The field of sustainability in business offers many career paths, including roles in corporate, consulting, government and entrepreneurship. Some roles are very specialized and may require a degree or certification in a specific sustainability field. Examples include energy engineers, environmental attorneys, urban planners, water resource engineers, wildlife conservationists and environmental researchers. But there are also many non-sustainability degree career paths such as project management, program management and leadership roles.
So how do you pursue a career in sustainability? How do you grow your skill set and advance? How do you switch careers into sustainability? Those questions are often at the heart of many students and professionals trying to build a career that is more purpose driven. A sustainability-related career path is not as straightforward as that of marketing, accounting or engineering. It often combines another domain of expertise with environmentalism or social responsibility. Finding the best options and opportunities for you will depend on your education, skills, expertise, experience, interests and passion.
This article covers a breakdown of types of careers, job titles, roles and responsibilities for both part-time or full-time positions related to sustainable business. We’ll take a look at the following four career paths:
- Corporate Sustainability
- Government and Non-profit
Sustainability Domain Expertise
Whether you’re a student, staffer, manager, business owner, entrepreneur or executive, there are many areas in sustainability that may interest you including corporate strategy, environmental management, process analysis, research, product development, finance, organizational leadership and employee engagement. Basically every industry has some element of sustainable business, so a career path in sustainability may come down to the industry that most interests you or that you have expertise and experience in.
There are both private and public service careers that help organizations and businesses create more environmentally friendly products or operate more sustainably. A private business path will often have to balance purpose with profit. A non-profit or government path will often focus on either a specific cause, e.g pollution or on managing regulations and compliance.
Why A Career in Sustainability May Make Sense For You
Individuals passionate about protecting the environment, combating climate change and creating a more secure future for all should consider a career in sustainability. The typical career disciplines including engineering, management, finance, sales, marketing and organizational development are available within the context of a focus on sustainability. They offer fulfilling, purpose-driven jobs and provide workers with the chance to positively impact the environment, community wellbeing and future generations.
1. Corporate Career Paths in Sustainability
Most corporations in the developed world have made efforts to be more environmentally and socially responsible. They have a mission that includes some aspects of sustainability and often have sustainability programs, policies and initiatives that require professionals to help implement and manage them. Other companies are just getting started and need help with setting strategies and priorities, and defining new sustainability projects, policies and processes.
This table summarizes the 4 basic types of roles a company may have related to sustainability:
CHIEF SUSTAINABILITY OFFICER
A chief sustainability officer (CSO) is a leader within an organization whose responsibility is to set corporate sustainability strategy and address sustainability risks and issues. They develop strategies to reduce a company’s overall ecological footprint and minimize their carbon emissions. They typically define programs, products, processes and policies that reduce energy consumption, conserve water, minimize waste, encourage reuse of materials and reduce pollution output.
Chief sustainability officers often supervise those working on their sustainability projects and collaborate with all functions of a company to discover ways to be more sustainable. Typical strategic initiatives may include a zero waste program or a carbon neutral operation. They often report the progress of those sustainability programs to executive leadership (typically the CEO or COO), all employees, customers and partners. In some cases, they may also own the ESG reporting program to keep investors up to date on sustainability.
SUSTAINABILITY DIRECTOR, SUSTAINABILITY MANAGER
Sustainability directors and managers often lead a small organization of full-time employees or team of part-time representatives from various organizations within a company. Similar to a CSO, they oversee those working on sustainability projects and actively collaborate with all functions of a company. They often meet regularly with other departments to hone in on improvement opportunities for every process and product. They prioritize initiatives, track progress and report the status of those sustainability programs to everyone in the company. Most sustainability directors and managers are full-time positions, although a manager may own multiple programs and lead other non-sustainability initiatives.
Energy managers focus on the operations and functions that require power. They perform audits to ensure efficient use of both financial and environmental resources. They are responsible for controlling the consumption of energy and water by determining energy-efficient projects that meet specific design specifications, legal requirements and budget restrictions. Additionally, because manufacturing can be energy and labor-intensive, energy managers may find that their career options extend to the manufacturing sector.
