Exploring Careers in Sustainability: Choosing Your Path for Success
The world desperately needs repair people. From climate change to systemic racism to gender inequity and crushing poverty, we are living at a time that is asking us to step up and help repair our ailing planet and our challenged communities.
Not everyone wants to do this kind of repair work. Most people live their lives focused narrowly on family and friends. But others feel called to careers in sustainability. And if you're reading this, you're one of those people. You aspire to find a sustainability career—to spend your time on Earth working for what we call "shared well-being on a healthy planet."
In this blog, we'll discuss how to find these elusive purpose-driven careers and much, much more.
Sustainability career paths: three ways forward
The first step in your sustainability career journey is determining your own personal vision. Given your passion and skills, where do you see yourself contributing?
As it turns out, sustainability work falls into one of three major career paths: changing minds through environmental education, changing the rules through sustainability policy, and changing the game through sustainable business.
Exploring sustainability jobs
Within these three broad pathways, what do actual sustainability jobs look like?
Let's start with sustainable business. On the "healthy planet" side of sustainability, business jobs are most typically found in resource-intensive sectors like renewable energy and climate, clean transport, sustainable fashion, regenerative food systems, green building, and clean water, as a few examples, but also in industries that drive their transformation, like finance and ESG data services. On the "shared well-being" side, the jobs tend to focus on supporting people and equity in the workplace.
If you had to sum it up, there are basically three types of business jobs:
- Entrepreneurs: those working to start a new sustainable business or non-profit focused directly on solving environmental or social problems.
- Intrapreneurs: being a change agent within an existing company or organization, helping it "green" its business or achieve justice objectives. Sometimes these people have titles like, "Corporate Social Responsibility Director," "Sustainable Supply Chain Manager," or "Chief Diversity Officer," but. most often, sustainability work in business means bringing a sustainability perspective to bear on a regular-sounding job.
- Consultants: Providing advice from outside a company or non-profit, helping it to learn how to be more sustainable and achieve its sustainability goals. Today, dedicated sustainability consulting companies like BSR provide these services, but increasingly, mainstream consulting companies like E&Y and KPMG are also offering sustainability consulting.
Moving from sustainable business to the policy side—changing the rules—the jobs line up more like this...
- Working in government: At the local, state, national, and international levels (through the UN and other organizations [learn more about how to work for the UN]), sustainability jobs in government focus on passing and implementing good laws and regulations to drive sustainable change. This can include sustainability careers in environmental law, urban planning, as well as conservation work in parks and wilderness areas.
- Working in non-profits: Here you are employed outside the system, educating, advocating, and lobbying to change the rules in government or to change the rules in business. Organizations like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club have helped pass government laws driving clean energy adoption and also have pressured businesses to change their rules, for example, working to get big banks to stop lending for new fossil fuel projects.
And finally, on the third pathway, education jobs where you'll be changing minds include:
- Environmental or social justice educator: In the US, environmental education is usually handled by non-profits, which deliver in-school, after-school, and summer programs that engage the rising 'screen generation' with the natural world outdoors and the key lessons of ecological literacy.
- Environmental or social justice communication: Again, these are writers, filmmakers, artists, and others, often working in non-profits.
As you can see, sustainability jobs range across industries and pathways, but they all have one attribute in common: you will be spending your life working with millions of other people on some piece of "shared well-being on a healthy planet." Let's take a look at a few examples.
What to do with a sustainability degree
Emma Jenkins, VP for Climate Transitions, Deutsche Bank
Five years ago, Emma Jenkins was a school teacher with an interest in sustainable finance. Pursuing a career switch, she went back to school for her MBA in Sustainability, found an entry-level job working for a sustainable wealth advisor, moved next into an ESG data role, and from there, was recruited by Deutsche Bank.
How did she advance so quickly?
Hundreds of major companies around the world have made "net zero" carbon commitments, and to support their customers, banks are eager for the kind of expertise that Emma developed.
Jackson Morris, Director of the Climate & Clean Energy Program, Eastern Region, at NRDC
In 2022, the Biden Administration finally broke a 30-year log jam and passed a major new US law to cut global warming pollution through a rapid transition to clean energy and electric vehicles. In Jackson's role at NRDC, he advocated with state and national legislators to help shape the legislation. Jackson landed his first job in energy and climate through a graduate school sustainability internship and then moved to NRDC, where he worked his way up through the organization.
