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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Peak sustainability: the new normal?

If we are perceived as too expensive and damaging to society, how long before higher education starts to suffer the scrutiny and disdain society has shown towards previously favored industries gone bad?

 By Dave Newport

“I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught,” remarked Winston Churchill.

For instance, when it comes to sustainability, higher education sometimes discounts the sustainability lessons coming from the corporate world. Some academics are quick to point out the BP’s and Enrons of the world—and indict anything business does as avaricious and tainted. We can’t possibly learn anything about sustainability from them…

So, while I am brandishing quotes, it’s good to remember Harry Truman’s perspective that, “it's what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

For college students entering the workforce, they just want to learn if sustainability is the new normal in the corporate world. If so, what do I need to know to be employable?

An excellent recent report summarized the state of business-sustainability worldwide.

Bottom line for college grads: get a haircut and a suit. Corporate sustainability is rapidly evolving and they need you to be a broadly-skilled systems-thinker.

The report, The State of Green Business 2013, is compiled by respected journalist Joel Makower. It’s an interesting, well-researched report and I urge you to review it. In it, Makower summarizes ten business trends that all require new perspectives and new brains:

1.     Companies are taking stock of their natural capital.
2.     Sustainability is becoming a matter of risk & resilience
3.     Corporate sustainability reporting is becoming integrated into routine financials
4.     The “sharing” economy is off and running
5.     Commerce is increasingly relocalizing
6.     Machine-to-machine (M2M) is driving greener machines
7.     Sustainability Apps & online platforms are booming
8.     Investors are beginning to care about sustainability risks & benefits
9.     Companies are exceeding their sustainability goals. Now what?
10.  Peak sustainability: achievements up, but jobs down

Makower analyzes the strong and weak signals each of these trends is sending in the report. The last trend flows from a parallel analysis Makower’s reporting has unearthed: the number of new stand-alone, dedicated sustainability jobs in the corporate world peaked in 2009. Note that new jobs are still growing, just at a slower rate. Makower asks, "Have we passed peak sustainability?"


However, this may not be bad news; it may be part of a natural corporate process that embraces new opportunities first with singular focus but then integrates that practice across all jobs. So, while the growth of new “sustainability officers" in business is waning, the inclusion of sustainability-related principles and practices across all corporate jobs is up.

~ The sustainability officer as an endangered species? ~

At a conference last year, I was talking with a couple corporate social responsibility officers of major national brands. CSR is code for corporate sustainability. They disclosed their budgets for sustainability-related activities were increasingly being transferred into the company’s functional units when these programs were mature enough to demonstrate a relevant value proposition.

“Items listed as CSR in the budget shouldn’t be funded because those projects haven’t figured out how to make money yet,” one CSR director told me. “Real CSR stuff is part of everything we do, not a stand alone.”

What I was told maps to what Makower calls corporate “convergence.” According to Makower’s employment data:

“Over the past three years, we’ve seen a significant shift in the responsibilities and areas of functional oversight for sustainability leaders. Some vice presidents are witnessing a convergence of their responsibilities. For executives who have responsibility for at least one of the functions of environmental, health and safety (EHS) or corporate social responsibility (CSR), 44 percent have a combined responsibility for both departments. In 2010, only 24 percent had combined oversight for EHS and CSR.”

In a companion report published by, The State of the Sustainability Profession 2013, more detail emerges about convergence and what business is looking for—and paying for—in sustainability professionals.

It comes as no surprise that sustainability workers need broad skill sets. A diverse array of backgrounds, majors and minors inform sustainability careers in business, the report shows. However, business/management, engineering, and environmental studies were the top three. And the top thing sustainability professionals do in the corporate world is strategy development. Indeed, it’s all about systems-thinking; also known as convergence.

~ Take-aways for the academe ~

Convergence has some connotations for higher education too.

For instance, students interested in sustainability might want to think about beefing up their education by majoring in a traditional discipline along with a sustainability minor or certificate. For good measure and a dose of reality they might tack on some service/internships in relevant organizations that helps them hone their traditional vocation along with its sustainability implications. However, a straight-ahead “sustainability” degree—even if you can find one--may not be the best, most employable career path.

In light of the above, campuses might better serve their students by offering more industry-specific sustainability minors and certificates. Those are a lot easier to create—and potentially in more demand—than full up majors in sustainability.

Campuses might also think about the implications of increased investor understanding and scrutiny of sustainability risks in their portfolio. The academe has been loath to disclose or divest of unsustainable investments—but the pressure to do so will likely increase over time. Smart investment managers might think about how to get ahead of this trend.

It’s also possible that growth in new stand-alone campus sustainability departments has slowed and we also have seen a “peak sustainability” plateau that matches the corporate trend. This may be the trough between new waves or it may be permanent. Either way, it is clear that more campuses are asking more employees to be engaged in sustainability across the horizontal org chart. This is a good thing and may someday portend the extinction of the sustainability silo on campus as it becomes engrained in all job functions.

Campuses need to look at convergence another way as well: the convergence of sustainability as a challenge and opportunity across all disciplines and industry sectors. For instance, the emergence of the sharing economy, sustainability-apps, M2M, resilience, relocalization, and all the other new business trends are places where students need skills—and campuses need to integrate.

How many of our campuses, for instance, have adaptation plans for climate change? How many of us have integrated with emergency preparedness? How many have looked at our dependence on natural capital and identified future risks to our operations, supply chain, and consumer attitudes towards higher education? At risk here is something corporate execs worry about but we don’t so much: our moral/ethical license to operate. If we are perceived as too expensive and damaging to society, how long before higher education starts to suffer the scrutiny and disdain society has shown towards previously favored industries gone bad? Remember when tobacco was respected? Coal? Wall Street? Banks? Congress? OK, we will never get that bad…

~ Next? ~

If you are still in college, think about what you can learn now that goes to one or more of these trends. If you are a recent grad looking for a job, reframe and remanufacture your knowledge. Take some more courses, do internships. At a minimum read and talk to people. “Learn after you know it all.”

For the rest of us working in higher education, let’s continue to learn—and learn to like being taught.


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