sustainability profession questionsWhat kind of jobs are available in sustainability, what kind of education and experience are required, will sustainability persist or will it fade away? Such questions lead one to ask what is sustainability? Multiple people have multiple definitions depending on their unique take on it. The triple bottom line is emerging as a defining conceptual explanation for what sustainability means, but widespread understanding of what this means remains somewhat shallow. This post suggests some of the more expertise sustainability professionals should have.

by Jesse Stallone, VP of Business Development & Sustainability at Electronic Recyclers International, Read Jesse’s blog , follow him on Twitter @jessestallone, or connect with Jesse on Linkedin.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with a group of college students regarding sustainability. They had a list of questions that were centered around career opportunities. Such as, what kind of jobs are available, what kind of education and experience are required and will sustainability persist or will it fade away?  [See Will Sustainability Grow as a Career Specialty? A Different Perspective]

It occurred to me during the conversation that these were the same questions I have been asked by companies and organizations. I told the students that many of the companies they were looking to go to work with were asking the same type of questions.

I gave an example of a company that recently directed two recruiters to me. They had told the recruiters to ask me what type of person would be needed to fill the positions and to see if I knew of any viable candidates.

I thought this was a little strange. They didn’t ask me if I was interested in the positions, but they wanted me to help them understand the requirements and find people. Wasn’t I good enough to work for the company in one of the roles? But my favorite call so far has been the one where the recruiter called and told me that she had been hired to fill a Sr. Sustainability Director position. She wanted to know if I could tell her what that was. I started to wonder what this was telling me. Did it mean that this is such a new field that people just don’t understand it yet? No, I didn’t buy that. This planet and it’s inhabitants have sustained themselves for centuries.

Maybe it’s like the quality push of the 80′s. If you walked up to someone on the street and asked, “What is quality?” you would get multiple answers. It didn’t mean that they were wrong, it just meant that each person had their own definition of what quality meant to them. So, we developed guidelines and produced tools that could be used across organizations and allow individuals to come together as teams or groups and speak with a common language.

So it often is with sustainability, multiple people have multiple definitions. One recent concept seems to have emerged as universally recognized, and I said recognized not understood, the triple bottom line.

This venn diagram has been used just about everywhere.


It doesn’t mean it’s completely understood, but it is used to describe sustainability.

So, back to the classroom, the students an organizations know that the environment, social and economic labels are used in the diagram; however, when I asked if anyone in the room knew what RCRA stood for only one person could name the first two letters. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), enacted in 1976, is the principal Federal law in the United States governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste.

I asked about a few more like WEEE, RoHS, and SWPP. Nothing but concerned looks. I moved on to the social and economic areas and asked similar questions. More strange looks.

So let’s start here.

If you as an individual or a company are trying to understand what type of skill set you or your company needs for a sustainability professional, remember it is more than just a journalist that will write press releases about the environment and employee activities. It’s more than a marketer that will send out your press releases and talk with the media. And, remember, you are not the compliance police. Now don’t get me wrong, these are important skills, but they are not the only skills required. Robert Shapiro once said, “Far from being a soft issue grounded in emotion or ethics, sustainable development involves cold, rational business logic.”

A sustainability professional should have an understanding of environmental policies, rules and regulations. They should also be familiar with environmental and civil engineering concepts and techniques. You should be familiar with business ecology and industrial ecology and the difference between the two. Depending on what business you are in you might need to add green chemistry to your tool kit.

They should have the skills for dealing with internal and external share and stakeholders. They need to understand and demonstrate change management techniques within organizations. Machiavelli was right, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

They should be familiar with accounting techniques, methodologies and ecological economics. You should have an understanding of scorecards, dashboards and reporting methodologies such as GRI. You are going to have to speak the language of Accountants, CFOs and Wall Street Analysts, so you better be prepared.

A sustainability professional is one that will work with your company to establish competitive business strategies. These strategies may be innovative or they may be old ideas that associates have had in one plant and you help bring them to the entire organization. Either way, your job is to generate, develop, and lead competitive business strategies that will allow your organization to sustain itself for generations to come.

© 2011, Jesse Stallone. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Jesse Stallone (3 Articles)

Jesse Stallone has spent the majority of his career working in the environmental field dealing with the operational activities and driving strategic change initiatives. Currently he is working as the VP of Business Development and Sustainability for Electronic Recyclers International. Most recently, he was Director of Sustainability and Strategic Planning at Allied Waste industries, responsible for sustainability and innovation business development initiatives. Prior to this he served as a Six Sigma Black Belt working on continuous improvement programs dealing with waste reduction for a large U.S. based retailer. Follow Jesse on Twitter. Connect with Jesse on Linkedin.

  • Tim Waldie

    I found the Venn diagrams particularly enlightening. To expound further on the meanings behind that tool, it is the definitions of the overlapping areas, particularly sustainability, that can vary wildly from industry to industry and often from company to company. Understanding your corporate culture and the broader political influences on your industry will aid in developing your individual approach. Build your strategies before you present or respond for a position then sell it with total commitment. These kind of fundamental business philosophies can make significant and permanent paradigm shifts.