Guide to Sustainability Certificates and Short Courses

If you’re interested in learning about a specific sustainability practice for your job without pursuing a full degree program in the subject, an online sustainability course may be able to provide the necessary training. Online sustainability programs cover a wide range of topics. If you want to become a sustainability consultant, consider starting with an introductory course to determine the skills that are most likely to be in demand.

What Is Sustainability?

The concept of sustainability is often associated with the environmental movement, which promotes environmental sustainability—the idea that we should support the growth, development and use of non-exhaustive resources in order to preserve those that can be depleted. For example, energy sustainability focuses on finding or using clean, dependable, renewable forms of energy that can’t be reduced to zero—like wind and solar.

In businesses, sustainability covers more than the organization’s effect on the environment. Sustainability also encompasses its impact on its stakeholders and the local community. That concept is sometimes referred to as corporate sustainability.

As organizations seek to become sustainable and adopt sustainable business practices, they may hire a sustainability specialist who can analyze their current policies and recommend how to improve the organization’s sustainability footprint. Sustainability consulting recommendations could encompass areas such as:

  • Improving the company’s environmental practices.
  • Diversifying the workforce.
  • Partnering with community leaders or residents to improve the lives of people living near the organization’s office or plant.

Can You Study Sustainability Online?

Yes, you can take online sustainability courses that allow you to learn more about a topic that interests you.

Online short courses and certificate programs are one way to gain expertise in a subject area without the commitment of a degree program. Online sustainability courses vary from introductory classes to in-depth courses that provide the technical know-how that might benefit a sustainability specialist.

Common Topics in Sustainability Online Courses

Because sustainability touches all aspects of the business world, consider your goals in taking a class and the skills you’d like to learn.

Some of the common topics in online sustainability courses include:

  • Energy efficiency.
  • Sustainable supply chains.
  • Sustainable business management.
  • Sustainable finance.
  • Sustainable design.
  • Sustainable tourism.
  • Sustainable agriculture.
  • Sustainable water management.

Business Sustainability Management Courses

Business sustainability programs may vary in their specific content, but the central focus is on how organizations around the world can adopt sustainable practices to lessen their environmental impact. The courses may cover topics such as how to improve operational efficiency and cut costs while managing to lower ecological damage. They also cover how to encourage innovation to cut the organization’s carbon footprint. The class may cover the financial aspects of sustainability, including assessing its risk from potential environmental damage and how to value sustainable investments.

Courses in business sustainability management may also cover the regulatory climate related to environmental best practices and how to plan, design and execute for sustainability. Persuading an organization to adopt a more sustainable framework may be a challenge in some cases, so the course may also touch on aspects of changing the perspectives of those in positions of leadership, and how to encourage the implementation of sustainable practices.

Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Courses

Energy efficiency is a prominent focus of the sustainability movement. Even businesses that are more focused on the bottom line than on broader sustainability issues are likely to appreciate the competitive advantages of reducing their energy consumption. In an energy sustainability course, students may learn the business case for improving how efficiently an organization uses energy. These sorts of classes are particularly suited to individuals with a background in an area such as engineering, facilities management, building design or energy auditing.

Some of the topics covered in an energy efficiency course might include:

  • Challenges to energy efficiency.
  • Sustainability policy and regulations governing sustainable buildings.
  • Technology that can improve energy efficiency in a building or industrial sector.

Students may learn to analyze energy flows, audit energy use and apply measurement and verification methods to quantify how much energy is saved. They also learn how to use the data collected to make decisions regarding energy usage.

Sustainable Supply Chain Management Courses

Creating a sustainable supply chain has benefits beyond finding more environmentally friendly vendors for your organization. Supply chain sustainability also focuses on creating a supply network that can withstand disruptions and remain resilient in uncertain times. A course in supply chain sustainability may be helpful for individuals who hold management positions or who want to pivot their careers to break into supply chain management. People who work as sustainability specialists or consultants may also use the course to further their credentials. Those who want to advance their careers even further in this field may consider pursuing an online master in supply chain management program.

Sustainable supply chain courses provide students with the analytical skills that help mitigate supply-side risks. They’ll learn about innovative ways to optimize supply chains, including through new technologies. Because supply chains are becoming more global, students in a supply chain course may consider how the changing world can affect their company’s supply chain and how they can strengthen their organization’s vendor network through partnerships. Ultimately, a more sustainable supply chain can result in a more efficient company.

Sustainable Finance Courses

One aspect of the sustainability movement is that investors are looking more closely at the environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects of the companies they are investing in. Some investors want organizations to have policies to preserve the environment, create value for the larger society and follow best practices for corporate governance. Sustainable finance courses help financial managers learn the tools to develop and implement financial policies that have a sustainable impact. Course content typically considers the challenges that sustainability poses for businesses, and investigates how to change financial systems so that the community can benefit along with the company. Students may read case studies to find out how other organizations have adopted more sustainable business models.

A variety of professionals may benefit from a course in sustainable finance. Business finance managers who may want to steer their organization to a more sustainable path can gain valuable insights. Others who might want to take a sustainable finance course include financial advisors and fund managers who analyze the ESG ratings on companies, investors and non-profit managers.

