How Can You Start Your Career in Sustainability?
Updated: Nov 4, 2018
Millennials are looking more and more towards having purpose in life, both in their professional and personal lives.
In their professional lives, some young people will be looking to work for companies which have values around economic, social and environmental sustainability; others will be looking to work in the field of sustainability.
The concept of embarking on a career in sustainability is somewhat new. To some, it is a completely foreign concept. Many career guidance facilities will lump sustainability into environmental sciences, ignoring both the social and economic components of a sustainable future.
Working in the field of sustainability requires a broad range of knowledge on many topics including economics, humanities and science. It also requires a working knowledge of different organisations - government departments, large corporates, small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and not-for-profits.
Here are some tips for a successful career in sustainability:
1. Work out if this is something you're professionally passionate about
While I might be passionate about cooking and good food, I certainly wouldn't consider a long-term career as a chef at this stage in my life. If you're passionate about sustainability, it doesn't necessarily mean that you would be passionate about it as a career. Take some time to reflect on this before making any big decisions.
2. Understand what sustainability means
This sounds so straight-forward and rather obvious, but do you have a real understanding of what sustainability means? As with all big trends, the lingo can sometimes be misunderstood and misconstrued, which can then take on a whole new meaning. Despite how it is sometimes portrayed in the media and in 'pop sustainability' articles, sustainability does not actually refer solely to the environment; it applies to the economy and our society also. In addition to this, while sustainability means bringing about the end of poverty, the fight against inequality and mitigation of climate change, the core of the term 'sustainability' is really about the process of achieving these objectives. Sustainability is not about just donating money; it is about creating systemic change in order for the system to support itself in the long-term. In government and not-for-profits, this is about public policy change. In business, this is about corporate policy. It is about starting at the top and the bottom simultaneously and working to meet in the middle. It takes an in-depth understanding of systems and processes across a broad range of topics. A fantastic list of these topics are the United Nations' 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development and their associated 169 targets.
3. Narrow down your target audience - at least at first
I use the term 'target audience' loosely. With whom do you want to work? Government? Businesses? Not-for-profits? By narrowing this down, you are able to start honing in on certain subjects. If you are working in government, you will need to start to have a greater understanding of policy. If you are working in corporate, you will need to have a better understanding of business.The important thing to ensure is that you understanding the workings across economic, social and environmental sustainability in relation to the type of organisation in which you want to start your sustainability career.
4. Enhance your critical thinking skills
One of the most interesting aspects of working in the field of sustainability is the critical thinking which needs to go into all decisions. Given that sustainability requires an understanding of follow-on effects from decisions made, it is important that anyone working in this field is able to think critically and be able to hypothesise that if decision A is made, the outcome will be X.
5. Stay updated
Sustainability is a fast-changing field with new developments happening every hour of every day. Staying up-to-date with all the latest news is vital for your career. You will need to set aside time each day to read all of the most recent stories coming out of sustainability and understand what might happen next.
6. Start writing about the topic
While researching the latest trends in sustainability is important, it is even more important to understand their application. The best way to do this is to write about these trends and how they would apply to the type of organisation in which you would like to work. This starts exercising those critical thinking skills, and if you can publish these blogs / articles online, they make a great e-portfolio of your understanding of the field of sustainability!
7. Ask around your network
As the world shifts more towards a mindset of sustainability, more jobs are being created in this field of work. Chances are there are people in your network who work in organisations which are looking to start their move towards sustainability practices. Your current organisation may even be in this position. Start the conversation about how they plan to transition. Will they have a team? Will they need someone to lead the transition? These conversations are great to have early on to become involved in the process from the very beginning.
Does a sustainability professional require a degree?
This is an interesting question as it very much depends on the organisation for which you are hoping to work. Some organisations will prioritise experience over formal tertiary education as the field of sustainability requires such a high level of critical thinking combined with practical application. However, other organisations will require a degree. While degrees in sustainability can be useful, it is a good idea to look at a degree public policy or business. Some tertiary institutions are even offering specific degrees in sustainable public policy or business sustainability.