Q & A

So you want to work in sustainability?

As more and more companies integrate environmental concerns in their business functions, the role for sustainability professionals has grown. The founder of Sustainability Recruiting comments on this developing field and provides advice for people interested in working in the area.

Q: What's happening in the sustainability job market right now? 
Sustainability Recruiting, my executive search firm produces a biennial report on the sustainability and corporate social responsibility job market. There was a big rise in these types of positions throughout 2007 and 2008, and then a precipitous fall with the fall of the economy.  

I have heard from sustainability and CSR services firms that business suddenly dried up in October 2008, any business development that they had in the pipe just froze from Q3 of 2008 to Q3 of 2009. In Q4 of 2009 the freeze turned into a slow thaw. And I'm seeing that for 2010 as well, all of the business and new initiatives that were on hold are now moving along. But it has a different flavor than before the economic downturn. It’s more clearly defined as environmental sustainability. There's more focus on carbon and water. There is less focus on human rights. From a triple bottom line perspective, the overall triple bottom line is getting more mainstream attention while the social line is getting less attention than the environmental line. 

Q: What jobs are becoming available? What do they look like and what are the skills people need to get them? 
As a sustainability headhunter, I conduct searches for director or VP sustainability managers, the person who is responsible for the organization’s social responsibility. In that case, we're looking for somebody who has achieved senior-level buy-in with new initiatives on the corporate level. That’s the number one priority. And, number two, we're looking for somebody who has knowledge and expertise in sustainability—they can talk the shop, they know which organizations are leaders in specific areas, they know what the production of a CSR report entails, they know what the GRI [Global Reporting Initiative] guidelines are, etc... Beyond CSR leadership roles, companies hire for specialized expertise. For example, a company might add a sustainable packaging expert or a green facilities management specialist on their team. Packaging is getting the attention because making packaging more efficient leads to real bottom line results. Also, specific industries are growing their sustainability programs such as food and agriculture, and chemical industries. 

Q: How should we understand the birth of sustainability from inside a business? 
Within a corporate structure, the sustainability function is relatively new. It doesn't have a long history like the marketing department or the human resources department or the legal department. So each company kind of scratches their head and asks "How are we going to do this?" There is usually an internal champion who wants to take this as far as she possibly can. To get the buy-in required to achieve results, she will likely create a multi-stakeholder internal committee to spearhead the effort. These are generalizations, but, the committee and champion and perhaps some external consultants will grow the initiative to a certain point where they realize full time dedicated resources are required to achieve results. That is when I often get the call. They have to make the decision of do we hire from inside or do we hire from outside? I definitely see both approaches. If you bring someone in from the outside, they don't know the company and the culture which are key elements to achieve the buy-in. If they fill it internally, that person might encounter skepticism because the person responsible does not have the sustainability track-record and knowledge. 

Q: Which companies have Chief Sustainability Officers? 
In terms of the Chief Sustainability Officer, the title is on the rise. It definitely exists, particularly in the chemical sector. The Chief Sustainability Officer is one of the key decision makers of the company. They're sitting in the C-suite; they integrate the other core functions of the company. So the CEO is hearing about sustainability on a regular basis, and then the CSO is talking to the operations manager, the marketing officer, and the CFO. At this level, the opportunity is ripe to integrate, inject and infuse sustainability throughout the business. With sustainability integrated throughout the business come rewards such as increased employee satisfaction. On many company websites, the career section will link to the CSR section and highlight the company’s involvement in the community. Companies are increasingly recognizing the value of a CSR program to its employees. I would argue that the value of a CSR program is greater internally than externally. 

Q: How should people approach moving into the sustainability field? 
Looking for a job is a personal exploration. I think job seekers need to really ask themselves what's going to make them happy. And for the most part, they shouldn't assume that they need to switch sectors, employers or positions. I often find with job seekers that if they're questioning their impact and they want to create greater impact, the answer is often closer to home than they think. People who are dissatisfied with their job often make the assumption that they're going to have to do something really drastic—quit their job or go to work in a nonprofit somewhere. My advice is to look at initiatives in your company, and see if there might be an opportunity there. And, if not, start your own brown-bag lunches where you explore this area. Be creative and find ways that you can explore and develop professionally without quitting your day job. Oftentimes the answers are a lot closer to home than they realize.