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The Big Picture on Sustainability

The Independent
A focus on social responsibility is providing plenty of opportunities

Fresh from gathering apples, leaves and soil samples from an orchard in an old landfill site, to assess how chemicals travel, sustainability postgraduate Gillian Elvidge takes a lunch break before continuing her research around leisure use of local waterways. She’s taking a Masters in environmental management and sustainable development at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and is out on field work. She’s already completed an undergraduate degree in environmental science – a postgraduate qualification was a logical step.

“I’m a lot more confident in what I’m writing and talking about now than I ever was at undergraduate level,” she says. Elvidge is also on a placement with a local community forest trust and has set her sights on environmental consultancy. She relishes the broad scope of environmental sustainability. “You need to think about everything at once and look at the bigger picture – there’s an economic, environmental and social aspect to everything. You can’t just focus on one aspect.”

Environmental sustainability forces businesses to make responsible decisions that reduce any negative impact on the environment. More than just reducing waste or energy use, it’s about developing processes that will lead to businesses becoming completely sustainable in the longer term. Last year’s Olympics – with stadia built from recycled gas pipes and sustainable timber – and an emphasis on recycling, have shown what is possible when leading businesses engage with sustainable issues.

As you might expect, a broad field requires a depth of disciplines. The profession is highly qualified – more than 85 per cent of those working in sustainability have a degree and 45 per cent of those hold a Masters, according to the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. From technical roles, such as environmental engineering or hydrology, to the “softer” side of corporate social responsibility, there are many routes into the sector. “A postgraduate qualification isn’t a magic key to employment – relevant experience will often trump qualifications,” says Paul Gosling, managing director, UK and Europe at Allen & York Sustainable Recruitment. They are even more powerful in combination, he says.

Universities play to their strengths at postgraduate level – the University of Dundee, for example, has a strong focus on architecture and the built environment, while a Masters at Robert Gordon University Aberdeen, with its proximity to the oil industry, focuses on energy and sustainability. Imperial College London runs a respected Masters in environmental technology, while many business schools offer credible electives on sustainable business within their MBAs.

Most courses look for a relevant undergraduate degree in social or natural sciences, or engineering. Some arts and humanities graduates make it on to postgraduate level. “We don’t routinely admit students from humanities… but I have done so if they have shown strong academic performance, have a clear motivation and perhaps some relevant voluntary experience,” says Dr Simon Allen, director of the MSc in environmental sustainability at the University of Edinburgh. He welcomes a mix of nationalities on his course, and postgraduates have gone on to work within environmental consultancy, national and local government and non-profit organisations.

“This course has shown me the big picture,” says Milla Harju, who’s studied at Edinburgh this year. “It’s taught me to think differently and given me tools and ideas how to make a change to that big picture.”

Sustainability postgraduates at the University of Exeter benefit from the £30m Environment and Sustainability Institute on the Cornwall campus, where scientists are conducting cutting-edge research into solutions to problems of environmental change. Exeter also admits humanities graduates and career changers to its two Masters in sustainability – one focusing on climate change and the environment – and prides itself on a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach.

“Understanding the connections between economic, environmental and social issues is key to tackling complex sustainability challenges,” says Dr Stewart Barr, former director of Exeter’s sustainability postgraduate programmes. Exeter’s sustainability students have benefited from placements with the likes of the Environment Agency and Waitrose. Barr says the course leads to a variety of careers from corporate social responsibility, to planning for sustainability within energy and utility companies or government departments or a role within community regeneration and development. As well as core modules on data collection and analysis, Masters offer a range of elective modules, relating to climate change or politics, for example.

Only about 30 postgraduates make the cut for the University of St Andrews’ MSc in sustainable development. “They’re an international bunch, with two-thirds coming from outside the UK, from Mexico to Mongolia to Kenya,” says Dr Darren McCauley, director of postgraduate studies in sustainable development. He looks for a good cover letter accompanying applications. “We often give preference to students with good professional experience – perhaps an internship with an NGO or related charity,” he says. Students with a science background seeking to understand the social side of sustainability are also welcome.

