Blog 07.12.16

Five tips for a successful corporate sustainability career


When I started in the field of sustainability in 1992, it wasn’t even called that. It was an eccentric career choice, marginal to business, limited in scope and prospects. Twenty-five years later, sustainability is an industry in its own right, offering a multitude of career paths and employment alternatives.

Note: This blog deals mainly with jobs in the corporate sector. The advice may be less applicable to sustainability careers in government, NGOs and the media.

So is sustainability in the corporate sector a viable career choice today? And what can you do to maximize your success in the field? Let’s start by defining what success looks like. People choosing sustainability universally say they ‘want to make a difference’. Believe it or not, this did not begin with the millennials, but it is certainly a priority among younger candidates.

Of course there are also more standard ambitions – good benefits, job security, challenging roles and flexible work arrangements. With these aims in mind, here are five tips to shaping your sustainability career:

1. Integrate don’t segregate

A lot of sustainability degree courses live in a bubble. They may have the odd module on business and government, but the focus is either the environment or society or both. This is poor training for the real world job market.

If sustainability was ever its own activity, pursued in isolation, it certainly isn’t now. In industry, corporate sustainability teams are small and declining. The trend is to embed sustainability expertise in core functions such as sourcing, manufacturing, facilities, R&D, communications and marketing. The role of Chief Sustainability Officer may soon cease to exist or only work in very small teams.

Young sustainability professionals should look for functional roles and move between them every two years. Prior experience in industry is valuable. Build your sustainability career across as many core business functions as possible. As you go, you will learn the functional business skills and how to apply sustainability priorities to them. Integration of your skillsets is much more powerful and marketable than sustainability in isolation.

2. Multi-specialize

We received a brief recently for a sustainability-reporting agency with communications and life-cycle assessment expertise – the Chunky Monkey of jobs. Each of these requirements is a complex field, yet the client wanted them all in a one-stop-shop. Admittedly this was a job for an agency not a single person, but the broader your expertise, the more options you have.

A multi-specialist is different from a generalist. You should aim to have deep knowledge of a number of skillsets, not just high-level knowledge of everything. Think in terms of tools. What can you do for your company?

Supply chain sustainability expertise is a good fit with internal communications and training. After all, if you can train factory managers you can likely train colleagues as well. The data skills needed for life-cycle assessment are transferable to carbon foot-printing and report metrics management etc.

The more projects you can lead, the more useful you will be.

3. Invest in yourself

Learn how to be liked. This sounds facetious but it’s a crucial skill in corporate sustainability, whether you are in a large company or consulting for one. Being likeable is often overlooked. Since our role is to identify issues and call attention to negative impacts, difficult conversations are inevitable. There’s a way to tell your friend they have body odour without causing offence – and always present a cost-effective solution.

You will need excellent communication and negotiation skills. Get training to make presentations, run meetings; write clear concise reports and to sell – yes selling sustainability is just like selling insurance. You need technique.

4. Study the CEO

Thousands of companies now offer sustainability roles – from apparel to pharma, energy, property and even tobacco. It pays to do thorough research before applying. Once you start the application process, you lose your objectivity, hope trumps reality and before you know it you will have fantastic benefits at a company with no interest in advancing sustainability. The beginning of your disillusioned career.

To avoid frustration, study the company and especially the CEO in detail. How transparent are they? Are their goals clear and impressive? Has the CEO engaged? Does she or he make sustainability speeches?

Consider the sector and activity. Is this a company that can be transformative and influence others, or will you just be making incremental improvements to office lighting systems? Expect slow progress working for long-term goals.

If your ‘purpose’ is to make a difference, this is the most important piece of advice I can offer. You cannot change a company from the bottom up with only token executive support.

5. If you want Google benefits get a job at Google

Let’s talk about money. Very few people in sustainability are directly earning money for their employer. The exceptions are consultants, energy managers and maybe a few others. Most sustainability professionals are spending a budget allocated to them by a corporate function. That’s not to say the roles aren’t valuable. But there is a big difference between earning and spending revenue.

Salaries reflect this. The best paid Chief Sustainability Officers in multi-nationals make somewhere over $200k. These are exceptional roles reporting to the C-suite, with significant team management responsibilities. There may be 50 positions or so in this league globally.

Benefits packages offered by major corporations are usually better than consultancies. Consultancy firms exist solely on their own earnings, keeping salaries and benefits ‘real’ and putting direct pressure on employees to perform (my next blog).

Job security in multi-nationals is not nearly as good as many assume. Sustainability teams are frequently purged as new management change focus. It’s quite common for a consultant to outlast the in-house sustainability team. To protect yourself from these disruptions, note especially 1, 2 and 3 above.

Corporate sustainability offers many rewarding careers. Having realistic expectations and good survival skills will help you make the right choice and thrive. Ultimately, we all take gratification from earning our living in a constructive way. At least we don’t have to come home and say, “Hi honey (gender neutral), our new soda campaign is really doing well in schools.”

So, if you are considering a career in sustainability, I encourage you to persevere. Take these tips to thrive in a vital and challenging field that will motivate and interest you for many, many years.

← Back to Fresh Thinking
Simon Propper

CEO and co-founder

Buckman, New Balance, Trex, Utz

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