Corporate Sustainability Courses

A corporate sustainability certificate or course typically takes a high-level approach, focusing on strategies organizations can use to adopt sustainable practices and increase their profits. Executives learn how sustainability issues may affect the organization’s finances, and how a smart approach to sustainability can drive profits and give the company a competitive edge. They’ll develop strategies to recognize where sustainability presents opportunities and what steps the organization can take to avoid risks. Courses may use a case-study approach; allowing students to learn from other executives’ real-life experiences and glean insights from how different organizations have approached the challenges of sustainability.

A corporate sustainability course program may be geared toward corporate executives and other leaders who make the strategic decisions for an organization. Such a course may also be useful for individuals who handle risk management and consultants who want to develop strategic decision-making expertise.

Circular Economy Courses

A circular economy is a way to create a sustainable organization by encouraging businesses to develop products that can be reused and recycled. The idea behind a circular economy is a complete shift from the familiar linear economy where products are produced, used and then thrown away when they break or become obsolete. The circular economy limits waste and the depletion of natural resources, resulting in a cleaner environment and a more innovative economy.

A circular economy course may explore closed-loop supply chains and how the circular concept can lead to new business models. Businesspeople learn how their organization can be profitable by making longer-lasting items and remanufacturing products. Students also focus on how their organization handles its waste and how that system can be made more sustainable.

A course in sustainability emphasizing a circular economy would likely interest industrial designers, entrepreneurs, managers and sustainability specialists.

Is a Sustainability Course or Certificate Worth It?

If you’re wondering if studying sustainability is worth it, consider that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists more than two dozen job categories where workers might be involved in some aspect of sustainability. Jobs range from chief executives and sustainability consultants to engineers and compliance officers. Many of the jobs that may have a sustainability aspect listed by the BLS pay well. For instance, people with the job title of Chief Executive, which can include Chief Sustainability Officers, earned a median salary of $184,460 per year in 2019.

Learning about sustainable supply chain management or energy efficiency may give you skills you can apply to your job. The value your employer sees in the course may vary depending upon your company and industry. Some companies encourage continuing education and may reward you for your initiative in seeking out training.

Even if you don’t decide to pursue sustainability consulting in your career, studying sustainability may also provide personal satisfaction and help you advocate for a more sustainable world. After taking an online sustainability course, you may feel better qualified to suggest more sustainable practices at work, for example, or find you’re a smarter consumer who can recognize and appreciate a sustainable product.

Courses in Sustainability vs. Finance Courses

While many sustainability courses or certificates consider some of the financial aspects of sustainability, they are not interchangeable with a finance course or certificate. Finance courses are designed for roles including entrepreneurs or finance managers and cover topics that apply to most organizations, such as accounting, real estate valuation or venture funding.

In a sustainability course, the finance skills are more specialized, such as how to determine a company’s financial risk arising from a possible environmental hazard or how to quantify energy savings from switching to green technology.

Sustainability vs. Master of Business Administration

A sustainability course or certificate may not be able to provide the same breadth of education as an advanced degree. For instance, certain career paths may require a Master of Business Administration (MBA). In an MBA program, you’ll learn about all aspects of managing a business and hone your analytical skills. However, an MBA might require up to two years of full-time study to complete. A sustainability course is a shorter, more focused way to learn about applying sustainability concepts to a specific aspect of your business or organization. It’s a more specialized program for a particular interest.

3 Benefits of an Online Sustainability Certificate or Short Course Program

Your reasons for taking a course or your goals for using the knowledge you acquire might ultimately determine how beneficial a program is for you. A sustainability consultant may have different expectations of what they’ll learn and how they’ll apply the information compared to the expectations of a financial manager or product designer enrolled in the same class.

Some benefits of an online sustainability course include:

1. Gaining insights into how other companies increased their sustainability.

Many online sustainability courses and certificate programs use the case study method of teaching. With a case study of how a specific, real-life organization increased its sustainability, you move beyond theory to discover the practical problems you might expect and the solutions a successful company employed. Seeing how other companies navigated the move toward sustainability may open your eyes to new ways of achieving goals.

2. Acquiring new skills in just a few weeks.

Online sustainability short courses help get you up to speed quickly, with some programs only spanning a few weeks. While a course or certificate program may not carry the prestige of a graduate degree, taking short courses allows you to quickly update your skills. With the wide range of courses available, you’re able to be very selective in what you choose, narrowing in on the subject areas that you believe will be most beneficial to you.

3. Gaining expertise in an in-demand field.

Organizations worldwide realize that becoming more sustainable may present competitive advantages, but not every company has a clear idea of how to design or implement sustainability initiatives. Sustainability specialists with that knowledge may find job opportunities. For example, the energy efficiency sector of the U.S. economy alone provided 3.1 million jobs in 2018, with the number of jobs growing 1.5% from the previous year, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute . Those jobs ran the gamut in industries as varied as construction and electric vehicles.

4. Attending class on a convenient schedule.

Unlike a full-time degree program, online sustainability courses allow you to learn without leaving your job. Many online sustainability certificates use an asynchronous delivery format, which means you can access the material at a time you choose. There’s also no requirement to come to campus, so you can sign up for an online class without worrying about where the sponsoring university is located.

Last updated February 2021