9 key tips for building a career in sustainability

Published by Net Impact Amsterdam on

Written by:
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
Head of Engagement, Net Impact Amsterdam

According to LinkedIn, this year the number of sustainability professionals in Europe has grown 13%. When it comes to sustainability careers, Amsterdam is rated number three in Europe, behind only Stockholm and Helsinki.

More and more professionals are answering the call to use their talent to drive positive impact in the world. Following through on this ambition, though, can be overwhelming and you are likely to face a lot of competition.

So how to set yourself up for success?

Following our ‘Impact from Home’ interview with sustainability executive recruitment firm, Acre (you can watch the recording on our YouTube channel), we have put together this list of 9 tips for anyone considering a career in sustainability… 

1. Be specific on your area of impact by identifying how you can add value and expertise

Ten years ago there were only a handful of generic sustainability jobs available. Now, it is much more nuanced. Sustainability cuts across all levels of a business, reaching the C-Suite and governing board. Jobs can range from marketing, to procurement, and everything in between. 

Ask yourself, what are you good at and what skills can you contribute to the field? We do not all need to be doing the same thing. Scientists, data analysts, executives, lawyers, project managers, etc., all have a role to play. Think about your specific value and how it can be applied to sustainability. For example, what challenges or red tape that businesses experience when steering towards sustainability that you might be able to help solve with your skills?

Second, consider the area of sustainability that appeals to you. Are you interested in helping a company be a force for good? Are you interested in ensuring sustainable financial flows? Do you want to work with a non-profit organization or influence the government through policy? Consider what you’re passionate about, your personal and professional values, and where you think you will thrive.

This may be the most overwhelming part of your journey in sustainability, but this deep dive is critical. It will help you develop a cohesive and logical narrative to showcase your passion to recruiters and hiring managers.

2. Showcase both your technical and soft skills

Sustainability is a quickly evolving field and, as such, an employer will be looking for someone with a growth mindset and an ear to the ground. Are you adaptable and willing to learn?

It’s important not to rely on your technical skills alone, but to also showcase your knowledge of the business and commercial acumen (more on that later). You must be able to work cohesively across teams, levels of seniority and culture. You must have the personality to drive change through others, be persuasive, influential and innovative. By marrying your technical ability with emotional intelligence, you will stand out to any hiring manager. 

More and more, we see that creating impact involves complex problem solving, being able to think holistically about a problem and consider all externalities. It’s a purpose-driven profession that needs purpose-driven people.

3. Articulate your value through specific outcomes and results of your previous work

Have the technical and transferable skill set but still not getting an interview? Perhaps you need to look more closely at your resume. Every line in your CV is valuable. Each one should be tailored to the job that you are applying for and aligned with the language of the job advertisement. This will help you survive the Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) that many organizations use to screen candidates.

Build credibility by connecting each skill that you showcase with a specific outcome, result or metric from your previous experience. Don’t make the reader search for what is valuable (because they won’t!). Explicitly highlight the connections between your previous experience and how it may be relevant to the current opening.

With the growing interest in sustainability, the number of applicants per open position is growing, so it is critical that you make the employer’s job easy. On average, an employer spends 6 second reading a resume. What information will jump out at them during this time?

4. Be aware of sustainability hiring trends

Are you searching for an outdated sustainability role or are you following the hiring trends and seeing where sustainability is headed?

According to LinkedIn, the top 10 ‘green job’ industries in Europe for 2020 are: environmental services, renewables and environment, architecture and planning, civil engineering, utilities, international affairs, farming, think tanks, public safety, and research. Use this insight to help you find companies of interest and keep on top of open positions. 

Acre’s Caitlin Murrell suggests that more roles will become available dealing with public disclosure and reporting, circular economy and, most recently, biodiversity or nature-based solutions. Many companies are still uncertain what it means to invest time and resources in these areas and what a position would look like. You can use this as an opportunity to showcase your expertise and help them create more impact. Approach companies and employees with the mindset of how you can help them, rather than how they can help you.

5. Build your reputation

Position yourself as an expert and articulate your expertise online where recruiters and hiring managers can find you.

This can be in the form of LinkedIn blogs or opinion pieces on areas of sustainability that interest you and align with your career goals. Remember point number 2 about technical and soft skill sets? We talked about being persuasive, influential and driving change through others. What better way to showcase this than by creating articles that inspire others and spark conversation.

When using LinkedIn, be mindful of your activity and that it represents your personal brand. Each comment, link and article that you share is an opportunity to showcase your value. The more active you are, the more your activity will be visible to other LinkedIn users.

Establishing your reputation keeps you on top of mind when a position opens and makes it an easy decision for employers to invite you for interviews.

6. Consider courses and certifications that can address skill gaps

Experience will always trump certification when it comes to finding a new job. But there are many online courses and certifications that can help to address skills gaps, showcase your interest in the field, build commercial acumen, and provide you with critical knowledge to make your new career successful. 

Here are a few paid courses and certifications that we recommend looking into:

Of course EdX, Coursera and other free, online educational platforms have excellent courses to give you a background in the basics from anything around topics like circular economy to regenerative agriculture.

There are also quite a few books on the topic of sustainability to help you think more strategically about how to make an impact in your future company:

  • The Sustainable MBA: A Business Guide to Sustainability by Giselle Weybrecht
  • Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations by Timothy Mohin
  • Winning Sustainability Strategies by B. Leleux and J. van de Kaaij
  • Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth
  • You can also find Net Impact Amsterdam’s Winter Reading List here (with some overlap)

7. Understand the language of the business

Ultimately, the research you will be doing for your new career, through online or offline education, will help you to understand the language of the business and engage in meaningful conversations with sustainability professionals. Interest in sustainability is a baseline requirement for any job candidate nowadays. It’s important that you can go beyond the superficial.

Each sector has its own vernacular and set of acronyms, and most professionals don’t realize when they speak that it can sound like complete gibberish to someone that is not well read in the field. 

Be the person who is up-to-speed on the industry jargon to be able to hold your own in the conversation. Specifically, do your research on a few organizations that are of interest to you. Learn about their pain points, their goals and their vision. You will then be able to articulate how your skills can be of value to them and hold interesting debates around a growing and expanding field. 

8. Engage with recruiters hiring in sustainability-specific sectors and positions

Recruiters are gatekeepers to sustainability careers. Engaging with them professionally and courteously is not just a nice thing to do, but is a smart career move. If a recruiter reaches out to you with an opportunity, whether or not it is of interest to you, take the time to respond (even if it’s to tell them you’re not pursuing other career opportunities right now — because you might be later). 

Nurturing these connections and not burning bridges will come in handy when an opportunity of interest does come around. Be prepared to tell your story to them in a succinct and engaging way. 

9. Network, Network, Network

The most important, yet often overlooked, part of your job search is networking. 

Building relationships with other sustainability professionals is the best thing you can do to drive your career forward. You will get insight into careers, company culture and work environments that are simply unattainable by simply researching online. Your network can also act as vital referrals to bypass the initial screenings.

The key is building a relationship. It always add value when you reach out to someone for the first time that you tailor the message. Do not send generic LinkedIn requests or overwhelm the new connection with too many questions. Find the right balance. Relationships need time and nurturing. 

Wondering where you can find a network of sustainability professionals to interact with?
Join Net Impact Amsterdam for free and we can guarantee that your networking will thrive. Our members are friendly, inclusive and always willing to have a chat about all things related to sustainability.