“Sustainability” is one of the most popular buzzwords out there right now. From clothes, coffee, and construction to food, forestry and farming, sustainability plays a huge role in the products and services that are most prevalent in our lives. But what about a sustainability degree?

The same way the term sustainability has broad and varied applications, earning a degree in sustainability can put you on a career path with a seemingly infinite number of options. Studying sustainability at Unity Environmental University is about understanding the complex and overlapping relationship between society, the environment, and the economy. Our students learn the ins and outs of how sustainable businesses operate while also staying true to their passions for protecting the planet.

“[The industry needs] sustainability professionals who understand business and commerce at all levels; government ministers, company boards, and across operational levels,” says Claudine Blamey, head of sustainability and stewardship at The Crown Estate. “Strong influencers, change managers, and those with the ability to implement an agenda are skills that are required. Sustainability professionals need to be able to get under the skin of the business, to challenge and change it in a constructive way.”

So, there’s definitely a need, but we understand you want some specifics about what you can actually do with a degree in sustainability. Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered.

We dug into research from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) to help you understand the options you have if you choose to earn a sustainability degree. We profiled a broad selection of job titles, daily tasks, necessary skills, and job outlooks for those pursuing this path.

Table of Contents

  • Sustainability Careers for ‘Business Savvy Nature Lovers’
  • Career Outlook for Sustainability Majors
  • Day-to-Day Tasks You’ll Perform
  • Knowledge You’ll Need to Acquire with a Sustainability Degree
  • The Bottom Line

Sustainability Careers for ‘Business Savvy Nature Lovers’

Careers in sustainability are wide and varied and there’s no single best way to make it part of your professional life. It’s important people who choose to go into this field bring with them a passion for affecting change, some technical know-how when it comes to business or computer software, and a stubbornness about protecting the environment.

“There are multiple ways to bring sustainability into your career path,” says Melissa Menzies, a research projects associate at Sustainalytics. “Creating positive impact for the environment, society, and economy more broadly can be present in roles you may not expect.”

Career outlook for sustainability majors*

The vastness of the discipline and the myriad directions your career could take means a sustainability degree should be considered a gateway program. Whether you decide to pursue the society, environment, or economy career path will determine whether or not you’ll need more school or additional certifications. The good news is that sustainability as a business concept is here to stay and the career outlook for these fields looks promising.

Just keep in mind that the salaries listed in the graphic represent a nationwide median that includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Once you find a job, your salary can vary significantly based on geography and employer and those listed here shouldn’t be considered a starting salary.

an infographic showing Career Paths For Sustainability Majors

Day-to-day tasks you’ll be asked to perform

Depending on the path you take toward a sustainable career, your day-to-day tasks will vary but will likely include the following. We’ve broken down the list into our three areas of emphasis so you can match your interests and abilities to the best opportunities out there. According to USDOL, here are the most common tasks you’ll be asked to perform.

Society track

  • Identify environmental impacts caused by products, systems, or projects and develop strategies or methods to minimize the impact
  • Identify or compare the component parts or relationships between the parts of industrial, social, and natural systems
  • Examine societal issues and their relationship with both technical systems and the environment
  • Investigate the impact of changed land management or land use practices on ecosystems
  • Forecast future status or condition of ecosystems, based on changing industrial practices or environmental conditions

Environment track

  • Develop sustainability project goals, objectives, initiatives, or strategies in collaboration with other sustainability professionals
  • Assess or propose sustainability initiatives, considering factors such as cost effectiveness, technical feasibility, and acceptance
  • Monitor or track sustainability indicators, such as energy usage, natural resource usage, waste generation, and recycling
  • Research or review regulatory, technical, or market issues related to sustainability
  • Collect information about waste stream management or green building practices to inform decision-makers

Economy track

  • Negotiate prices or terms of sales or service agreements
  • Emphasize product features based on analyses of customers’ needs and on technical knowledge of product capabilities and limitations
  • Visit establishments to evaluate needs or to promote product or service sales
  • Compute customer’s installation or production costs and estimate savings from new services, products, or equipment
  • Study documentation or other information for new scientific or technical products

Hopefully it’s becoming clear that sustainability careers can include everything from helping customers find alternative energy solutions to identifying land management problems to constructing green buildings. “Sustainability” isn’t a career choice in itself; it’s a choice you make about the kind of job you want to have within your field.

Knowledge you’ll need to acquire with a sustainability degree

Because sustainability degree-holders have wide and varied career options, it’s crucial to prepare yourself with a diverse foundation of coursework. Obviously, you’ll need to take classes in environmental science, but other skills can provide a knowledge base that will complement the work you’re already doing.

Regardless of which path you choose—society, environment, or economy—sustainability majors should consider building additional skills in these areas:

Society track

  • Administration & Management: Business and management principles involved in strategic planning, resource allocation, human resources modeling, leadership technique, production methods, and coordination of people and resources
  • Engineering & Technology: The practical application of engineering science and technology. This includes applying principles, techniques, procedures, and equipment to the design and production of various goods and services
  • Education & Training: Knowledge of principles and methods for curriculum and training design, teaching and instruction for individuals and groups, and the measurement of training effects

Environment track

  • Building & Construction: Knowledge of materials, methods, and the tools involved in the construction or repair of houses, buildings, or other structures such as highways and roads
  • Design: Design techniques, tools, and principles involved in production of precision technical plans, blueprints, drawings, and models
  • Engineering & Technology: The practical application of engineering science and technology. This includes applying principles, techniques, procedures, and equipment to the design and production of various goods and services

Economy track

  • Customer & Personal Service: The principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services, and evaluation of customer satisfaction
  • Sales & Marketing: The principles and methods for showing, promoting, and selling products or services. This includes marketing strategy and tactics, product demonstration, sales techniques, and sales control systems
  • Production & Processing: Knowledge of raw materials, production processes, quality control, costs, and other techniques for maximizing the effective manufacture and distribution of goods

The bottom line

Keep in mind, earning a degree in a sustainability is a way to keep the environment first and foremost in your mind as you provide products or services to people, businesses, or governments. Think of it like a layer on top of the subject you choose to study and the career you eventually pursue.

Don’t let the ambiguity of the concept dissuade you from pursuing a career in sustainability. The 21st Century has seen a push toward environmental friendliness and it’s something more and more organizations and consumers are prioritizing.

When it comes time to decide what to do with that sustainability degree, Menzies encourages college grads to be creative. “Research companies, start-ups, public sector, and nonprofit organizations that you think would be rewarding to work for and apply for roles that align with your values,” she says.

What can you do with a degree in sustainability? Your options are almost limitless. The field requires curious minds who have a passion for protecting the planet. It’s a competitive career path that requires academic excellence, but also one that’s projected to grow at an above-average rate over the next decade.

The bottom line: There will be plenty of sustainability jobs available, across a wide variety of industries, for college grads who take their studies seriously.  

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

Photo credit: Heather Husen [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons