How to Become a Sustainability Consultant

Consumers and corporations alike are increasingly interested in sustainability. If you would like to help organizations become more environmentally friendly while safeguarding the world’s natural resources through sustainability programs, a career as a sustainability consultant may fit the bill. This position may be a good match for people who want to work in an interdisciplinary field that requires a variety of skills and expertise. Learn more about how to become a sustainability consultant and what sustainability analysis looks like.

What Does a Sustainability Consultant Do?

A sustainability consultant works with organizations to develop and implement programs and business practices that respect our natural resources. Many businesses are committing to increasing their sustainability efforts by reducing or eliminating their carbon footprint, purchasing materials and supplies that are sustainably sourced, and meeting or exceeding government requirements for environmental responsibility. One popular framework is the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals that many sustainability consultants help organizations follow.

A sustainability program may be as simple as recycling office waste or as complex as monitoring raw materials sourcing all the way to a mine in a distant country. Some companies look into using a sustainability consulting expert to shape these policies through sustainability analysis. What is sustainability analysis? It is a key tool to help identify issues and develop action plans to meet sustainability goals.

A sustainability consultant may be involved in tasks including:

  • Strategy development.
  • Stakeholder education.
  • Reporting environmental data.
  • Energy efficiency analysis and management.
  • Recycling and waste management.
  • Cross-functional teamwork.

A sustainability specialist may be involved in many aspects of an organization’s process to identify and manage opportunities to improve the way the organization interacts with the environment.

Why Study Sustainability?

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 declared the importance of sustainability in the United States and was enacted “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

Why is sustainability important? Studying sustainability helps prepare students to contribute to an organization that is working to address significant challenges facing our environment, such as air and water pollution, water shortages, packaging and food waste and many others.

Through sustainability analysis, organizations are transforming their processes. At the very least, they aim to not harm people or the planet through their business practices. At their best, these policies create value for stakeholders and work to improve environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance in the areas in which the company has an environmental or social impact.

Sustainability is often used to describe policies that enrich and protect the environment, but from a business approach, sustainability helps create shareholder value while embracing opportunities and managing risks that come from developments including economic, environmental and social changes.

Many organizations, including governments, nonprofits, educational institutions and corporations, are aware of the importance of sustainability and making it an essential part of their operations. More than 7,500 organizations issue annual sustainability or corporate responsibility reports, the Brookings Institution reported.

Based on a sustainability analysis, more than 90% of CEOs consider sustainability a key strategy in their company’s success and support it by marketing sustainable products and services, creating relevant positions and publishing sustainability reports for stakeholders.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Sustainability Specialist?

Because it’s a relatively young field, sustainability consulting is open to people with a variety of backgrounds.

Every journey to become a sustainability specialist is different. It will depend on your education, experience and career goals. Some people follow a path in the sciences or engineering; others specialize in public policy or business management.

career in sustainability consulting will typically begin with an undergraduate degree in a related field of study. A graduate degree can help prepare students for high-level analysis and program management. Certificates in sustainability are available in focused areas to help jumpstart your sustainability career.

A bachelor’s degree in a related field typically takes four years or more. A traditional master’s degree may take 12-24 months. Online courses in specialty areas such as energy efficiency and supply chain management are available in eight-week sessions. In 12 to 18 months, a sustainability certification aims to engage students with environmental concepts and how to apply them. Students will learn core principles of environmental sustainability while delving into the business case for sustainability.

Sustainability Consultant Education Requirements

Because sustainability consulting is a relatively new, cross-disciplinary field, there’s no single overarching educational requirement. A bachelor’s degree is usually an entry-level credential. Graduate degrees such as a Master of Business Administration in sustainability may be preferred for consultants and those in leadership positions. The credentials will depend on the requirements of the job and the level of the post, i.e., whether it’s entry-level, managerial or at the C-suite level.

Some potential degrees that may help you on your journey to becoming a sustainability consultant include:

3 Steps to Becoming a Sustainability Consultant

Each person’s path to becoming a sustainability specialist is different, but these are common steps many people take. It’s not necessarily a straight line, but a journey of self-discovery formed by your background, experience and career interests.

  1. Embrace your passion

    Sustainability consultants tend to be passionate about driving change in organizations and communities. Start small, with a sustainability effort where you live, work or learn and build from there.

  2. Deepen your knowledge

    Sustainability consultants may become involved in law, business, economics, management processes and public policy as well as environmental and technical fields. Seek opportunities to build your knowledge and skills so you’re prepared to deal with the depth and breadth of the issues that interest you.

  3. Put your skills to work

    Look for opportunities to hone your skills with volunteer work, internships or by adding sustainability activities to your current position. Some programs include a capstone project partnering with an organization that could lead to a job.

3 Skills That Sustainability Consultants Use Every Day

Like many endeavors, some skills may help you succeed at the job of sustainability consulting. While these skills may assist you on your journey, they don’t guarantee that you’ll get a job. Working as a sustainability consultant is a combination of training, curiosity and soft skills.

1. Technical skills

Depending on the situation and setting, a sustainability consultant may use knowledge about energy efficiency, public policy, climate change, waste management and recycling, and sustainability analysis. While a consultant may specialize in one area, it may be helpful to have a broad knowledge of a variety of sustainability processes and outcomes.

2. Persuasive communication

Improving an organization’s sustainability may require developing plans and strategies and implementing new ideas. It may be important that a consultant can effectively encourage support and participation from an array of stakeholders, including employees, customers, regulators and the public.

3. Change management

Sustainability may require changing the way organizations think and work. The greatest ideas in the world won’t matter if the organization doesn’t put them in place and understand the value for them and the planet. A successful consultant may need to be a good project manager as well as a technical expert.

Why Become a Sustainability Consultant?

Many people are attracted to jobs in sustainability because they have a passion for preserving the environment and using current resources to meet society’s needs without compromising future resources. “A job in sustainability encompasses the concept of stewardship—the responsible management of resources. Sustainability professionals seek to improve an organization’s environmental, social and economic impact,” wrote James Hamilton in an article for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

While the BLS no longer tracks green jobs as a category, the outlook for sustainability professions is positive as businesses can benefit from enacting green practices. Becoming a sustainability specialist may help more businesses commit to making these changes.

A career in sustainability allows one to help organizations redefine their approach to success. The goal is not only financial reward but also creating value for all stakeholders, including employees, shareholders, supply chains, society and the planet. The allure of sustainability is that it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also good business.

Sustainability Consulting Careers and Salary

While the BLS does not track sustainability jobs as a whole, and therefore there is no clearly defined sustainability consultant salary, it does provide information on fields related to becoming a sustainability specialist. All of this salary information is based on May 2020 data from the BLS.

Environmental Science & Protection Technician Salary
Typical entry-level education: associate degree
Median annual wage: $46,850

Management Analyst Salary
Typical entry-level education: bachelor’s degree
Median annual wage: $87,660

Political Scientist Salary
Typical entry-level education: master’s degree
Median annual wage: $125,350

Natural Science Manager Salary
Typical entry-level education: bachelor’s degree
Median annual wage: $137,940

The field of sustainability consulting offers lots of opportunities for people with a passion and the purpose to pursue it. Sustainability careers encompass a multidisciplinary field with opportunities for people with scientific and technical backgrounds as well as managerial and process-oriented experiences. Sustainability consultants help organizations improve their operations and at the same time preserve natural resources for current and future generations, so the work can be rewarding on many levels.

Last Updated February 2021