Every day, sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are taking on increased importance at companies and in boardrooms around the world. After the events of 2020, it’s becoming even clearer that companies can’t just focus on profit—stakeholders and shareholders expect and demand that companies operate responsibly and commit to being positive global citizens.
With this increased attention, there are now a wide range of positions across all industries that help companies set and manage their sustainability strategies and goals. These jobs are no longer just limited to traditional CSR or sustainability roles—increasingly, you’ll see everything from sourcing, to operations, to finance roles within companies, and they’re expected to incorporate sustainability and/or contribute to a company’s overall target.
The good news is that an MBA is a valuable tool that will help you transition to a role in sustainability or figure out how to incorporate sustainability and responsible business into a more “traditional” MBA career. Ten years after my MBA, I’m working for a fashion retailer driving corporate sustainability strategy. Although the world has changed a lot in those ten years, the skills, opportunities, and network that my MBA gave me are still invaluable and help me navigate this career every day!
What is a career in sustainability?
There are many types of careers in sustainability and CSR. The most traditional careers are roles within sustainability or corporate social responsibility departments at companies, where you work on developing and implementing sustainability business strategies. This field is becoming more popular, and most major companies have at least a small team of professionals working on reducing environmental impacts through improved environmental management.
However, at most companies these days, sustainability is being embedded into traditional business roles—with some companies even tying executive pay to meeting sustainability goals! For example, a role in supply chain management could soon require looking at how water or climate change risks impact how a company manages its supply chain, or a marketing role could focus on promoting sustainable products or new business models. Most large consulting firms also have sustainability divisions within their main consulting practices where they work on a range of environmental issues.
There are also “traditional” MBA careers at companies with sustainability-related missions, such as clean energy companies, climate change organizations, and sustainable investment firms. Within those firms, the normal spectrum of positions exists, from finance and accounting to operations and HR, and your MBA will make you even more attractive to recruiters at those firms.
How will an MBA prepare me for a career in sustainability?
To be successful in sustainability or CSR, you will need all the tools that an MBA provides! It is very important to understand how to build an effective business case for any new sustainability project or initiative, and this requires skills from across the MBA spectrum, including finance, operations, marketing, and organizational change.
An MBA will also make you more effective, as you will better understand the “language of business” to help communicate and get buy-in for your initiatives within an organization. In my role driving sustainability at a retail company, I partner with stakeholders across the business, including finance, marketing, operations, and legal. Leadership and teamwork skills are also invaluable in helping to drive organizational changes and getting buy-in for new projects or different ways of working.
What degree should I get?
Schools are increasingly embedding sustainability and CSR principles into their core curriculum, but there is still a way to go to have them fully integrated into MBA programs. If this is your passion, there are many types of programs that will complement the core curriculum and help you attain a post-MBA career in sustainability.
Many schools offer dual-degree programs where you receive both an MBA and a master’s from a sustainability-focused program, often with a second focus on natural resources. These programs are great for gaining more exposure to sustainability through extended coursework, and they often have passionate alumni networks. Another great alternative is to look for schools that offer sustainability concentrations or certificates within the traditional MBA program, where you incorporate sustainability classes into your electives and curriculum.
MBA programs have different core strengths, and this is also true for sustainability programs. Some schools specialize in energy, nonprofit, or sustainability management. Look for programs that align closely with what you want to do after business school.
If you are looking to go into a traditional role and integrate sustainability, then you should consider programs that focus on core skills while still offering classes or clubs that center on sustainability. For example, if you want to work in renewable energy finance, look at schools with strong finance programs that could also provide opportunities to work on renewable energy projects through action-based learning opportunities, classes, or internships. These roles value strong financial and analytical skills, and an MBA is definitely valued and sometimes required for upper-management roles.
What do I look for when choosing an MBA program?
In addition to looking at the availability of certificates or dual-degree programs, there are a number of other ways that an MBA can help prepare you for a career in sustainability:
- Project experience: Many companies will value real experience with sustainability projects. Look for schools that will give you real-world experience, whether it’s through clubs, special projects, or internships. If the school you ultimately choose doesn’t have these opportunities, you can try to create them!
- Alumni network: Look for alumni who have careers similar to what you’re interested in pursuing. Not only is this a good indication that their MBA prepared them well for their role in sustainability, but you know there will be a network of people from whom you can seek career advice and guidance.
- Coursework: Research the sustainability-related coursework that the MBA program offers, or see if you can take classes at connected schools. Many programs will let you take electives at their natural resources, public policy, or engineering schools, which can help provide expertise in your areas of interest.
Will an MBA still help if I already have sustainability experience?
Absolutely! Many sustainability roles look for a blend of business skills and sustainability knowledge, so the MBA will help round out your experience and provide that strong business background.
Ultimately, there is no one way to transition to a career in sustainability. Getting an MBA is a great path to build the knowledge and skills you will need in a variety of these roles, and your degree can give you access to alumni who are already working in these fields.