Those following sustainability trendlines know sustainability is a growing career field. This growth will become even more pronounced through the 2020s, driven by a new Biden/Harris administration in the United States. Continued international support for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, further shifts towards the triple bottom line in business (and those teaching this shift in Schools of Business in higher education), and adapting to sobering amplifying trends from human-caused global warming.
Despite the need for sustainability, those hiring sustainability managers and experts still hold a limited understanding of sustainability. A quick perusal of sustainability manager jobs on LinkedIn and Indeed suggests that most positions for sustainability experts are actually for environmental managers, as most calls often only look for the following skills:
- LEED training
- Ability to track greenhouse gas emissions
- Zero waste expertise
- Ability to navigate environmental regulations to make sure a company is compliant with them.
The above skills are important and should be part of any company profile. Yet they are environmental in focus, which, if done correctly, can help a company’s economic profitability. However, they leave out entirely the social leg of sustainability. Thus it is more apt to call these jobs and desired skills “environmental management.”
The New Buzzword
For many consumers, sustainability has become a buzzword, so it makes sense that companies want to evidence they are working on sustainability, so the above skills are labeled “sustainability manager.” But the training for the skills for these jobs are not in sustainability but are largely in engineering, data management, supply chain management, or the natural sciences as they privilege the environmental leg of sustainability to count emissions and/or waste and engineer solutions to reduce such emissions and/or waste.
While a needed part of a company’s portfolio, saying the above jobs are what sustainability management about suggests an outdated understanding of sustainability. It is an understanding that still reduces sustainability to environmental issues only. The assumption is that cleaning up environmental practices within the business—whether for regulatory compliance or to generate efficiencies—will also help the bottom line.
A key problem with this limited understanding of sustainability management is that besides being reductionist (i.e., we just need to more efficiently manage environmental factors of a business to get to sustainability), it does not address the deeper mental paradigms that inhibit actual flourishing.
Sustainability management should be about a total organizational shift and adaptive capacity, where social issues are as important and foregrounded as economic and environmental issues. This implies a different training set and very different job descriptions than the sustainability manager positions currently on the market.
Six Key Sustainability Competencies
Arnim Wiek at Arizona State University articulates six key sustainability competencies. I would argue that sustainability manager descriptions should emulate and contain an understanding of these competencies. They are:
- Systems thinking competence
- Futures thinking (Anticipatory) competence
- Values thinking (Normative/Ethical) competence
- Strategic Thinking competence
- Interpersonal (Collaboration) competence
- Integrated Problem-Solving competence
As someone who enters sustainability management and directorship from a humanities perspective, I have mastered these competencies over my years of sustainability work. Yet when I look at job calls for sustainability managers, the sustainability skills I could and want to offer a company are not part of any call. Many others in sustainability have a similar background and story as mine and have also mastered these competencies, and they too are left out of most available sustainability management positions.
I understand that environmental management is important, but by reducing sustainability to this understanding, companies are missing out on recruiting top-level sustainability talent who can assist the company in their overall sustainability efforts and thus their profitability.
The 2020s will be a time of exponential growth in sustainability. Hopefully, those companies who will be expanding their sustainability profile and efforts will do so in a way that moves beyond reducing sustainability to environmental management while creating positions for integrated problem-solvers able to think holistically about sustainability.
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