Andrea McCormick is the Head of Sustainability at OVO, the UK’s third largest domestic energy supplier. She has over a decade of experience in sustainability and climate change, working across sectors in consulting and industry roles, and holds a MSc Environmental Technology from Imperial College London.
Most of us want our work to have purpose and this feeling’s only getting stronger as we emerge from the height of the pandemic. In a recent survey by Gartner, 56% of people said Covid has made them want to contribute more to society.
For those on the hunt for purpose at work, a career transforming businesses into a force for good ticks a lot of boxes.
Thinking of making the move into sustainability? Here’s my take on what you need to know.
A career in sustainability requires you to wear many different hats
A successful sustainability professional needs to be a technical expert, first and foremost. You might be the only person at your company with ‘sustainability’ in your job title.
So your colleagues will expect you to advise them on everything from climate science to biodiversity, carbon footprinting, recycling and the circular economy, the politics of international climate negotiations, modern slavery, social impact, energy management, air quality, contaminated land management, responsible sourcing, diversity and inclusion, and about a hundred different environmental social governance (ESG) reporting frameworks.
And, trust me, they won’t be happy with you if they find out the office toilet paper hasn’t been sourced from FSC certified forests.
As well as having the deep knowledge of a technical expert, you’ll also need to be an expert generalist. Within the course of a typical week, you’ll put a range of different skillsets into practice.
Strategist, organisational change agent, project manager, consultant, workshop facilitator, compliance officer, risk assessor, due diligence analyst, investor relations liaison, report writer, customer complaints handler and, finally, employee engagement champion.
The depth and breadth of a role in sustainability is huge - that what makes it such a fascinating job. But it’s not why many people say they chose this career.
It’s not uncommon for people like me to refer to “the mission” - ensuring that the human species can survive and thrive on this planet for generations to come. I can’t really think of a more worthwhile purpose than that.
So what’s the catch?
Making the move into a career in sustainability isn’t something you can do overnight. It takes time to build up technical expertise in all the different skillsets you’ll need.
Training courses can help fill knowledge gaps. Many universities and chartered professional institutes offer courses that will introduce you to the basics of sustainable business - like the underlying science, carbon accounting basics, specialist terminology, and building the business case for investing in sustainability.
And many of the required skillsets are transferable.
The upshot of all this? With the right opportunity, some hard work and a bit of luck, it’s entirely possible that you could become a fully-fledged corporate sustainability professional.
Careers in sustainability: We’ve come a long way since the 1970s
But making it out to be easy would belittle the value of the unique expertise that has been built up in our sector over decades, from the era of environmental health and safety compliance in the 1970s, through to sustainable value creation as we know it today.
The trick is being both the technical expert and the expert generalist at the same time. Influencing and leading change within business (from the factory floor to the boardroom) is as much an art as it is a science.
Based on the experience of my own career journey, I argue that this art can only really be learnt through on-the-job experience under the guidance of an established practitioner who knows the pitfalls and tricks of the trade.
The mentorship I’ve had from veteran sustainability professionals has been invaluable in preparing me for the challenges I’ve faced, from advising clients during my time in consulting to my current role as an in-house head of sustainability.
Demand is outstripping supply of green jobs
According to LinkedIn, the growth in green job postings is outpacing the growth in green talent. It’s not difficult to understand why.
For sustainable business models to become the new normal, every company will need sustainability talent to support and create change. But it takes time to develop the talent pipeline.
To fill the widening talent gap, it’s imperative that we attract more people into sustainability careers now, and provide them with the experience and mentorship they need.
We owe a great debt of thanks to the generation of sustainability professionals that came before us. They dedicated their careers to raising the alarm and battling to get the environmental and social crises on to the business agenda - a long time before ‘sustainability’ was in vogue. In doing so, they laid the essential groundwork for the societal transformation that must now urgently come about.
It is undoubtedly a great responsibility for today’s sustainability professionals to take on that task. But it is also a great privilege - to be part of a movement that has been many years in the making, and to be here at what we all hope is the turning of the tide during this crucial decade of action.
So if you’re thinking about starting a career in sustainability, don’t hesitate. It might take some time to learn the ropes - but there’s never been a better, more exciting or more important time to join this movement.