The Importance of the Field of Sustainability: Hands holding a succulent in dirt

The Importance of the Field of Sustainability

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Sustainability, was once defined by the United Nations in 1987 as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This field as a whole is of immense importance in ensuring that the negative impact that humans can have on the environment is reduced or counteracted in some way. Without any type of sustainability measures in place, humans would have had a much larger negative impact on the environment, as well as on themselves.

Historical Importance

The sustainability movement at large arose primarily in response to smoke pollution levels increasing during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Coal consumption increased drastically during this time, which led to a corresponding drastic increase in air pollution. This increase in air pollution levels led to the observation of an increase in respiratory illness and death rates in areas that burned more coal (Kiger, 2023). The overall increase in air pollution eventually led to environmental sustainability-focused laws eventually passing, such as Britain’s Alkali Acts in 1863. Fast-forwarding to nearly a century later, a 1956 New York Times article outlined the effects of human-generated gas in the atmosphere, predicting that it would have a profound impact on our climate (Kaempffert, 1956), meaning that the continued damage observed from pollution remained an issue many years after the initial industrial revolution period. Environmental sustainability continues to be vitally important to this day, with the continued impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate and our health, as outlined in the more recent 2018 National Geographic article (Revkin, 2018). Flooding, droughts, and fires continue to be influenced by the greenhouse effect to be more impactful and more common than they would otherwise have been. As described by Tia Bogos in her EnvironBuzz article “Breathe Easy: Unveiling the Link Between Climate Change and Rising Allergy Rates”, there is an observed relationship between climate change and the worsening of allergies as well as the lengthening of allergy seasons. This is primarily due to the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which plants typically use as part of photosynthesis, leading to increases in pollen count, and earlier blooming, lengthening allergy seasons. 

There is certainly an ongoing push and effort to improve practices to become more sustainable, in the form of laws passed by individual governments (such as the Clean Air Act passed in the USA in 1970), the results of United Nations conferences, as well as efforts by individual companies and charities (such as the Plumage League back in 1889, the Coal Smoke Abatement Society in 1898, and much more recently, companies like EnvironFocus and SCAN). Since sustainability is so important, a corresponding increase in research surrounding sustainability has been seen over time. Based on a literature review and subsequent survey conducted by Lozano & Haartman that involved 108 respondents, about 8 primary categories of factors driving sustainability were identified (Lozano & Haartman, 2018), including “internal drivers” such as economic and cultural drivers, “connecting drivers” such as crises and markets, and “external drivers” such as stakeholder pressure and collaboration and awareness. In a small survey run by EnvironFocus, most companies implemented various sustainability-oriented practices (including recycling and waste reduction practices, and employee engagement in sustainability initiatives), due to a variety of reasons, primarily due to concern for the environment, but also due to other factors such as the cost savings associated with these measures, complying with regulations, and improving brand reputation. A primary reason indicated for not implementing more initiatives was cost restraints, indicating that while certain types of sustainability initiatives are also cost-saving, some are costly and need additional funding so more companies can become more sustainable. In particular, a majority of companies who responded to the survey indicated that government funding would be helpful in implementing additional sustainability initiatives.

Types of Employment Opportunities

Due to the importance and relevance of this field at large, there is a corresponding need for people to work in sustainability. LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Green Skills report showed that there has been an increase in listings for jobs relating to climate change by 8% every year for the past five years. This demonstrates that this is a growing industry that may have demand that outpaces the available workers that can fill these positions, and in fact, this need for “green talent” is outlined in the LinkedIn report. As you can see in the Venn diagram, the sustainability space has a major intersection between several fields, since there are many areas in which sustainability can be relevant.

A Venn diagram showing the intersection of three circles, labelled "Government & Policy", Research & Solutions", and "Social Enterprise & Business". Within each circle and overlapping area are fields that belong in each area within the sustainability space. An overarching title reads "The Sustainability Space"

(Image retrieved from Medium.com)

Within the sustainability field, there seem to be two primary career paths – one being sustainability professionals and the other for sustainability consultants. People of varying backgrounds can follow either path, but as a general trend, those following the former are more likely to have business and public administration. Those on the latter path are more likely to hold a degree in physical or life sciences, engineering, or natural resources and conservation. Additionally, about 50% of sustainability professionals work at government or not-for-profit organizations, while the remaining 50% work at private companies. Many different fields can incorporate sustainability into their practices, and consequently, there are job titles relating to sustainability in different fields, requiring varied backgrounds. For example, someone with a background in Chemistry could be an environmental chemist or an expert technologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. Someone with a background in Accounting could be an assurance manager in climate change and sustainability services. This means that sustainability-focused work can be done by anyone, regardless of their background! A common role in the sustainability field is a “sustainability specialist”, which (according to Eco.ca) typically involves conducting online research, calculating energy consumption for manufacturing specific products and presenting findings to clients, upper management, or regulatory officials.

Closing Thoughts

Sustainability has been of the utmost importance for a long time, and increasingly so in the modern day, as human consumption of the world’s resources and the corresponding production of harmful byproducts (such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) is causing detrimental effects to the planet and to our health. Changes to improve sustainability can be expensive, but some identifiable drivers can be targeted to motivate companies to choose more sustainable practices. The social push for sustainability is one motivator that pushes companies to incorporate sustainable practices, as it improves their brand image, making the brand values align better with their consumers. Government funding is another way that companies can be motivated to choose sustainable practices, as it removes the negative impact that sustainable practices can have in terms of the monetary cost to the company. Due to the rapid growth of the sustainability industry, there is an increase in the number of jobs posted yearly that seems to be outgrowing the number of workers available to fill those spaces. Sustainability is a broad field that has space and the need to accommodate employees from all different backgrounds to work toward solving issues associated with environmental damage.

References

Careers in the environment, climate change | Undergraduate Programs. (2024, April 16). Undergraduate Programs. https://uwaterloo.ca/future-students/missing-manual/careers/careers-environment-sustainability-and-climate-change

Eco_Author. (2014, September 4). 5 Things you’ve wanted to know about sustainability careers. ECO Canada. https://eco.ca/blog/5-things-youve-wanted-to-know-about-sustainability-careers/

Kaempffert, W. (1956). Warmer climate on the Earth may be due to more carbon dioxide in the air. Science in Review. https://web.archive.org/web/20190129233827/https://static01.nyt.com/packages/pdf/weekinreview/warm1956.pdf

Kiger, P. J. (2023, August 9). 7 Negative effects of the Industrial Revolution. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/industrial-revolution-negative-effects

Lozano, R., & Haartman, R. (2018). Reinforcing the Holistic Perspective of Sustainability: Analysis of the Importance of Sustainability Drivers in Organizations. Corporate Social-Responsibility and Environmental Management, 25(4), 508–522. https://doi.org/10.1002/csr.1475

Revkin, A. (2018, June 21). Climate change first became news 30 years ago. why haven’t we fixed it? National Geographic. https://web.archive.org/web/20200114221303/https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/07/embark-essay-climate-change-pollution-revkin/

United Nations. (n.d.). Sustainability | United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/sustainability

About Post Author

Aliyah Knetsch

Aliyah is a fourth year BSc Psychology student at the University of Waterloo, and she is a Research Assistant with EnvironFocus.
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