PROJECT LEADER, PROGRAM MANAGER
Sustainability program and project managers have strong organizational and leadership skills and typically have some technical expertise in managing corporate responsibility programs, ESG initiatives and stakeholder engagement through reporting and disclosure. A strong sustainability program manager is typically a generalist who can combine technical, financial and interpersonal management skills while working with a cross-functional team. This position often guides project teams on a variety of assignments including: materiality assessments, benchmarking, corporate report and disclosure preparation, performance reporting, strategy development, carbon accounting, decarbonization, facility optimization and water stewardship.
SUSTAINABILITY COMMITTEE LEADER, GREEN TEAM LEADER
The sustainability committee leader or green team leader position is very similar to the project and program manager position described above except that it is part-time. Many green team leaders have full-time jobs in another department. Most often, this role is filled by someone in Human Resources, Facility Management, Safety and Manufacturing or Operations, but it is not uncommon for this role to originate in Accounting for reporting purposes or in Marketing for communication purposes. Regardless of who fills the role, this person must be passionate about the cause and have strong interpersonal skills to engage with all departments and rally staff. This person often serves as the company’s sustainability evangelist and internal and external green ambassador.
SUSTAINABILITY ENGINEER, RESEARCH SCIENTIST
Sustainability engineers design and develop products, buildings and systems to meet certain sustainability specifications or certifications, such as the BREEAM standards for sustainable building or LEED building certifications. Responsibilities differ based on the industry, such as construction, agriculture or manufacturing. Some engineers work in manufacturing, for example, designing low-energy light bulbs, lighting systems or electric vehicles. Others work in civil engineering where they coordinate and manage large-scale sustainable building projects, including residential and commercial buildings, public parks or industrial plants.
Finding Your Niche in Corporate Sustainability
As you can see, there is an abundance of sustainability careers all requiring different core competencies, expertise, experience and strengths. Like any career choice, understanding what you’re good at and what you enjoy are critical to finding the right role that you can succeed in. Here are some attributes to consider when choosing a corporate role in sustainability.
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2. Consulting and Independent Contractors
Consulting careers are a popular option for those with a very specific domain expertise and environmental studies degree. Many companies that are not large enough to warrant a full-time sustainability director or engineer will rely on third-party consultants to lead initiatives and projects. Third-party business consulting companies may be generalists like Accenture and McKinsey and have a Sustainability Practice with their organization. Consulting firms exist that are 100% dedicated to environmentalism like AECOM, CH2M, ERM, Ramboll Environ and Tetra Tech.
For those who want to pursue their own vision of sustainability, independent consulting is always an option. This requires the overhead of being a sole proprietor of a business and understanding how to develop new business and clients to keep them busy enough to earn a living. Regardless of the path, whether independent or third-party, most of the consulting work and services are very similar. Here are a few common sustainability consulting roles to consider:
An environmental consultant provides advice to companies and other organizations on a wide range of environmental issues such as green manufacturing, hazardous-waste remediation (disposal and cleanup), soil contamination, environmental disasters, sustainability initiatives, compliance, renewable energy and water, air, and soil quality. They typically contract with private or public sector clients, like environmental agencies, water treatment facilities and other organizations whose products or services have environmental impacts. Environmental consultants are experts in sustainability and offer their knowledge and insight on the latest environmental standards, regulations and laws. They can help organizations adhere to best practices in their industry and avoid regulatory fines or legal action.
A sustainability engineer in the consulting business is very similar to the corporate sustainability engineer position mentioned previously. They design and develop products, buildings and systems to meet certain sustainability standards. Some design and implement renewable energy projects by assessing sites, reviewing financial information and drawing up plans. Sometimes their role requires them to travel to specific job sites for developing an accurate job design, understanding the specifications and gaining a better familiarity with the project at hand.
Environmental geologists help prevent contamination of soil and groundwater by determining geologically safe locations for new landfills, coal ash disposal sites and nuclear power plants. They also help plan underground waste disposal and find alternative sources of energy and resources. Environmental geologists study the history of the planet and how it interacts with its various ecosystems and biospheres.
