If you have an interest in sustainability, environmental issues, or climate change, and have asked yourself “Is an MBA in sustainability worth it?”, consider this: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including more than 1,300 scientists from the U.S. and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.

Put politics aside for a moment. If things evolve the way the scientific community thinks they will, the impact of that temperature increase could be devastating.

  • Frost-free and growing seasons are projected to lengthen by as much as eight weeks per year, giving the soil less time to replenish nutrients and decreasing food output
  • Heavy precipitation patterns will continue, even in arid regions of the country, leading to widespread flooding and soil erosion
  • Droughts and heatwaves in all regions are expected to become more intense
  • Increasing wildfire, insect outbreaks, and tree diseases are projected to cause widespread tree die-off
  • The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in the summer before mid-century

What’s more, between 1900 and 2000, the increase in world population was three times greater than during the entire previous history of humanity—an increase from 1.5 to 6.1 billion in just 100 years—and now we’re up to 7.6 billion. The fact is, we’re adding a disproportionate number of stressors (i.e., people) to an ecosystem that is volatile and becoming more fragile.

Earning an MBA with a concentration in sustainability is a choice that says “I want to make a difference;” it says “I want to lead.” And if we’re going to slow down—or maybe even reverse—any of those disturbing trends above, we’re going to need leaders in society, government, and business who can show us what needs to be done.

The world needs visionaries. We need change-makers. We need people who have the academic skills and training to make a difference and the courage to stand up and do so. Is an MBA in sustainability worth it? We think so.

We dug into research from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) and sought out some expert opinions to give you the information you need to make a decision about continuing your education. We profiled a selection of job titles, daily tasks, necessary skills, and career outlooks for sustainability management and leadership positions to help you decide if this is a path that makes sense for you.

Table of Contents

  • Careers for MBA in Sustainability Students
  • Job Titles You May See
  • Sustainable MBA Coursework
  • Tasks You’ll Likely Perform
  • Career Outlook
  • Bottom Line

Careers for those earning an MBA in Sustainability

Sustainability management jobs require critical thinkers. You need to be adept at solving complex problems and communicating your solutions to scientists, governments, and business leaders. Given the prevalence of competing arguments around the topic of sustainability, perhaps more important than your ability to communicate will be your willingness to listen to divergent arguments and read people and social situations.   

When asked about the one quality every leader needs to possess, Kathrin Winkler, former chief sustainability officer at EMC, answered easily. “The willingness to listen to new, unexpected, or contrary ideas. No matter where they come from.”

Job titles you may see

Whether you find yourself in a management role or an executive leadership one, you’ll be tasked with either building a sustainability strategy or executing on one. You may be on the frontlines leading a green building construction project; in the ponds and pools harvesting responsibly grown fish; or coordinating a countrywide sustainable farming initiative for agriculture stakeholders and government reps. Either way, you’ll be the one showing people how to re-calibrate their lives and lines of work to benefit future generations.

Project management jobs include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Renewable Project Manager
  • Construction Manager
  • City/Regional Planner
  • Renewable Energy Associate
  • Business Development Director

Leadership jobs include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Director of Renewable Energy
  • Supply Chain Director
  • Chief Sustainability Officer
  • Director of Sustainable Design
  • VP of Corporate Social Responsibility

This is a small sample of the types of jobs you can expect to apply for once you’ve got your fancy new MBA. But, Alison Rowe, CEO of Moreland Energy Foundation, encourages would-be sustainability leaders to focus on the work, not the title.

“Be clear about what areas of sustainability you want to focus on and understand its relationship to business,” Rowe says. “Making yourself niche is not the answer. Be prepared to be flexible and not get too hung up on job titles. It’s up to you to make your job link to sustainability and to make your job sustainable itself.”

Sustainability MBA coursework you can expect

Before you start thinking too much about your future sustainability career and job title, you have to make it through your coursework. Unity Environmental University offers a variety of undergraduate programs to help prepare you for a career in sustainability, including sustainable business enterprise, sustainable agriculture, and sustainable energy management. However,  the idea of an MBA in sustainability is to expose students to a wide variety of academic subject matter because sustainability can impact organizations and careers in myriad ways.     

“[Working in sustainability] requires a combination of good knowledge and practical skills,” says Dax Lovegrove, global vice president of corporate sustainability at Swarovski. “It needs either strong strategists and tacticians to engage colleagues and get organizations moving with the times or it needs specialists that can bring expertise to help strengthen and deepen key sustainability practices.”

an infographic showing six MBA courses at Unity Environmental University

Day-to-Day Tasks You’ll Likely Perform

Those earning an MBA in sustainability position themselves to be environmental champions in their organizations. The day-to-day tasks they perform vary depending on industry but, according to the USDOL, here are some of the duties they can anticipate.  

Project management tasks include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Develop operating strategies, plans, or procedures for green or sustainable operations
  • Supervise workers performing environmentally sustainable activities
  • Advise others on green energy or related technologies
  • Manage environmental sustainability projects
  • Manage organizational or project budgets

Leadership tasks include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Identify environmental concerns
  • Develop sustainable organizational policies or practices
  • Prepare proposals or grant applications to obtain project funding
  • Develop marketing plans or strategies for environmental initiatives
  • Negotiate contracts for environmental remediation, green energy, or renewable resources

Rowe encourages newcomers to also develop skill sets that combine environmental priorities with business realities. She says transformation leadership, strategic change management, and financial and organizational development are some of the most important skills needed in the field right now. She continues: “Also the ability to not just capture risks but to assess their impact and develop sound responses and opportunities to reshape business.”

Job outlook* for sustainability MBA careers

The job market for sustainability MBA holders is very competitive. If you’re looking to get into the project management side of sustainability, it’s projected to grow at a rate of 5-9 percent through 2026. That may seem like a small percentage, but it translates to almost 80,000 new jobs, given the size of the field and its growing prominence among private and public sector organizations. 

The median annual salary for these jobs is $105,610, but it’s important to note, this is a nationwide median that includes workers at all levels of education and experience. It can vary significantly based on geography and employer and shouldn’t be considered a starting salary.

If you’re shooting for one of the sustainability leader or executive roles, you’ll face even stiffer competition. While the median annual salary for these jobs is far more attractive at $183,270, the projected growth rate for these positions hovers between -2 percent and 0 percent. That doesn’t mean jobs won’t be available—in fact, 20,000 job openings are projected through 2026—it just means retirement and mortality are the only ways these jobs open up.  

The bottom line

Sustainability experts working in the field seem to agree that developing a broad set of skills will help you avoid pigeon-holing yourself into a single industry or department.

“If I were talking to a school leaver I would say, don’t limit yourself. Keep an open mind and look at functional team roles, e.g. HR, communications, supply chain, finance, etc. and then look to include sustainability into your career,” says Christele Delbe, head of sustainability innovation at Vodafone Group. “Especially in the higher level positions, companies are looking for core business people with strong ‘functional’ skill sets, with the additional wrapper of sustainability.  Rather than solely a straightforward sustainability practitioner.”

The bottom line is that if the world’s best scientists are correct, we will see a dramatic deterioration of infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation, air, and water quality over the next 100 years. And it’s going to take courageous leaders to stand up, affect change, and hold people and organizations accountable. If you think you have what it takes to become a champion of sustainability, find out more about Unity Environmental University’s Sustainable Master’s of Business Administration.

Is an MBA in sustainability worth it? Only if you’re up for the challenge.     

*Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017 wage data and 2016-2026 employment projections.

Photo credit: USAID Biodiversity & Forestry [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons