Research tells us corporate sustainability can be both strategic and profitable to businesses. But how do employers actually implement effective sustainable business initiatives?
Creating value from sustainable management is not a quick and easy process. That’s why organizations need professionals who can thoughtfully develop and put into action sustainable initiatives that get results. The challenge is, finding professionals with the right set of skills and experience.
What Is Sustainable Management?
Sustainable management is the intersection of business and sustainability. It is the practice of managing a firm’s impact on the three bottom lines—people, planet, and profit—so that all three can prosper in the future. Sustainable management supports a business’s long-term viability, because it’s preventative rather than reactive. It can take many forms including investing in fair-trade products, reducing packaging materials, and ensuring humane working conditions at supplier factories.
A growing number of organizations from a wide range of industries (e.g. retail, food and beverage, agriculture, tech, insurance, automotive, military, healthcare, utility, and more) are pursuing sustainable management business goals. Because the organizations most often noted for their sustainable efforts are top global corporations, it’s easy to forget that smaller and more local companies are also focused on sustainability. Wisconsin-based companies such as American Family Insurance, Kohler, GE Healthcare, Oshkosh Corporation, Johnson Controls, Kohl’s Corporation, and Lands’ End have staff who support and contribute to sustainability goals that positively affect communities and the planet.
What Do Sustainable Managers Do?
Sustainable managers drive sustainable business efforts at their organizations. These professionals are long-term thinkers, agents of change, and ambassadors with vision. Depending on the size of the organization and their position, they may be responsible for:
- Ensuring compliance with environmental regulations
- Researching sustainable policies and initiatives
- Setting sustainability performance goals that are strategic and ambitious
- Proposing initiatives as well as the business case for sustainability to leadership
- Building awareness of sustainability programs within the company
- Project managing initiatives and leading a team that implements them
- Measuring and reporting the effectiveness of sustainable initiatives
Sustainable business leaders use a range of knowledge and abilities to do their jobs. First and foremost, they must be able to solve complex business problems, such as sustainable development, by applying systems thinking—or, analyzing whole systems by looking at how component parts of the system interact with each other. They also must understand basic economics, marketing, accounting, and law as well as how to assess and interpret social, scientific, and business-related information. Additionally, sustainable managers must be effective communicators and leaders, because they may lead a team; engage with varied departments, sites, and stakeholders; and present to diverse audiences.
Who Are Sustainable Managers?
Sustainable managers come from very diverse backgrounds. Since they need knowledge and skills in many subjects, including business strategy, economics, and environmental science, they may start out in a number of fields and industries.
Sustainability-related positions are new to the workplace, so no standard title exists for sustainable managers across industries. If you searched for how many full-time “sustainability” professionals exist, you’d find a relatively small number of high-ranking employees working at some of the largest corporations in the world. And they usually report directly to the CEO. If a professional’s sole responsibility is sustainable management, their title might be:
- Chief sustainability officer
- Global director of social and environmental affairs
- Head of sustainability
- VP of corporate responsibility
- Environmental program manager
Most professionals tasked with leading sustainable business initiatives take it on in addition to another role and may not have “sustainability” in their title at all. They might start with smaller projects, such as managing raw materials through a supply chain or helping their department go paperless, and grow their sustainability role from there. Some companies approach sustainability through risk management departments that have professionals dedicated to safety and environmental issues.
After gaining experience in sustainable management, some professionals receive title extensions. For example, UW Sustainable Management graduate Amy Glawe was a materials science lab manager. After graduating, her employer added sustainability manager to her title. Organizations tend to hire full-time sustainability professionals once they decide to formalize a sustainability strategy that will save money or otherwise benefit the company—and research shows these hires are usually internal. Sustainability professionals tend to move from departments such as external affairs, operations, research, marketing, or environment, health, and safety.
Finally, companies that want to reap the business benefits of sustainability need sustainably-minded personnel. A 2015 study stated that encouraging employees to support a culture of corporate sustainability is essential to maintaining its momentum, but in reality, it can be difficult and sometimes costly for organizations to gain that support. For that reason, professionals with existing knowledge of sustainable management—and who are willing to challenge the status quo—are invaluable to have on staff.
Find Your Future in Sustainable Management
There are more opportunities in sustainable management than you realize—even at your current workplace. Ask around. Are there full- or part-time positions dedicated to corporate sustainability? Sometimes, sustainable management professionals need to carve out roles for themselves. Would leadership support a pilot sustainable business initiative?
To get the real-world business skills you need for these kinds of positions and projects, you might consider earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Sustainable Management from University of Wisconsin. These online programs teach you how to help organizations make smart, responsible decisions that will be good for business long-term.
See the careers outlook for sustainable management professionals.
University of Wisconsin offers online bachelor’s and master’s degrees and certificates in Sustainable Management. Start your journey here.
Have questions about University of Wisconsin Sustainable Management? Contact an adviser at 1-877-895-3276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.