An environmental geologist often plays an important role in consulting with gas and mining companies regarding energy resource consumption and acquisition. They use sophisticated technology and equipment such as drones to take aerial photographs and reference drilling records to help map natural resources. Historically, most environmental geologists have worked for companies in the oil and gas industry, but today they are increasingly focused on alternative energy projects like the location of hydro electric power generators, wind farms and solar farms. Environmental geologists are also hired by engineering firms, consulting companies and state or federal agencies.
Landscape architects survey the natural geography and terrain of an area and then implement various design strategies to combine man-made structures seamlessly with the environment. Landscape architects work in both cities and rural areas and may work to develop wildlife habitats and unique spaces or build sustainable infrastructure systems. Landscape architects employ skills such as design, creative problem-solving and technical skills and knowledge. In doing so, they can aid building and construction companies in applying architectural methods that protect and support the natural environment.
A landscape architect may spend a majority of their time completing tasks in an office, but they also visit physical building and construction sites to assess the location in terms of soil type, vegetation and any elevation changes. Being a landscape architect may also require working on a team as they often collaborate with builders, engineers and members of the community.
3. Government and Non-Profits
Federal, state and local governments offer many career opportunities in sustainability and environmentalism. Many of the positions we’ve described in the private sector and consulting world are also available within government agencies. Here are some of the federal organizations you may want to consider:
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
- U.S. Forest Service (USDA)
- U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
- U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- U.S. National Weather Service (NOAA)
Here are some positions in the context of a government role. Note that they are similar to roles in the private sector with some nuances.
Urban planners typically assist companies and organizations to develop plans for the use of land. Communities, road systems, parks and the overall layout of a city are oftentimes be priorities in an urban planner’s designs. Additionally, urban planners seek to accommodate growing populations with the least amount of impact on the environment. Urban planning can require new construction or restoration projects to modernize buildings, transport systems or other infrastructure.
Environmental scientists employed by the government work to find the best methods of protecting the environment and human health. Generally, environmental scientists may provide services to research health and environmental problems and work to identify causes and create solutions. An environmental scientist might research and investigate unexplained deformities in local wildlife or sickness within a community from an unknown source. Environmental scientists work to find the causes behind these types of events and determine remedies to eliminate them.
Ecologists find ways to address how human actions affect the environment including its intricate network of wildlife and natural resources. They work for various environmental organizations where they conduct research and create solutions to environmental problems caused by human consumption, transportation, manufacturing and other human activities. Ecologists may be part of a research team that studies and analyzes the effects of construction or restoration projects on ecosystems.
AIR QUALITY ENGINEER
Air quality engineers are responsible for the analysis of air pollution in a given area by implementing sophisticated monitoring processes, chemical and statistical testing and 3D computer modeling. In some instances, air quality engineers may design or modify pollution-control equipment. They generally concentrate their efforts in or around large cities and measure and evaluate the impact of certain practices on local communities and environments.
Environmental engineers use the principles of engineering combined with environmental knowledge – such as soil composition and biological and ecological processes – to create solutions to sustainability issues. Environmental engineers may be involved with projects or plans to improve public health, waste disposal and recycling, as well as plans to control or minimize air and water pollution.
One career option for sustainability is to start and/or run your own business. This might be a business focused on designing, engineering, marketing and selling green eco-friendly products. Or it might be a business focused on providing services similar to the consulting roles described above. A company may also focus on business services needed by sustainability programs like recycling, waste removal, hazard waste disposal and air purification.
GREEN AND SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS
Given the growing demand for eco-friendly products and the public’s increasing awareness , there are many startups and established companies focused on delivering sustainable products. These might be products made from recycled or biodegradable materials or products that support fair trade and worker’s well being.
They can also be products designed to nourish and improve the environment. For example, one of Green Business Bureau’s partners and members, Smog Armor, has created interior and exterior paint that purifies the surrounding air due to a mineral component in the ingredients. Smog Armor’s paints are all non-toxic and Zero-VOC thus they will not contaminate landfills or waterways at end-of-use. Their labels are also made with 100% recycled paper and they have created a paint pouch that uses 80% less plastic than standard paint cans.
Another GBB member, Usefull (formerly Collective Cup), combats single-use coffee cup waste by offering durable stainless steel cups that can be returned by consumers at participating cafes, colleges and businesses. Once returned, they sanitize the coffee cups and redistribute them to more locations, fueling a closed-loop system.
GREEN AND SUSTAINABLE SERVICES
There are many startups and established companies focused on delivering environmental services. One of Green Business Bureau’s partners and members, g2 revolution®, develops specialty recycling solutions for businesses of all sizes, from retailers to manufacturers, in order for them to meet their sustainability goals while recycling hard-to-recycle items and materials.
Another GBB member and partner, Propel Solutions, focuses on efficiency and process improvement. They work with their clients to reduce their energy consumption, waste and carbon footprint. Some green initiatives they’ve successfully implemented include moving clients to paperless processes and optimizing transportation routes for greater efficiency, lower gasoline consumption and idling.
Education and Common Sustainability Degrees
Individuals with heightened research, analytical and communication skills will do very well in sustainability fields, but additional education is almost always needed. An associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral program can help professionals develop and hone these skills, while ad hoc online courses can also be sufficient and introduce learners to the latest sustainability research and solutions.
Just as there are a variety of careers to choose from within the sustainability field, there are also a great number of degrees to help you move into a sustainability career. If you’re considering a career completely focused on sustainability, you should explore one of these degrees:
- Master of Public Health: This sustainability degree encompasses environmental and occupational health roles.
- MBA with Sustainability Concentration: This field of study focuses on sustainability and environmental management in the business sector.
- Master of Science in Global Energy Management: This field involves energy management such as fuel resourcing, monitoring and acquisition with international applications.
- Master of Arts in Global Sustainability: This degree explores a broad range of sustainability issues through the “systems thinking” lens and offers a range of specific concentrations such as climate change, tourism, water, energy, food, entrepreneurship, and more.
- International Environmental Law & Policy: This field focuses on the planning and implementation of appropriate environmental policies, laws and regulations.
Finding the Right Sustainability Career
As we’ve discussed, sustainability in business can mean a lot of things and presents many career options in many industries. There are literally hundreds of types of positions in the private and public sector. Here are some of the things to consider before choosing a path:
- Where does your passion lie? Are you a nature lover or green tech whiz? Are you driven to help eliminate fossil fuels? Are you concerned about the survival of our planet?
- Where does your talent lie? Are you good at math, engineering or analytical thinking? Or are you a people person, evangelist or executive leader type?
- What education or experience do you have? Do you need some level of certification or a degree in the sustainability field? What degrees do you already have?
- What opportunities does your current company have? Do you need to change companies? Or is there an opportunity to lead the charge at your current company and start a grassroots movement?
Sustainability Career Tips
Once you decide on a career path or career change, try to focus on a few fields within sustainability. You can look at corporate leadership positions or within specific sustainability industries like alternative energy, solar, EVs, carbon accounting, green product solutions, environmental services, policy analysis/research, ESG investing and sustainability consulting. Try to find people in those fields to gain their insight, knowledge and perspective.
Beef up your skills. Consider university courses such as sustainability business strategy from Harvard Business School online or other online courses in carbon accounting, sustainability strategy and environmental economics. Also look into training from associations related to LEED and ISO 14001. At a minimum, become a voracious reader on sustainability topics and subscribe to sustainability newsletters. Go find experts and follow them on social media. Become an expert on your own.
A career in sustainability can be extremely rewarding and give you a sense of purpose and direction that you’re missin now. With the pressure on businesses to become better stewards of the planet, sustainability-savvy people are in demand and driving up salaries and consulting rates. Being in the sustainability space is a great place to be these days and there’s always room for more forward-thinkers.