What’s it like to be a sustainability specialist?


Post by: Angie Knowles, ECO Canada

Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a 5,000 sq. metre manufacturing facility for office furniture. As the main sustainability specialist here, you’re monitoring the production processes at the facility to ensure that workers are able to use the available machinery safely and effectively. 

Later in the day, you’ll finish up this past week’s research on a new series of environmental regulations that could impact the company’s operations. After delivering a summary report of your findings to upper management, you’ll follow-up with your company’s main supplier to see how the plan is coming along to convert their delivery trucks to biodiesel.

Sound like the kind of work day you would enjoy? 

If so, a career as a Sustainability Specialist might be for you. These practitioners represent the largest proportion of sustainability professionals at over 35,450 workers or 70% of the sustainability workforce.

For many organizations across Canada, Sustainability Specialists fulfill a crucial role. These professionals address critical areas of their company’s processes and people, such as environmental health and safety, energy management and conservation, sustainable building practices, and corporate sustainable development programs.At the end of a typical work day, Sustainability Specialists have made decisions that ensure the health and safety of their coworkers, protect the environment and keep their company’s costs down.

To see if a career as a Sustainability Specialist is a good fit, how many of the statements below sound like you?

1. You see the connections between environmental, social and economic issues, and you believe businesses can develop solutions to address all three of these areas.

The triple bottom line is at the heart of a Sustainability Specialist’s work, with the goal of effectively balancing people, planet and profits. In order to do this, Sustainability Specialists must have a comprehensive understanding of all the major facets of their company, and they need to readily identify how one area (e.g. health and safety) affects the other (e.g. human resources).

2. You’re good at creating a positive rapport with many different types of people.

As part of their work, most Sustainability Specialists need to connect with a wide variety of stakeholders, from clients and coworkers to senior management, government officials, legal advisors and auditors.

3. In high school, you really enjoyed Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry or English. In university, you were the most attracted to programs related to Environmental Studies, Environmental Science, Engineering, Business Administration, Sustainability Policy, Environmental Ethics or Political Science.

The list of typical disciplines above might seem eclectic (Chemistry and English?), but this is a great indication of the multidisciplinary nature of a career in sustainability. In fact, most practitioners came from a variety of educational backgrounds and they commit to staying abreast of the industry trends in a range of different disciplines.

4. You have a knack for finding relevant information and then summarizing it into a digestible format for different audiences.

Sustainability Specialists must be aware of the latest environmental regulations and standards, since these changes can have significant impact on their company’s operations. While these professionals need to be up-to-date on recent industry updates, they also need to be able to effectively communicate this knowledge to different groups, including their own management team, colleagues, and the public.

5. You have the organizational and people management skills to effectively coordinate multiple, simultaneous projects.

In addition to developing and implementing corporate social responsibility initiatives, Sustainability Specialists are also involved in monitoring environmental protection processes and programs (such as pollution prevention, abatement and control), and identifying opportunities to reduce resource use and energy consumption. These professionals need to wear many hats – often in the same day.

For those of you already working in sustainability, what other career planning questions would you add to this list? What do Sustainability Specialists need to be truly successful at work?

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