So you want a career in sustainability?

Turning a passion into a profession

youth career

I receive frequent inquiries from existing and new contacts asking for advice on how to enter the world of sustainability and sustainability consulting. I always do my best to help, though sometimes whilst also wondering whether I could have found a silver bullet to smooth my career, or deliver the security and progress which some professions naturally have.

Unfortunately, of course, no such silver bullet exists for me or for anyone else. Whilst sustainability has many of the characteristics of a professional career, as yet it lacks the structure and progression you find in most, more “mature professions”.

What EXACTLY do you want to do, the questions to ask yourself

So, as with the development of career ambition in any profession, the key things to bear in mind when thinking of a career in sustainability are as follows:

  • What is your passion – what do you want to achieve/ change?
  • What people and organisations inspire you?
  • What are the things that your experience and skills enable you to do that is unique and valuable?
  • What new skills and experience do you need to develop in order to get where you need to go?
  • Where do you want to play – which bit of sustainability can you add value to?
  • How do you want to play – operationally or strategically – do you want to focus at the level of detail or big picture?
  • What is the pain – why would a client need to look you up/ jump when you contact them?
  • What is your network – who do you know that you might be able to discuss opportunities with or deliver added value services with?
  • Where do you want to live/ work?

Sustainability: profession and professionalisation

As noted above, sustainability is slowly professionalising. Whilst it is still possible to find people in senior sustainability or CSR jobs with PR and communications backgrounds, you can equally find people coming from the earth or natural sciences, environmental science and technology, business management and many other disciplines.

In addition, the recognition and development of specific sustainability skills are an increasing part of the set of capabilities required in sustainability consultants and managers. The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) has developed a skills map, highlighting the range of skills required at different professional levels and for varying roles in sustainability.

This approach is gaining huge traction, from companies using the map to identify the competencies they will require for strategic HR development (if you are a company with a strategic sustainability agenda – you are a company with sustainability skills needs), to professions assessing the extent to which their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) needs to adopt and adapt specific sustainable skills.

Sustainability skills – a new discipline or an added extra?

A number of initiatives have concentrated upon recognizing and developing specialized skills in sustainability. Personally, I have been involved a number over the years, focused both on the cross professional competencies required for us all to play a part in a sustainable world, and also the specific , tailored skills required in different professions, these include:

  • Professional Practice for Sustainable Development (PP4SD): this joint initiative pioneered the concept and provides guidance a number of useful documents.
  • In the UK, the house building industry also conducted research into the skills required to deliver zero carbon and sustainable housing.

In addition, Dr Joanne Tippet at the University of Manchester led a project on the issue a few years ago, reporting on the skills required for sustainability and how to develop them.

There are also other people out there providing invaluable help and advice. In 2009, the sustainability communications expert Michelle Bernhardt wrote a very useful post on her Ethispot blog: “So you want to work in CSR?” containing some really fantastic hints and tips.  

In 2011 the Guardian presented a range of tips for graduates from IEMA’s Graduate Awards finalists on getting into an environmental career in addition to advice for those wishing to change careers.

*2014 Update* – Is sustainability growing up?

The professionalisation of sustainability has also taken some significant strides in recent years. The UK based, but global ICRS (Institute of Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability) was officially launched in July 2014 with a the goal ofsupporting CR and sustainability professionals to be brilliant at all stages of their careers. We recognise, promote and support high standards of professional practice.” The ICRS (and here I have to state an interest, I am a Member) is focused upon providing professional development, clear skills progression and reinforcing the notion that to be a practitioner in sustainability and CR there should be some means of demonstrating professional context and a clear, earned, skill set. The ICRS Competency Framework can be viewed here.

In addition, also in 2014, IEMA developed a partnership with GACSO (the Global Association of Chief Sustainability Officers) to evolve the Institute’s approach beyond the traditional environmental management focus upon which it was founded.

Other developing professional associations also exist across the world (and this blog is unlikely to present an exhaustive list), for instance the ISSP (International Society of Sustainability Professionals) represents more than 700 practitioners from across the world and brings opportunities for professional development, knowledge sharing and communities of practice.

What part in sustainability do you want to play?

As a invaluable counterpart to those of us who have a dedicated career in sustainability, there is also a need for people from all backgrounds and professional disciplines to ask; “what role can my expertise, experience and understanding play in a sustainable world?”

As opposed to the development of specific sustainability skills, there is also a role in sustainability for specialists in other areas to turn their minds to sustainability challenges.

Meeting the challenges of the future requires solutions built upon deep and robust expertise in many areas – finance, investment and economics, engineering, physics, human behavior, business management, organisational and personal development.

The challenges of the future require coordinated, multidisciplinary expertise and passion in order to solve them.

I believe that, in time, all of us will have a career in delivering sustainability, each with our own particular areas of specific expertise and skills.

This article was originally published on the terrafiniti blog
Joss Tantram is a recognized expert in sustainable strategy, reporting and management. With 15 years’ experience in sustainability consultancy, combined with 5 years with WWF, he provides a mix of technical knowledge, passion and a track record of innovation in sustainability. Read more on the Towards 9 Billion blog.