Sustainability Careers 101

Students and early to mid career professionals are in constant reflection. What is the right career track for me? In what jobs will I be best compensated and most fulfilled? For Generations Y and Z especially: how can I have more impact? Many people asking these questions turn to the myriad of careers that envelope environmental stewardship and social responsibility. The one word that encompasses these thoughts, like it or not: sustainability. From environmental journalist to CSO, sustainability-focused positions are here to stay. But the sheer number of buzzwords and labels can leave anyone confused. Here, I elucidate four sub-categories of sustainable, or “susty” careers: the green economy, green collar, impact careers, and corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The Green Economy

While “green” has traditionally referred to all things “environmentally-friendly,” with an emphasis on care for ecology, the United Nations uses green in a much farther-reaching fashion. According to the UN Environmental Programme, a green economy is “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.” The green economy is therefore homocentric, with ecology viewed almost as peripheral (something that should not be harmed as much as feasible).

Green Collar Jobs

The term “green-collar” was coined in a paper by Professor Patrick Heffernan who presented “Jobs for the Environment-The Coming Green Collar Revolution,” in a 1976 United States Congressional hearing. The term has since been revived, especially after the 2008-2009 financial crisis that left many countries turning to green collar jobs to help revitalize their economies. The Apollo Alliance provides the following definition of green collar jobs: “well-paid, career track jobs that contribute directly to preserving or enhancing environmental quality.” Green-collar jobs is a spin on the outdated blue collar (factory) versus white collar (office) categorization. Green-collar jobs include those that add an environmental element to a traditional job, such as designing equipment to use more resource efficient materials and operate with more energy efficiency.

Impact Careers

The employee demand for “impact” has now been quantified by recent studies. A report from Net Impact shows that workers who are able to make an environmental impact on the job are most satisfied by a margin of 2:1. The Net Impact report showed that 59% of Millennials desired “impact careers” (those where they can make a social or environmental difference through their work), compared to 50% in older generations.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Corporations have taken up on CSR and according to KPMG, 95% of the 250 largest companies worldwide report on corporate responsibility activities. CSR reflects the old saying of “what gets measured gets managed,” and although CSR indicators are not all financial, they contribute to the overall value of the company. The red flag in CSR are that some positions are pure public relations and communications—there is little transformation for sustainability. Seek CSR positions in organizations that view sustainability as core to their business success, such as Patagonia.

I hate to break the news: there are many more sub-categories of integrating sustainability into job functions and career trajectories. There is not only a green economy, but also a blue economy, with an emphasis on using locally available resources to solve challenges. While these sub-categories are useful for keyword job-hunting, they may not help individuals ponder and plan how they can integrate sustainability into their career—whether they are a nurse or educator.

Marilyn Waite is author of Sustainability at Work: Careers that Make a Difference (Routledge 2016). You can follow her on Twitter @WaiteMarilyn or visit her website

Marilyn Waite

Marilyn Waite, author of Sustainability at Work: Careers that make a difference

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