Everyone Can Be a Sustainability Manager

This article is part of a series by students at Bard College’s MBA in Sustainability. Principles of Sustainable Management is a foundational class for all Bard MBA students. It delivers ecological and social literacy, the frameworks and tools used by sustainability professionals, the business case for more responsible treatment of people and planet, systems thinking and integrated bottom line accounting.

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By Alistair Hall

The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) is developing a formal certification process to provide “some definition and standardization of the competencies employers and seekers of consultants can come to expect [from ‘sustainability professionals’].” Certification of sustainability professionals would appear on the surface to indicate that the role has become accepted as a profession and that the field has matured to the extent that it now needs such official accreditation as a CPA or a JD.

However, the environmental and economic challenges that we face together are far too large for us to arbitrarily define who can and can’t be a sustainability advocate. The preliminary criteria ISSP has put forward includes topics like ‘stakeholder engagement,’ ‘strategy’ and ‘program evaluation.’ These are important content areas for a professional to know about, but instead of certifying a siloed specialist, the sustainability profession should seek to include and be open to everyone. In particular, let’s ensure that our profession is sufficiently diverse, before we seek to limit it.

According to Green 2.0, an initiative seeking to address the lack of diversity in the environmental movement, despite recent ‘efforts,’ only 12.4 percent of NGO employees are people of color. Government agencies and foundations barely fare better at 15.5 percent and 12 percent respectively. A 2015 staffing survey run by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) found that 90 percent of sustainability professionals at colleges identified as white or caucasian (myself included).

Seventy percent of respondents also reported that they are the first person to ever hold their position. Since 2012, more than 87 people have entered college sustainability positions (again myself included), representing 87 schools, tens of thousands of students and faculty, and billions in utility and operation expenditures. These are new positions, situated in a young sustainability movement; we need to cultivate greater diversity of thought, experience and background, not hinder it with a certification focused on specific frameworks taught by exclusive schools and tied to a process that rewards privilege.

What does the sustainability movement gain by limiting potential voices and leadership?  Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Rather than driving innovation, I see the ISSP certification as an effort of exclusion. Instead of constructing an additional level on the ‘ivory tower,’ let’s get our hands dirty and grow the sustainability garden. Taking a lesson from the principles of biomimicry, the sustainability garden we cultivate would thrive if it had greater diversity, innovation, place-based intuition and systems thinking. Systems thinking is one of the principles of the ISSP criteria, but the society seeks answers reflecting a very narrow definition of the practice.

Many sustainability professionals will tell you that they dream that every single person in their organization will implement innovative sustainability practices. So, let’s embrace being the trailblazers that we are and transform what leadership is and could be. The establishment of stringent, exclusionary criteria that dictates who can be a sustainability professional only serves to limit who earns a seat at the table and reinforces existing issues of diversity in the green movement. Encouraging certification as a job prerequisite will have the opposite of the desired effect. Everyone should be a sustainability advocate, whether they are certified or not.

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The Bard MBA in Sustainability focuses on the business case for sustainability. We train students to see how firms can integrate economic, environmental, and social objectives, the triple Bottom Line, to create successful businesses that build a more sustainable world. Graduates of the Bard MBA Program will transform existing companies, start their own businesses, and pioneer new ways of operating that meet human needs, while protecting and restoring the earth’s natural systems. The Bard MBA is a low-residency program structured around “weekend intensives” with regular online instruction between these residencies. Five of these intensives are held each term: four in the heart of New York City and one in the Hudson Valley. Residencies take place over four days, beginning Friday morning, and ending Monday afternoon. Learn more today.