The Difficulties of Doing Sustainability

By Chris Barton, Co-Editor

Late last year, I was invited to participate in a workshop hosted by my Alma Mater, ASU’s School of Sustainability (SOS). The workshop brought together people who had, in various ways, proven their chops as sustainability professionals and ‘change agents,’ and our goal was to bring our collective expertise and brainpower to bear on a simple question: What does it take to ‘do’ sustainability? And how can we educate people to do it well?

The results were released this week, and they are worth checking out if you are interested in building sustainability into your professional career (extra points to anyone who can spot my head in one of the pictures). The results confirmed the effectiveness and importance of a sustainability education, but they also highlighted its biggest limitation: no one is willing to pay sustainability practitioners to do what they’ve been trained to do.

The hard-won working definition of sustainability. You can see why explaining how you 'do' this professionally can get tricky courtesy

The hard-won working definition of sustainability. The concept is nebulous, but the skills required to achieve it are actually pretty concrete.

On one hand, the results confirmed that the educational paradigm under which ASU’s School of Sustainability operates is valid. The learning outcomes that they pursue–systems, futures, values, and strategic thinking, as well as interpersonal skills–are, in fact, the necessary skills for doing transformative sustainability work. There was some debate about which were more important than others, and whether it was possible to use one skill without necessarily invoking the others, but everyone agreed that the literature was accurate: these are the necessary skills. This is good news, since anything that helps us pin down sustainability into a universally understood concept benefits both the discipline and its practitioners. It’s important to be able to explain what ‘doing’ sustainability entails.

But, on the other hand, “while there was a clear consensus on the importance of the key competencies in the success of a graduate as a change agent, there was little agreement that it would sufficiently support their employability.” This comes as no great surprise to SOS’s alumni, who, almost in our entirety, are employed in jobs that are (at best) only tangentially about doing sustainability. This unfortunate fact is the inexhaustible subject of our gripes when we meet at the bar, the content of many of our interactions with our alma mater, and the cause of our innumerable existential crises. Still, it was nice to see our plight confirmed in an actual publication.

But beyond being existentially frustrating, our unemployability is also profoundly annoying, as our services are more in demand than ever. Most companies and countries at least play lip service to sustainability, both by using the word itself and by invoking sustainability’s goals (economic stability, social justice, and environmental conservation); and an increasingly large number or organizations do take sustainability seriously as a core function of their operations. Yet, so-called ‘sustainability’ positions are mostly occupied by people who are not trained sustainability professionals. Part of this is simply the novelty of the discipline (sustainability programs have only been around for a decade or so), but organizations also tend to internally promote people to sustainability positions rather than hire new talent. They don’t seem to understand the main idea behind the workshop: that sustainability is a distinct discipline that requires a unique skillset. We sustainability people can’t help but see internal promotions as misguided – it’s as if these organizations realized they needed an engineer, and then promoted someone from the HR department into the position. Of course the job isn’t being done right – the people doing it don’t have the training.

The process for doing sustainability. Notice the lack of  (Wiek et al, 2011)

The process model for doing sustainability, intertwined with the 5 competencies.
(Wiek et al, 2011)

It’s not that no one ever gets hired to do sustainability. But those of us lucky enough to find ‘sustainability’ jobs often discover a profound disconnect between what the job actually entails and what, given their training, they feel should be done. It’s a common story to hear that someone in a ‘sustainability’ position is constrained to simply increasing plant efficiency, or working with the PR department to greenwash the company. Or–joy oh joy!–overseeing the office recycling program. Sometimes these limited positions even come with a decent paycheck and a fancy title–but rarely do they come with job fulfillment. These sorts of positions often result in an impossible choice: advance in your career and pursue sustainability in a superficial and ineffective way, or advocate for doing sustainability right and risk your position.

The workshop and the corresponding report allude to a fundamental tension that every sustainability professional must learn to navigate. I call it the ‘hippie effect:’ the fact that many people seem to imagine that a sustainability degree involves sitting in a circle, holding hands, and singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ for 4 years. What they don’t realize is that sustainability is an intellectually rigorous and conceptually demanding discipline that requires both a mental dynamism in order to navigate its transdisciplinary character and a creative flair in order to envision solutions. It’s a challenging field to play in, indicated by the fact that SOS has the highest admission requirements of any undergraduate program at ASU. Comparable programs at Duke, Columbia, and in Europe at Lund and Leuphana have similar curriculum and entry requirements.

The sheer amount of cheesy clip art infesting 'sustainability' pages probably doesn't help our image as a serious professional discipline.  Like, what does this even mean? courtesy

The sheer amount of cheesy clip art infesting ‘sustainability’ pages probably doesn’t help our image as a serious professional discipline.
Like, what does this even mean?

Our difficulties in communicating the rigour and depth of our sustainability training are exacerbated by the ‘tyranny of the drop-down menu.’ The problem here is trying to explain what it is we do using the functional categories that the job market has divided itself into. Many job boards and online applications have a drop-down menu titled “Functional Area,” or “Area of Experience,” which includes options such as ‘Finance,’ ‘Marketing,’ ‘Management,’ ‘IT,’ ‘Accounting,’ etc… but not sustainability. Sustainability, when done right, incorporates all of the functional areas in a holistic planning process; the best response to ‘Functional Area’ is simultaneously “all of the above” and “other.” Sustainability done right must be a distinct function within an organization, but one that is intertwined with every other functional area as well – a sustainability professional who ends up siloed in a single department has his or her hands tied. Sustainability is a new category of job function, and simply doesn’t fit into any of the traditional departments. I can say from experience that this is an incredibly difficult concept to try and explain to employers, especially those from larger organizations.

After an aspiring sustainability professional fails a few times to communicate what they do, a question starts to haunt the back corners of their minds: am I doing this wrong? Since my training isn’t getting me employed, can I even credibly claim that I know what I’m doing? SOS’s workshop results offer a kind of bittersweet validation: we’re doing it right, but the job market just isn’t ready for us, yet. So we might be vindicated, but we’re still unemployed.

Many of us, myself included, have decided that the best way forward is to disguise ourselves behind another discipline. For me, its management: employers may not know what to think of a Bachelors in Sustainability, but a Master’s in Global Affairs and Management is much easier to grasp. I know many people who have Urban Planning of Supply Chain Management degrees for the same reason. We will always be, at our core, sustainability professionals. But if we must play another part in order to do our work, then so be it.

But we can hope that one day, the job market will recognize someone with a sustainability degree as a specialized and trained professional who can perform a vital and unique function within an organization. Hopefully one day people will be able to say with pride that they do sustainability, and be hired on that alone. But we’re not there yet.

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