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Understanding sustainability and its career paths

Friday, March 30, 2018
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Understanding sustainability and its career paths
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Sustainability: It's a word you may hear being thrown around often these days. In can be used in a variety of contexts, but all of its definitions and interpretations are about building a better tomorrow. 

Sustainability has environmental, economic and societal implications, and as a result there are a wide range of career paths available to people interested in the field. 

Let's take a closer look at understanding sustainability and its professional opportunities:

What is sustainability?
Sustainability is concerned with creating environmental and economic policies and projects that protect the resources of the Earth and that, once put into effect, can continue operating positively for many years. 

One of the most common applications of sustainable principles is in a global development context. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites the most popular and common definition of sustainability given at a 1987 United Nations conference. Sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Sustainability may be practiced by a non-governmental organization, for example, in the way that a humanitarian project is designed and implemented, such as building a hospital in a low-income area to improve access to health care. The hospital facility itself may be designed to rely on green energy instead of fossil fuels, to minimize environmental impact. It may also be constructed and operated by local skilled workers, instead of bringing in workers from outside the local community. The project leaders train local workers in building methods and the operation of the hospital so that the facility can continue to function successfully long after the humanitarian workers leave the area. 

This is just one application of sustainability that describes its general principles, but it may be employed in many other scenarios. 

sustainability Sustainability focuses on creating policies and programs that are good for the environment and socially responsible.

Public and private sector applications 
Global development is just one area that applies the principles of sustainability to its main activities. The concept is employed in many other fields. 

One such area is federal and local government, which may focus on sustainability in its civic, urban planning, affordable housing and community improvement initiatives. 

There is also an increasing focus on sustainable practices in the private sector. A growing number of companies in a range of industries, from agriculture to technology to retail, are looking at how they can improve their business activities to have a more positive impact on the environment, improve wages and working conditions for employees and overall leave a more positive footprint in society, focusing on more than the bottom line. 

As Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, chair of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, said at an event held at the Brookings Institute, "We have moved from the one-dimensional [profit and loss] company of the past. That has for me been the most exciting discovery of working with these companies."

One example of this change is in the fashion industry. Consumers are re-evaluating so-called "fast fashion," which is often made using environmentally wasteful practices and creates garments that are inexpensive yet not designed to last, and companies in response are seeing how they can design clothing that's more environmentally conscious, reduces waste and that can create better economic and working conditions for employees. For more on sustainable fashion, check out this post from Green Strategy. 

Jobs in sustainability 
Since sustainable movements are becoming widespread, there are many different types of job opportunities available to individuals interested in working in this area. 

Some roles may include "sustainability" directly in the job title, such as sustainability officer, sustainability services manager, sustainability coordinator and sustainability director. Other jobs, however, may not include "sustainability" in the title but have job duties that relate to this area, such as industrial manager, environmental scientist, recycling coordinator, civil engineer or corporate responsibility director, the BLS explained. Sustainability experts can also find lucrative work as consultants. 

There is demand for many of these professionals as companies seek to improve the sustainability of their operations - in fact, 43 percent of companies say that they want to align sustainability with their overall business goals, an increase from 30 percent in 2012, according to a McKinsey & Company study, explained an article from the University of Wisconsin, which runs a Sustainable Management degree program.

Many of these roles also receive favorable salaries. Sustainability officers earn an average annual salary of $75,000, according to PayScale data. And the BLS reports that the 2016 median pay for environmental scientists was $68,910, with an anticipated 11 percent growth in the number of available jobs between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than the average for other industries. Sustainability professionals at the executive level can earn even higher salaries, with the median annual salary for sustainability directors at $104,314, PayScale data shows. 

"Many universities have introduced sustainability degree programs to help prepare students for careers in this rewarding field."

Graduate programs in sustainability 
With the increasing focus on sustainability in both the public and private sector, many universities have introduced sustainability degree programs to help prepare students for careers in this rewarding field. There are programs designed to suit students interested in a range of areas, from sustainable business practices to environmentally-conscious engineering. 

For example, the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School offers an online MBA in Sustainable Enterprise. The University of Colorado Denver offers a Master of Science in Environmental and Sustainability Engineering which centers on learning the skills to create responsible infrastructure systems. And Columbia University provides an MS in Sustainability Management, which is co-sponsored by The Earth Institute and the School of Professional Studies.

There are also master of arts graduate degree programs available, which steer away from the development of scientific and technical skills and abilities and instead explore the societal implications of sustainability. One such program, for example, is the MA in Sustainability from Hofstra University, which takes an interdisciplinary approach and examines sustainability through "environmental, economic, social, philosophical and ethical" lenses. There are also certificates available for those who want to supplement their studies or gain additional professional qualifications, such as the Leaders in Sustainability Certificate Program offered by UCLA. 

These and similar programs can help students confront and understand contemporary challenges to sustainability and gain the skills and insights needed to develop innovative solutions to overcome them. These programs can also equip individuals interested in sustainability-focused careers with the management, research and communication methods needed to improve the environmental and social responsibility initiatives of both private and public sector organizations. 

Sustainability can have many applications, but what they all have in common is their dedication to creating a better tomorrow. If you're passionate about protecting the environment, improving quality of life for people around the world and promoting ethical practices in business and governance, consider earning your master's degree in sustainability. 

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