Careers

5 Career Paths to Consider If You're Interested in Sustainability

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With the world population expected to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050 and the rise of extreme weather, it’s no surprise that opportunities for careers in sustainability have increased. Sustainability is the study and practice of how to reduce human impact on the natural world, and it has become an integral aspect of how more individuals go about their lives and how organizations do business. Higher education institutions now offer sustainability degrees, but you may find it overwhelming to figure where to start. The term is not always attached to a specific job position -- although those certainly exist; rather, you may want to explore a target industry and find how to integrate sustainability into a target role. Below, I’ve highlighted five fields that will need innovative and skilled young professionals with an interest in sustainability.

Sustainable Apparel Manufacturing


In the past few decades, the textile industry has become a major contributor to the global economy, and with that, it has also become a major contributor to waste. In a 2017 report, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, whose mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, indicates that large amounts of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated, an unfortunate outcome of fast fashion. Other negative impacts include greenhouse emissions from textile production and increased pollution when hazardous substances seep into soil and water. There are signs, however, that the industry is adapting to evolving consumer attitudes. In its 2018 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, the Boston Consulting Group shows that 75 percent of fashion companies increased their sustainability scores, and the Business of Fashion listed sustainability expert as one of the six fashion careers of the future.

Any fashion career could have a sustainability twist, but most are associated with ethical sourcing and supply chain management. Ethical trade and sustainable sourcing managers research sustainable ingredients and materials and determine a responsible way to source them. For success in the role, you need knowledge of ethical sourcing criteria and a legal grasp of both local and international trade. Product sustainability specialists oversee the production process and ensure that it aligns with business quality and safety standards. Knowledge of product development and supply chain expertise are crucial for success in this role. Degrees in fashion, textile science, sustainability or international human rights can offer the knowledge and skills needed for a career in this field.

Additional resource: Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).

Environmental Remediation Services

Considering the finite nature of life-sustaining resources on the planet, pollution from human activity is another focus area for those interested in sustainability. Environmental remediation deals with cleanup of contaminated areas: typically involving soil and water. Contamination usually results from industry activity, spills or improper use of chemicals and pesticides. The field is heavily regulated by government agencies, and professionals in the field must have knowledge of recent regulations and work closely with the agencies to ensure all steps are followed. The work is hazardous and requires paying attention to details and following strict safety guidelines. Professionals must also rely on a variety of technologies and techniques to manage cleanup.

Specific careers in environmental remediation include compliance officers, cost estimators and conservation scientists. With a background in business or a related field, compliance officers bring knowledge of laws and regulations as they oversee the proper cleanup of contaminated areas. They also make sure workers have access to necessary protections and precautions to ensure their safety. Cost estimators need a degree in math or accounting and their main focus is collecting and analyzing data to help estimate the cost of remediation projects. Conservation scientists rely on data to identify pollution damage done to water and soil and monitor the proposed remediation process.

Additional resource: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Transportation Sector

Despite significant recent growth in alternative modes of transportation, including bike share and electric scooters, the number of cars in the United States and the miles driven continue to increase. As such, the need for sustainable transportation has also increased. As the Department of Energy highlights, efforts to improve energy security and stave off the effects of climate change have led to transformation of the transportation sector through energy efficient vehicles. The growing demand for vehicles that save money and help the environment has increased the demand for qualified professionals who can make those vehicles. Opportunities in the field fall into three categories -- design, manufacturing and maintenance -- but the most sought-after ones are chemical, mechanical and electrical engineers. Because technology advances rapidly, regular re-training and certifications are necessary for success in the field.

Additional resource: Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition (EcoCAR 3).

Environmental Journalism

If along with being environmentally minded you also love research and writing, this career may be the right path for you. Environmental journalists spotlight major issues in conservation and remediation by collecting evidence and drafting reports. Their main responsibility is to educate the public on the current state of sustainability efforts and advocate for meaningful change. When necessary, environmental journalists act as watchdogs, highlighting environmentally harmful actions and finding evidence to encourage legal action. For success in the role, you need an understanding of environmental science, trends and issues, as well as the ability to communicate these in an easy to understand manner. Most environmental journalists focus on one specific topic -- forestry, energy, air pollution, wildlife conservation, etc.

Additional resource: Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ).

Agriculture

A big challenge of an ever-increasing world population is feeding that population. Food security is important for a sustainable future, and opportunities in the field are expected to grow. Two specific options are agricultural/food scientists and agroforesters.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, agricultural and food scientists “conduct research and experiments to improve the productivity and sustainability of field crops and farm animals.” They also work on identifying new ways of producing and delivering food products as well as ways of improving soil health. Their major responsibility is to ensure adequate supply of safe, quality products. Agricultural and food scientists find themselves in labs, offices or fields. If interested in this career, you may want to consider degrees in agricultural science or any natural science -- biology, chemistry or physics.

Agroforestry represents an attempt to protect natural resources and increase food production by combining the growth of trees and shrubs with crops and livestock. Agroforesters work closely with food scientists to identify the most effective way of helping the environment and ensuring healthy yields. The role is a mix between theoretical research and practical field work, and as such, potential candidates need a background in agricultural science, forestry, land management or environmental economics. Understanding of technological advancements is also a plus.

Additional resources: American Society of Agronomy, Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD), Association for Temperate Agroforestry.

To access a network of like-minded professionals and learn more about opportunities in sustainability, check out the International Society of Sustainability Professionals. For better understanding of trends that will impact the next decade, review the Future of Sustainability 2019 report.