Sustainability Books for Your Career Search
As a career coach specializing in the sustainability field, I often talk to people who are looking for advice on how to land a job that will make a difference for the future of our planet. Many of these conversations are with the graduate students at the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), where I consult, and where I earned my Executive Master’s and developed a deeper understanding of sustainability issues and careers.
There are lots of books related to green careers and sustainability—how to get a job in a sustainability field, applying sustainability principles to business, etc. And there are books dedicated to a particular sustainability subject (e.g., plastics, climate, food). This post is about career books. Below are recommendations of four books, with summaries to help you decide which one you want to read first.
Profession and Purpose: A resource guide for MBA careers in sustainability, by Katie Kross (2009; 2017 update)
Profession and Purpose, while geared toward MBA students and graduates, can be useful to non-MBAs as well. It includes information and tips on different career paths in fields such as corporate social responsibility, consulting, energy, real estate, NGOs, and investing. For each of these fields, Ms. Kross includes keywords that you can use in your job searches, a list of potential employers, skills needed, examples of actual roles at specific companies, and key resources. She then explains what the career paths might entail and includes tips on how to go about the job search. For each career path she includes a profile of an MBA alum who has acquired a job in that particular career, or multiple profiles. An entire section of the book is focused on job search resources, including advice on how to identify sustainable companies, news and blog websites, job posting websites, books, and events.
The book includes two frameworks to narrow your job search:
1. By functional discipline: Whether you are interested in strategy, finance and accounting, marketing, operations, supply chain, or general management, this book includes a chart outlining disciplines and the potential sustainability careers within each. It also includes a table of actual positions at organizations in each discipline, which can serve as a helpful guide to navigating organizational structures.
2) By organization and role: Once you identify the functional discipline(s) that interest you the most, think about the role and type of organization where you’d apply those skills. Ms. Kross provides a useful matrix with four quadrants: traditional roles in traditional companies/organizations; sustainability roles in traditional companies/organizations; traditional roles in sustainability-focused companies/organizations; and sustainability roles in sustainability-focused companies/organizations.
Tailoring the Green Suit: Empowering yourself for an executive career in the new green economy, by Dan Smolen (2011)
Even if you’re not at the executive level, it offers information you may find useful, such as the history of the green economy and how to incorporate environmentally preferable practices in your personal life.
As with other sustainability careers books, Tailoring the Green Suit starts by defining what a green job is. For the purposes of this book, it is a job at a company that has a positive impact on the triple bottom line, that has good corporate governance practices, and that encourages green business training and education, among other qualities. The author breaks these jobs into “obvious green business executive jobs” (those with direct impact on the environment or a company’s environmental policy, such as sustainability officers, environmental engineers, environmental attorneys, climatologists, renewable energy managers, environmental scientists, or urban planners, to name a few) and “not-so-obvious green business executive jobs” (jobs at companies that at first glance may not seem to be green, but that have sustainability practices in place that positively impact the triple bottom line).
Mr. Smolen sets out steps for moving into a new career, including getting an advanced degree, updating your resume, and working with an executive recruiter. He also touches on personal branding and expertise, including speaking and writing about green business topics, mentoring others, and taking steps in your personal life to be more green. He provides ideas for executives to establish their green cred within their current businesses, such as by developing sustainability programs and encouraging environmentally-friendly commuting options. The book finishes with a chapter on starting your own green business with a handful of suggestions to get you thinking.
Sustainability at Work: Careers that make a difference, by Marilyn Waite (2017)
This book provides in-depth information on important aspects of sustainability and sustainable development. It also helps those who want to know how they can incorporate sustainability considerations into their current (or future) role. Ms. Waite’s book is organized by sector (e.g., health care, law, economics, education). She describes each sector, the different roles within each sector, and how to incorporate sustainability considerations into those roles. Ms. Waite evaluates careers in each sector using her SURF framework: considerations related to supply chain, users, internal and external relationships, and future generations.
Ms. Waite clearly has done significant research. She has traveled to distant parts of the globe to meet with and interview people in sustainability careers, whose stories she includes in the book. She shows her research at the end of each chapter with a thorough list of resources and references. She also includes practical tips for professionals in each sector, including reference guides to be familiar with, professional networks to join, conferences to attend, and publications to read and contribute to. She also educates the reader on sustainability terminology, frameworks, standards, and guidelines.
Sustainability Jobs: The complete guide to landing your dream job, by Kevin Wilhelm (2016)
This is a very practical how-to-get-a-career-in-sustainability book. It has six sections, some with accompanying worksheets.
Who are you and what you want. This chapter covers your inventory of needs and wants, your networks, and identifying your next step. It helps you think through ways of getting experience, in your current position or through volunteering, that will make you more competitive in the job market.
Exploring your options. This covers how to create your own position and how to make the business case for sustainability. Mr. Whilhelm’s approach is to inventory your skills and then layer sustainability on top of that. For instance, if you are in finance: What relevant skills do you have? Then, consider how to bring your expertise to the sustainability realm. Businesses need finance, legal, marketing, etc. specialists, and if you understand sustainability you can differentiate yourself.
Target your job search. Narrow the job search by eliminating possibilities and really focusing your search. This section also covers setting a schedule and timeline for your search. It includes developing a list of companies and positions that are right for you, by creating keywords for job searching, finding companies that interest you and following them, and finding contacts at those companies. Finally, it advises figuring out what skills you may lack and developing a plan to get them.
Tailor your resume. This section provides tips, and examples of a good resume, a bad resume, and a bad cover letter. Some tips worth mentioning: List only up to six skills, and make sure those are your best ones. Put relevant experience at the top, even if it’s not the most recent. The top third of your resume is most important. Three or four bullets for each position on your resume is enough.
Execution. Networking is how to get it done. This section is the longest of the book, which makes sense given that most jobs are not posted publicly and instead come from someone in your network.
Interviewing and informational interviews. This section includes a checklist for preparing for an interview, and how to address tough questions such as explaining your weaknesses or non-paid work experience.
Finally, the book includes resources, including a list of books to read and advice from individuals in sustainability careers.
Whether you read one or all of these books, each provides useful insights into the variety of careers related to sustainability, and considerations for getting one of those positions. For more sustainability careers and professional development blog posts, check out the Green Careers section of the CLiGS site.
For more than 15 years, Jennifer Wills has been advising and problem-solving with clients to reach their goals. She’s been an attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a Brookings Fellow on Capitol Hill. She teaches International Environmental Law and Policy in the Online MNR program and is a 2017 graduate of the XMNR program. Wanting to have an even greater impact in the field of sustainability and to help others succeed, Jennifer started her coaching business for environmental and sustainability professionals.