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Navigating the realm of sustainability

Over the past 20 years, sustainability roles have moved from hiding in compliance functions to being dispersed across the enterprise. In 2016, when I had graduated and was looking for a career in sustainability, entry-level positions were almost impossible to find. I chose to pursue a commercial operations role in a broadcast and media company to start my career. After all, you have to start somewhere.

Although I had a lot of experience in media, sustainability was what I wanted to be. An MBA in Sustainability from Bard College in 2019 helped me find and land one of the very few entry-level sustainability roles at Unilever. I knew that once I got my foot in the door moving from one coordinator position to another across all industries, I would be able to move forward in sustainability – that’s how I have progressed in my career in recent years.

Here are some key lessons I learned as I transitioned from a sustainability coordinator role to sustainability management roles across industries.

1. Use sustainability courses, certifications and volunteering

A great place to start when transitioning into a sustainability career is to take advantage of courses, certifications, and volunteer opportunities relevant to the sustainability field you want to be in. These three pieces show employers that even if you don’t currently work in sustainability, you have an interest and experience in the field. The difference between a diploma and a certificate is that a diploma provides a broader basis while a certificate is more subject-specific. I suggest looking at the types of roles you want, seeing where your knowledge gaps lie for those roles, and determining if it makes sense to go for a degree, training, or certificate.

Universities are developing sustainability, environmental management and community impact programs, graduate degrees and certificates. Bard College has a MBA program focused on sustainable businesses. University of Michigan has a dual degree program in business and environmental sustainability. University of California, Berkeley has an MBA in Corporate Social Responsibility and the list goes on. These institutions provide the educational expertise sought by companies. There are also virtual opportunities such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and General assembly that give you the tools to work on topics such as Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) or data for sustainability decision-making.

There are many certificates to reinforce 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 Task Force 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 GOOD. To learn more about project management in sustainable development, there is Green project management certificate. To find strong, verifiable certificates, do your research: ask sustainability professionals which certificates are necessary or impressive on a resume, understand what each certificate offers before committing to it, and make sure it’s relevant to the area of ​​sustainability you want to be in Pick your own adventure and go from there.

Volunteering with organizations that have environmental and social missions allows you to collaborate and network with like-minded people, expand your understanding of sustainability issues, and provide you with more job opportunities. Search your city’s parks to improve the environment and learn about your local ecosystems. There are also trash cleanup and gardening projects in many communities and neighborhoods. There are clean water, waste management, and social impact organizations that give you the chance to grow personally and professionally. volunteering at The high line and Riverside Park in New York helped me make connections that brought me into the sustainability industry. These opportunities help solidify what interests you, what you want to learn more about, and what might be good to know in the field.

2. Sustainability industry and role considerations

Sustainability can be very different within 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 enterprises, corporations and consulting firms. First you have to ask yourself where you want to go. I chose business because I wanted to move the needle, not every day, but ultimately have a huge positive impact.

Sustainability roles require us to be well balanced, so put a sustainability lens on your capabilities and see how they are relevant and transferable to your dream sustainability role.

To ease the transition, start with what you know. I knew my data analytics skills could help tell the story of sustainability progress and support business leaders in 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 have helped me find creative solutions to any company’s sustainability issues and challenges. Perhaps you have expertise in environmental science, or a background in human rights and social justice, or skills in data collection and visualization. Build on the things you’re good at as you find your place in a new role or industry.

3. Sustainability can be wherever you are

While you bring your transferable skills from role to sustainability role, there are still opportunities to find ways to make a current business more sustainable while you search for the sustainability role that’s right for you. When you step into a role knowing your goal, the results you hope to achieve, and the process to get there, you set yourself up for success.

In your day-to-day work, extend your current role to sustainability projects. For example, if you might notice that people aren’t recycling properly, you can get a group together to figure out how to improve the process for office workers. Taking initiative is something new employers and sustainability roles demand, because sustainability teams don’t have all the answers. They need new and inventive ideas to drive their initiatives and champions within the business to support a business transformation.

Holistic thinking, resilient and long-term strategy and intersectionality are necessary elements of businesses. Leaders are expected to integrate sustainability into products, policies and planning. Green job vacancies have increased by 8% over the last five years. Globally, the environmental sustainability workforce grew by 38.5% between 2015 and 2022.

Without employees who contribute their sustainability knowledge and skills, it is difficult for companies to make progress against sustainability goals and program ambitions. When transitioning roles, I thought about the big picture of my life, my story, my skills, my interests, and my upbringing. Questioning what I wanted and how I wanted to use my experience and expertise brought me into the field of sustainability and there is no other place I want to be.