In addition to being vital to many people, protecting the environment has become an important goal for many organizations.
A way to achieve this goal is to pursue sustainability, which is using resources to meet present needs without compromising future resources. Although sustainability most often is associated with environmental protection and conservation, it also has social and economic impacts. In fact, many companies adopt sustainability strategies to increase profits, and the environmental aspects become an added bonus.
Sustainability professionals help organizations achieve their goals by ensuring that their business practices are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. Sustainability is a diverse field that includes a wide variety of professionals. Sustainability professionals can be business managers, scientists, or engineers; or they can come from other backgrounds. Although their specific career paths might differ, sustainability professionals promote environmental protection, social responsibility, and profitability.
What is sustainability?
The most common definition of sustainability comes from a 1987 United Nations (UN) conference. In a report, the UN defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Alternately, according to a report from the National Association for Environmental Management, sustainability is “a term that describes a company’s strategies for acting as a responsible corporate citizen, ensuring its operations are financially sustainable and minimizing its environmental footprint. Sustainability initiatives may include natural resource reduction, supply chain management, worker safety and health initiatives, stakeholder engagement and external reporting.” External reporting involves reporting information on a company’s environmental and safety record to the general public, or to government agencies.
The environmental aspect of sustainability focuses on the goals of protecting the environment and the conservation of natural resources. To accomplish these goals, sustainability professionals help organizations, such as businesses, government agencies, and non-profits implement policies to manage the resources consumed and the waste generated by an organization. For example, a sustainability professional might suggest that an organization reduce the amount of packaging it uses when it ships its products, and a reduction in packaging could help the company decrease the amount of raw material it consumes and as the environmental cost of shipping products. Less material used in packaging would cut down on materials cost, as well as weight and space taken up during transport. Since the products would take up less space, there would be fewer shipments. Fewer shipments mean less energy used for shipping products, as well as lower emissions. For example, fewer shipments made by trucks would reduce fuel consumption and lower the amount of exhaust emitted into the air.
To fulfill sustainability’s social aspect, sustainability professionals attempt to minimize the negative effects and to promote the positive effects of the organization’s activities on stakeholders. Stakeholders are persons or groups, such as employees, customers, and citizens of surrounding communities, who have an interest in the organization and its activities. Sustainability professionals work to ensure that the workplace is healthy for employees and that the products or services the organization provides are safe for consumers to use. Some sustainability initiatives affect more than one stakeholder. Many companies promote corporate responsibility where they will provide pro bono products and services to the needy, or make attempts to lessen their environmental impact. For example, although many companies are required by law to keep emissions below a certain level, a sustainability professional might help a utility company lower its smokestack emissions to an even lower level than required. This additional reduction would benefit the health of workers and local citizens, as well as provide the company with positive publicity to entice new customers and retain current ones.
Sustainability can affect current and future profitability. Whether they work for private corporations, government agencies, or non-profits, sustainability professionals strive to ensure that the costs of implementing a sustainability program are worth the expected benefits. Because organizations would not knowingly implement sustainability policies that could cause them to become financially unsound, sustainability professionals help a company’s leaders understand the benefits of implementing such techniques, by explaining future cost savings. For example, energy-saving techniques, such as installing motion detectors and changing light bulbs require an upfront investment but result in future savings.
Sustainability issues facing companies today
Many organizations are implementing sustainability measures for a variety of reasons. Sustainability allows companies to increase profits, to manage risks, and to engage stakeholders, such as employees, the local community, and shareholders. By pursuing sustainability, many organizations are able to run more efficiently, improve corporate reputations, retain employees, and have a more positive impact on their communities. In addition, there are other benefits to practicing sustainability. These include minimizing the effects of rising costs for energy; complying with increased regulations at the federal, state, and local levels; and pleasing customers who expect organizations to be environmentally and socially responsible.
Prices for oil, natural gas, coal, and other energy sources have been volatile over the past several decades. Most prices have been on an upward trend with significant fluctuations. Experts believe that U.S. energy prices will continue to climb, because of a limited supply of energy sources (due to a wide range of factors) and increased demand from other countries, particularly China.
Increasing costs have led many firms to seek ways to cut back on the amount of energy used in everyday operations. Companies have been finding new ways to do more with less. This includes reducing the amount of energy used for production and other operations, in addition to finding alternative sources of energy. Alternatives include wind, solar, and biofuels (fuels derived from renewable sources, such as corn, grass, or algae).
