local communities.

Seven generations ahead

Finally, Waite points us to the future. After all, everything we do has an impact on future generations. Is your organization reporting quarterly results to satisfy investors, while maintaining a longer-term plan that incorporates material risks and allows for more systemic changes to the business model?

Given the Earth’s limited resources, intergenerational inequity and an increasingly connected global economy, how is your organization working to futureproof its business model while ensuring its stakeholders are thriving for multiple generations?

Interface provides an excellent example of this last point, from its legendary founder Ray Anderson’s work to make the carpet tile manufacturer a net zero company, to its newest mission to take back our climate to make it fit for life again. This journey, led by a visionary leader, began in the 1990s and since has become an embedded job requirement of every Interface employee, be it a designer, a purchasing specialist or the company’s accounting team.

Can the SURF framework be applied to any job out there? Organizations of all kinds are in dire need of talent. From future thinkers and business case builders to financial minds, who can connect the dots between operations, finance and sustainability?

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