Career Coaching Series: What certification should I get if I want to work in sustainability?
October 12, 2021
By Trish Kenlon
This is the number one question I get asked by job seekers, hands down. And I know everyone hates it when I have to respond with “it depends”—but it really, truly does!
Which of these 25+ sustainability certifications is right for you?
The 2020 GreenBiz State of the Profession Report included a fantastic chart titled “Percentage of survey respondents having received training or certification,” which showed the following breakdown:
- 53% GRI
- 26% Other
- 23% LEED AP
- 22% LEED GA
- 18% University-based Certification Program
- 17% SASB
- 8% ISSP
So, if you were going to pick a certification out of a hat, it might be a pretty safe bet to go out and get GRI, or maybe some form of LEED. But perhaps you’ve noticed that the second most popular certification was “Other,” or that GRI was the only named certification to get more than 25 percent? That should tell you that there are no easy answers here and that there is no one-size-fits-all certification for sustainability professionals.
Use a certification to bridge any skill set gaps
Take a close look at the job descriptions that excite you. What subject matter expertise or certifications do the job descriptions call for? Talk to people who are already doing the type of work you want to do. What training do they have? What frameworks and tools do they use? That research should help you identify what certifications might make you a more competitive candidate.
Understanding the landscape of professional certifications in sustainability
The rest of this article will list almost 30 certifications for practitioners, categorized by type. Put another way, these certifications demonstrate that you, as a person, have a specific skill or knowledge set.
The list does not include certifications for products (like FSC) or companies (like B Corp), graduate programs, university-based certificates, or professional training that does not earn a credential (I have some great suggestions for that in this article and in the Training section of the Education page).
General sustainability and climate change professional certifications: The ISSP and ACCO certifications are well-respected programs that provide the opportunity to demonstrate that you are a sustainability professional capable of performing sustainability strategy and implementation work across multiple functions, industries, and regions. Both organizations offer programs for young professionals or those new to sustainability.
The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP)
- Sustainability Excellence Associate (SEA) for early and mid-career professionals
- Sustainability Excellence Professional (SEP) for advanced professionals
The Association of Climate Change Officers (ACCO)
Sustainability reporting certifications
The corporate sustainability reporting landscape is changing fast. In September 2020, five of the leading reporting groups (CDP, CDSB, GRI, IIRC, and SASB) issued a statement of intent to work together to create a comprehensive global corporate reporting system. A mere two months later, IIRC and SASB announced an intent to merge to become the Value Reporting Foundation.
My advice to people who want to pursue a reporting certification is to do your own research on each of the leading frameworks and standards to see if any of them resonate with you, ask practitioners in the industry that you’d like to work in what frameworks they use, and decide that way. If you later find out that you need to know a specific framework for a particular role, you can learn it on the job or through a training program at that time. Here are additional available certifications:
- The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Professional Certification
- The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) Fundamentals of Sustainability Accounting Credential
- CDP Climate Change Survey Certification
- Integrated Reporting <IR> Fundamentals of Integrated Reporting Certificate
The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) does not offer a formal certification program but there are TCFD e-learning courses available on the TCFD Knowledge Hub.
Green building certifications
Green building certifications are of most value to people whose work will focus on building design, construction, or retrofitting, such as designers and architects. That said, the built environment is a huge component of environmental impact for many organizations, so those hoping to work in sustainability strategy or program management may find this training beneficial as well.
U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
- LEED Green Associate for those newer to sustainability and LEED
- LEED AP with specialty for individuals actively working on green building and LEED projects and those who wish to demonstrate expertise with a specific LEED rating system
Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes Certification
- Green Globes Emerging Professional (GGEP) for college students and early career professionals
- Green Globes Professional (GGP) for professionals with at least five years of experience in the design and construction phases of green building
International Living Future Institute (ILFI)’s Living Building Challenge
Living Future Accreditation (LFA) demonstrates proficiency in ILFI’s certification programs and understanding of leading-edge regenerative design philosophy
Certifications related to energy for the built environment
These certifications are of most value to people whose work will focus on energy in buildings and/or renewable energy procurement. As with the green building certifications, those hoping to work in sustainability strategy or program management may find this training helpful as well.
The Association of Energy Engineers (AEE)
The AEE offers dozens of certifications around energy management, sustainable development, and utility services for the commercial, industrial, institutional, governmental, energy services, and utility sectors.
Certified Energy Manager (CEM) – this is the AEE signature certification and serves as the basis for many other certifications. Training for this certification teaches candidates how to implement energy management strategies for a building or portfolio of buildings
If you have been working in sustainability for even a small amount of time, you already know that the scope of topics that could fall under the term “sustainability” is virtually limitless.
As a result, there are also endless possibilities for training and certification in sustainability for different industries, issues, and disciplines. Here are several other notable professional certifications that don’t fall neatly into one of the categories above:
- International Supply Chain Education Alliance Certified Supply Chain Analyst
- Global Association of Risk Professionals (GARP) Sustainability and Climate Risk (SCR) Certificate
- The American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA) Life Cycle Assessment Certified Professional (LCACP)
- TRUE program for zero waste certification TRUE Advisor Certificate Program
- The CFA Institute Certificate in ESG Investing
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation Circular Economy Pioneer Program
- Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) AWS Professional (Foundation, Advanced, and Specialist levels)
- The World Bank City Climate Planner (CCP) Certificate Program
- Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (civil infrastructure) Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP)
- The Events Industry Council Sustainable Event Professional Certificate
- Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Green Roof Professional (GRP) Accreditation
- The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Institute for Sustainability (IfS) AIChE Credential for Sustainability Professionals (ACSP)
- GreenBiz Leadership Development Leading the Sustainability Transformation Professional Certification Program
Join the conversation!
What certifications do you have or intend to pursue? Did this article help you find a new certification to consider? What’s missing? For more perspectives on certifications, join the conversation on LinkedIn and keep an eye on this blog for more advice on careers in sustainability.
Trish Kenlon coaches Virginia Tech students on effective resume development. She is the founder of Sustainable Career Pathways, a popular website and sustainability career coaching service. Her practice focuses on helping graduate students and mid-career professionals with transitioning into roles in the sustainability space. She is a frequent contributor of career expertise to the Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps community, and has been featured on several podcasts, including "Sustainability Defined" and "Degrees” with Yesh Pavlik Slenk.