Federal and state governments have been enacting climate change regulations. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently been granted the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and many states have enacted legislation to limit carbon emissions with the goal of reducing their carbon output. Companies in these states will be under increasing pressure to reduce their carbon footprint (the amount of carbon a company releases into the atmosphere) or face increased regulation and possible fines for their emissions.
Consumers are increasingly paying attention to companies’ environmental records. Consumers base decisions on products or services to purchase at least partially on environmental factors. Companies that have a positive environmental record can appeal to these environmentally sensitive consumers. In addition to consumers, many environmentally conscious businesses and other organizations prefer to work with, or purchase, goods or services from organizations that also are conscious of the environment. Thus, by implementing sustainability measures, companies will be able to appeal to more customers.
Concerns about corporate impact on the environment and local and global communities are being incorporated into strategic business decisions. Sustainability is becoming part of how companies do business in the United States, rather than being viewed as a cost.
Who are sustainability professionals?
A job in sustainability encompasses the concept of stewardship—the responsible management of resources. Sustainability professionals seek to improve an organization’s environmental, social, and economic impact. Some have specific titles such as sustainability manager and director of corporate responsibility. Sustainability professionals in other roles may have had experience as industrial managers, logistics (transportation, storage, and distribution) managers, environmental scientists, civil engineers, or recycling coordinators, among others. Many of these workers are dedicated to sustainability, but some may have sustainability responsibilities, in addition to their primary job duties. These workers might implement corporate recycling programs, install equipment to increase efficiency, and monitor processes to ensure their proper function.
There is no set career path for jobs in sustainability—jobs have varying responsibilities across different organizations. For many organizations, sustainability is ingrained in their cultures and is the responsibility of many employees. Thus, these organizations may not have dedicated sustainability staff, but still pursue sustainability.
Many large corporations, some non-profit organizations, and some government agencies employ sustainability professionals. Some organizations do not employ their own sustainability professionals, but still seek advice on sustainability practices. Such organizations frequently hire consultants from sustainability firms to offer specialized skills and services, as well as additional temporary manpower for specific projects.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) currently does not have data on the number of workers involved in sustainability activities. However, data on employment related to the use of environmentally friendly technologies and practices are available from the Green Technologies and Practices survey. Although many different workers may be involved in carrying out day-to-day sustainability operations, the BLS definition of a green job involved in green technologies and practices is one whose primary duty is related to the use of environmentally friendly production processes. Workers must spend more than half their time involved in researching, developing, maintaining, installing and/or using technologies or practices to lessen the environmental impact of their establishment, or in training other workers in these technologies and practices to be considered in a green job.
Sustainability managers come from diverse backgrounds, have different job titles, and perform a broad range of duties. Sustainability managers are responsible for developing and implementing an organization’s sustainability plans and presenting these plans to senior staff. They might also be responsible for ensuring that an organization is in compliance with environmental, health, and safety regulations. Many sustainability managers rely on their public relations and communications skills to work with concerned citizens in local communities.
Scientists who work in sustainability devise technical solutions for reducing waste and cutting costs. They assist in the development of strategies to increase safety and to reduce the risk of illness and injury for a company’s employees. Some scientists often serve as advisors to sustainability managers and are involved in performing research to minimize a company’s environmental impact. Many sustainability scientists also serve as consultants, working as technical experts at firms that specialize in providing sustainability services to companies that do not have their own sustainability staff, or those who need specialized knowledge to implement sustainability strategies. Many people with a science background move into management positions and become top-level decision makers in the business community. They use their technical knowledge to guide an organization toward more sustainable practices and are frequently promoted to top-level management positions.
Occupations in scientific research and development have become increasingly interdisciplinary, and as a result, it is common for biological scientists, chemists, materials scientists, and engineers to work together as part of a team. Most scientists work in an office or laboratory and also spend some time in manufacturing facilities with engineers and other specialists. Some scientists, such as environmental scientists or conservation scientists spend a large portion of their time working outdoors, studying the natural environment.
If the growth of sustainability continues, more organizations will employ sustainability professionals. The benefits of this growth should be noticeable in many sectors of U.S. industries, from services, such as finance and health care, to manufacturing and construction.
Sustainability professionals have a broad range of education and experience levels, mainly in science, engineering, and business management. Although many of the occupations with sustainability responsibilities require at least a bachelor’s degree, there are opportunities for individuals with a wide variety of work experience and knowledge.
As sustainability becomes more widespread, new opportunities to contribute to the field will arise. A new market focused on sustainability should build job prospects for more future workers.