After kicking off with core modules explaining theory and practice, experts offer sessions on specialist areas such as energy systems and justice, coastal management, sustainable tourism, smart technology and pollination biology, each of which is peppered with field trips, workshops and away days.

The sustainability sector will keep you on your toes. Professionals need to keep up with changing science and technology developments. The mostvaluable employees are those who update and extend their knowledge and qualifications, says Tim Balcon, chief executive of IEMA. “Vocational and post-graduate qualifications are highly desirable to employers recruiting for environmental roles as they really set those candidates apart from the crowd in what is still a very crowded jobs market,” he says.

Environmental training has now become more accessible, he says. IEMA has just launched a series of training courses in association with City & Guilds for employees and senior executives. Companies such as Royal Mail and BAE Systems have already taken part in the training. “We need to comprehensively upskill all parts of the economy,” says Balcon, who cites a government estimate that UK businesses could save a staggering £23bn a year through energy resource and efficiency savings.

While it may not be altruism that prompts a move towards greener business, that doesn’t matter, says Gosling, because the net results are the same. “Businesses are realising this sustainability lark is not just about looking good. Companies are no longer merely ‘greenwashing’ their practices. There’s increasing recognition that sustainability can be good for the bottom line,” he says. Even among industries not previously aligned with environmental principles. While the downturn has hit infrastructure and development and the accompanying environmental roles, sustainability has become more integral to day-to-day business operations, even though hiring may not be at the buoyant levels of the middle of the decade.

Many professionals enter the field with a sideways step – from accountancy and finance, say or from marketing and communications. The soft skills to get employees on side can be critical. “A lot of people with strong sustainability careers have started off in a non-technical way and then moved towards a more focused role,” says Gosling, who currently sees growth particularly within energy management and renewable energy. Last year, the latest IEMA survey found that the average salary of its qualified members exceeds £46,000. Out of 2,200 environmental professionals surveyed, some 20 per cent said their company was hiring more environmental professionals.

Play the long game, Gosling advises postgraduates. Identify the companies that are serious about sustainable activities and endeavour to carve a niche from within another department, be it operations, marketing or finance. “Having a combination of sustainability experience and operational experience is becoming increasingly important.”

Defined as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, sustainability has lodged itself as one of the key policy drivers in many societies. “Quite frankly, I cannot think of anything else that could be more important than sustainable thinking applied to absolutely everything in today’s world,” says Harju.

‘Once you get a degree, you can’t stop’

Lorna Pilbin is the environmental assistant at British Gypsum, the leading manufacturer of gypsumbased plastering and drylining solutions. She graduated in environmental science from Plymouth University in 2011 and is also studying part-time for a Masters in environmental management with the Open University.

“When I was little, I was always interested in what influenced the global environment. When I was 16, I read High Tide: How Climate Crisis is Engulfing Our Planet by Mark Lynas, and it opened my eyes to the environmental impact of climate change – I felt I had to learn about it and do something.

Day to day [at British Gypsum] I manage the company’s environmental management systems. I do a lot of data analysis – looking at why one part of the business uses more water than another, for example. This job is about maintaining environmental legal compliance, meeting objectives and targets, but also changing culture to focus more on environmental factors. You have to put a lot of thought behind it – explaining why we need to segregate waste, for example, so all employees understand why processes need to be in place. You need different skills. You have to manage and communicate to stakeholders. You also have to have a broad understanding of environmental legislation. Once people have the information, they’re usually happy to make the change. I love seeing the results – to see you have reduced waste or water consumption.

Interpersonal skills are a huge factor. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can’t communicate, you are limited how far you can get. You need to have an eye for detail to hone down on specific areas.

You do have to continue learning, especially for professional development. Once you get a degree, you can’t just stop. I always wanted to do a Masters, but I was offered an environmental job straight after graduation and I couldn’t refuse. I’ve had to become super-organised – it’s a juggling act, meeting essay deadlines. I’ll finish my Masters in 2016. I plan to stay with the business and work my way up through the environmental department.”

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