Skills for Sustainability Professionals

In response to a growing need to move the world toward sustainable development and sustainable practices, a whole new professional track has emerged in the last decade. In 2010, the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP)—the professional association that serves the needs of people working in this field—undertook a research study to answer the question, "What should a sustainability professional know how to do?" What we learned should inform everyone entering and working in this field. The study surveyed about 400 professionals, most of whom were actively engaged in helping organizations implement the principles of sustainability. The heart of the survey focused on the challenges organizations were facing and the technical and "soft" skills that sustainability professionals need to address these challenges. The side bar summarizes the findings, and the full study can be downloaded at here. The results of the study led ISSP to these conclusions:

  • There is still a need for being able to explain sustainability in business terms and to craft a financial rationale for sustainability efforts. Building the case for sustainability is important not only to garner the support of leadership in an organization but also to manage the long-term roll out of projects and initiatives in a way that returns the best value to organizations.
  • Systems thinking is critical to the application of sustainability principles to daily operations within an organization. Most initiatives cross traditional functional areas and require a whole systems view to both understand the interplay of processes and identify intervention strategies for best results.
  • Skills for managing organizational change initiatives are imperative. These skills include communicating with stakeholder groups, developing comprehensive sustainability plans, managing complex projects, motivating teams, holding them accountable for results and keeping sustainability initiatives strategically positioned in the organization.

    Along with others at ISSP, I helped develop a professional certificate program based on these findings. This program, and others like it, can go a long way toward developing the necessary competence and professionalism to build this field. Admittedly, the field is still emerging, the issues are evolving and the challenges continue to multiply, which means that training and education must continually adjust to keep pace.

    I see a growing need for both sustainability generalists who can steward efforts for a community or organization and specialists that focus on particular project efforts. These specialty areas include greenhouse gas accounting, climate action planning, life cycle assessing and sustainability auditing and reporting. New certifications are emerging to bring consistency to the profession and help organizations understand what they should be looking for when hiring professionals.

    The mission of ISSP is to "make sustainability standard practice." Until that goal is reached, there will be a demand for professionals who can shepherd the biggest transformation of the century. As sustainability professionals, it will be our challenge to keep our skills honed and up to date and continue to innovate strategies that will help us get there.

    Contributor's Biography

    Marsha Willard is Executive Director of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, a published author on the subject of sustainability and adjunct faculty member for the Presidio Graduate School and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.