Ariadne Prior-Gosch, STEM Department Chair, High School in the Bronx
Ari started her professional life as a data analyst for the US Geological Survey. With a passion for both teaching and the environment, she pursued a combined Master's in Environmental Policy and a Master's in Teaching. Like Jackson, an extended graduate school internship provided her with critical work experience, positioning her for a career in public school science and environmental education.
Jarrid Green, Co-Director, Center for Business and Social Justice, BSR
Jarrid's journey to becoming a sustainability strategy consultant began with post-college work in the non-profit policy world, helping analyze and write about issues like affordable housing. Returning to grad school for an MBA in Sustainability helped him develop the experience and skills to transition to advising businesses and non-profits on how to make progress toward their environmental and social sustainability goals.
Lindsey Strange, Designer of Circular Capabilities and Acumen, Responsible Design Team, Target
Lindsey's first career was in fashion: as a designer and then a teacher of fashion design. Her passion for sustainability led her to earn an environmental MBA, where she gained expertise in circular systems. Leading major fashion brands are investing in circular business model innovation, moving away from the destructive "fast fashion" paradigm, and Lindsey's experience and training opened the door for her in this critical field.
Skills and education for a career in sustainability
Emma, Jackson, Ari, Jarrid, and Lindsey work in very different industries, requiring very different skillsets. And yet, there are core skills that led them to success in sustainability careers: problem-solving, systems thinking, collaboration, adaptability, and excellent communication skills. If this skill set describes you, then you have the foundation for a sustainability career.
Sustainability is a growing field, and you do not need a master's or advanced degree to get started. There is entry-level work in environmental policy, environmental and social justice education, and sustainable business. A good way to gain entry-level experience is through programs like Americorps.
You're probably asking yourself, "Is a master's in sustainability worth it?" Well, the answer is yes, especially if you're interested in a long-term career in sustainability because advanced education will likely be in your future. This can include certifications or a graduate degree, like a master's, JD, or PhD.
What about folks coming right out of college? Is it better to work for a few years before going to graduate school? Sure, if you have a great job lined up. But if you can't get the kind of serious sustainability job you want, consider exploring sustainability programs. Starting your master's degree at age 22 or 23 can be a powerful way forward, and it's especially true when your degree embeds resume-building real-world experience into the course of study.
Overall, the key to career success in sustainability is to go big—as big as you can imagine. It's the time to experiment, fail fast, and gain the experience and tools to change the world.
Networking and sustainability job search strategies
Whether you have an advanced degree or not, finding or changing jobs requires time and energy put into networking, honing your resume and LinkedIn, and, typically, sending in lots and lots of applications.
Networking seems mysterious to people just getting started. After all, how do you build a network? The simple answer: talk to people. That starts with your family and friends. Tell everyone you're looking for work in Chicago—for example—in renewable energy or Denver in environmental education, and do the people you know know anyone you can talk with? Then reach out and ask for an "informational interview." You can also ask for informational interviews from people you find on LinkedIn, as well (even easier if you're in school). Send a connection request saying that you're a student interested in their work and include an ask for an informational interview.
When you meet them, whether in person or online, the first thing you should do is listen. Have some questions prepared, so you can learn about their work and how they're connected to the industry you care about. Get them talking—most people love to talk about what they do for work. Halfway through the interview, switch and share with them what your vision is. What are you passionate about? Why do you think you would be good in the renewable energy industry or in the environmental education field or whatever it might be? And finally, don't list your personal resume; they can read that on their own time. Be ready with a story or two—real stories—about events in your life that show your commitment to sustainability and leadership.
When it comes to your resume and LinkedIn, find good examples of both online. Ask for help from your network or college career center to improve the story you are telling about yourself. And it's tedious, but it's important—typos, formatting errors, and other seemingly "small" details are often the number one reason that resumes get thrown out. Find a good writer to review your resume and LinkedIn for spelling, grammar, and consistency.
Remember: if you struggled to find resources for building careers in sustainability, others most likely are, too. Pay it forward; share what you learn with your network, as well.
Advance your sustainability career path at Bard
Climate change, gender inequity, species extinction, extreme poverty, water pollution, systemic racism—these are the forces that are shaping this century.
If you've read this far, you would like to spend your life working to change humanity's direction and build a sustainable future. Consider taking the next step with us at Bard's Graduate Programs in Sustainability. We bring together a committed community of students, faculty, and staff—all working to lead the change the planet needs.