Pursuing a Career in Sustainability

Back in the day when I was the Environmental Assessment Director at Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, people would come up to me and say “You have the coolest job; I want to do what you do.” More recently, I get students, recent grads, mid-career professionals, and highly experienced experts asking “How do I get a job in sustainability?”

My answer isn’t always what they want to hear.

Putting aside the state of the economy – jobs, in general, are just tough to come by – and focusing on sustainability in companies, I do not see a lot of growth in classic sustainability jobs, either at the entry level, manager level, or VP level. Yes, more and more organizations are creating sustainability positions. But all too often these are a way to recognize an existing person within a company who has taken on sustainability responsibilities. The new role typically comes with a limited budget (“sustainability on a shoestring”) and few, if any, additional full-time positions. Even in large multi-billion dollar organizations, you could often count the sustainability and corporate social responsibility staff on one hand and probably not have to use your thumb.

What this says to me is that the growing number of graduates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree who want to get a job in corporate environmental management and sustainability are going to be battling for one of a limited number of entry level positions for quite a long time. The situation for midcareer professionals who want to transition out of one field (engineering, urban planning, marketing) is, in some ways, even more difficult. While they have valuable job experience, they typically do not have much expertise in the current tools and skills of CSR and environmental sustainability such that they are a good fit for a midlevel sustainability role. Moreover, they are competing against very well prepared recent graduates for the entry level jobs. To be successful, they need to upgrade their skills, whether by returning to school for a new graduate degree or via certificate programs, online education, or some other means that fits into their busy lives and their financial expectations.

One potential pathway that sidesteps these challenges is sustainability consulting. In some ways, the future of consulting is bright; lean organizations use consultants to gain expertise for specific purposes and projects without the need to expand head counts. But even here, a career path is tough to develop. Organizations typically do not want to hire consultants that have to learn “on the job.” Mid and large size consultancies have the same challenges as others in offering entry level opportunities and career development paths. Over the past several years, the slow recovery has pushed a number of solo practitioners to close their doors and midsize consultancies to merge with larger firms that have become the mainstays of sustainability consulting for Fortune 100 companies.

So what’s a person who’s interested in making sustainability their job supposed to do? The best answer I can give is to make it part of any job that they do.

You may have what it takes to be the one person out of hundreds of resumes that gets a great sustainability job opportunity.  But if that’s not the case, rather than thinking that doing sustainability requires being the sustainability person helping others, be the great engineer, a terrific accountant, a creative marketer, an extraordinary graphic designer or a leading sales person who incorporates sustainability into everything you do. Know the basics of sustainability and make the effort to be a continuous learner who becomes the de facto sustainability person in your work group. If effect, redefine your everyday job to be a sustainability job.